So this year’s CES is officially over and already disappearing in the rear view mirror, but by doing the rounds of media outlets covering it there’s a recurring theme emerging: 2023 seemed like a year that would be rather boring when it comes to new TVs, but after LG’s and Samsung’s announcements it looks like it’s going to be anything but. OLED has long been considered the gold standard when it comes to cinematic picture quality for the home and this particular kind of television is shaping up to be one of the most important battlefields in tech during the next 12 months. What’s worth noting, though, is this: we, consumers, needed this years ago. That we only get it now is no coincidence.
Analysts and reporters can speculate or comment on this all they like, but yours truly has a clear, single-word explanation: it’s LG’s fault. OLED as a consumer display technology is having its 10th anniversary this year and, for most of that time, it has been driven by LG’s monopoly: being the only manufacturer of OLED screens in the world meant that the company did not share the financial risk and the necessary development investment with anyone else, yes, but it also meant that just one manufacturer had total control of this technology’s presence in the market.
From 2013 — when the first LG OLED TV hit the streets — up to and including 2016, if one wanted an OLED TV, it had to be an LG one (Samsung had tried its hand earlier on and failed miserably). Thus, no competition: OLED TVs remained as expensive as LG deemed they should be — so, really expensive — and we could all bask at their perfect blacks and viewing angles without being able to afford one. For four years straight.
A nine-year monopoly in OLED TVs, a disservice to consumers
It was not until mid-2017 that LG Display started providing other manufacturers — such as Sony, Philips or Panasonic — with the necessary OLED panels to build their own OLED TVs. Even then, though, with LG dictating the prices of those OLED screens (with little room for negotiation since it remained the only company making them), competing OLED TVs from other manufacturers could not be more affordable than LG’s own. Not really, not by much. Thus, no competition… again: OLED TVs remained expensive for the majority of consumers regardless of manufacturing partner. That’s how LG got to keep the “premium” character of OLED intact because, well, premium products are expensive by definition.
It was not just prices, either, that were kept artificially high through almost non-existent competition between OLED manufacturers. What was also held back was display quality. Any reporter following the TV market long enough will attest to the fact that between 2017 and 2021 there was little meaningful technological progress in OLED TVs in terms of their picture: image processing got better, yes, the OLED panels got a bit brighter — either through the help of heatsinks or through LG’s EX tuning in 2022 — but their overall performance almost slowed to a halt these last four years. LG seemed happy to serve practically the same product to consumers over and over again, leaving other manufacturers to try and offer something more (while often undercutting them in price).
For people who really love the picture OLEDs deliver — like yours truly — this was painful to watch, and comment upon, for no less than four long years. And then…
Strong competition will improve OLED for everyone
…and then Samsung happened: rumors about QD-OLED had been making the rounds since mid-2021, but the new display tech impressed everyone in CES 2022. Sony announced its first TV based on it (the A95K) during that show, Samsung surprised everyone by releasing its own such TV (the S95B) during the spring, the A95K followed shortly after collecting awards left and right… and the rest, as they say, is history.
QD-OLED managed to both surpass OLED in picture quality (in the case of the A95K) and become available at a lower price than OLED (in the case of the S95B), something that rarely ever happens in the world of tech with first-generation products. So it is not hard to see why, with CES 2023 approaching this past December, consumer excitement about QD-OLED and its next evolutionary step was higher than any interest regarding OLED. Why would things be different, after all, when OLED only delivered marginal improvements over the last four years or so?
It’s no coincidence that it’s only now, in 2023, that we get the first true, substantial leap forward from OLED in the form of the MicroLens Array and META combination of technologies. LG can deny it all they want, but they have been milking the OLED brand name and core technology for almost half a decade in a way that can only be described as selfish and short-sighted. Yes, LG has always been the champion of OLED, investing in it vast amounts of money and time when nobody else would. But it’s also the very same company who strategically held OLED back and manipulated its market position according to its own interests, depriving consumers of choice in the process.
It’s hard to tell with any kind of certainty now, of course, whether LG planned to continue doing that for a couple of more years (feeding us EX-like iterative upgrades but not bringing MLA-OLED to market), had Samsung not launched QD-OLED in 2022. But, given LG’s track record, it’s certainly not out of the question — which is exactly why we need healthy competition between these companies more than ever. Tech product manufacturers are profit-driven organizations that will use any market advantage available in total disregard to what’s best for consumers. It’s only when these companies have to compete with each other on similar products for customers’ hard-earned cash that they do what they must… so we can all score a win-win.
Funnily enough, through this clash of OLED and QD-OLED throughout 2023 LG may make more TV sales than those it would normally manage in just another plain old OLED refresh cycle: countless articles will be published about the pros and cons of each tech and the TVs based on each, the advantages of one over the other, their use cases, the alternatives etc., offering to both LG’s and Samsung’s models more publicity and exposure than they’d normally get on their own.
As a result, many more consumers will be aware of what MLA-OLED is, what it strives to offer, the reasons why LG’s TV models using it are more expensive. Many consumers will buy into that, while others will go for more affordable OLED models, feeling that they’ll still enjoy most of this display tech’s advantages. In any case, a win-win for LG and consumers alike, as the latter will now have more options available to them at better prices. It’s just sad that LG had to be practically strong-armed by Samsung to offer that in the first place.