Have you ever wondered why you have to change your smartphone every year but no one ever says you need to buy a new TV at the same pace? The answer is simple. Improvements in television technology depends, almost exclusively, on advancements in panel technologies. These take much longer than adding a few more transistors on a chip to make a faster processor, thereby keeping TVs relevant for much longer.
Truth be told, smartphone technology doesn’t progress very fast anymore either, but that’s a discussion for a whole other time. What we’re concerned with right now is TVs and the fact that after over a decade, we have had not one but two new panel technologies that promise to take televisions into the future. We’ve all heard of the first one — optical light emitting diode (OLED) — but the second one is still somewhat foreign, known as microLED televisions.
What is microLED technology?
The current LCD/LED televisions run by putting rows or stacks of tiny LED lights behind the television panel, which light up the pixels and change colours as required. These LED lights were already tiny, but the industry has now made them microscopic, to the point where each LED is now akin to one pixel on the panel. As a result, turning off the LED gets you real black (just like you get darkness when you turn off all the lights) and they can glow in the different colours as and when required.
In principle, this is the same thing that happens in OLED panels, but OLED panels use self-emitting organic materials instead of LEDs. The microscopic LEDs are, of course, inorganic things.
What are the advantages of microLED technology?
As mentioned above, turning off an LED achieves true black (at least on paper). You would have seen companies touting contrast ratio as an important specification on TVs. Unlike phones, where most specs don’t matter anymore, contrast ratio in TVs actually matters, and that’s why companies go out of their way to market the highest numbers they can.
This contrast ratio is the ratio between the blackest black colour a TV can produce to the whitest white. This also determines how good other colours will look on the TV. Now colours on your TV are basically a combination of the pixels. In this case, since each pixel is an actual LED, the contrast ratio is high.
There are other advantages too. OLED panels can’t get to the same brightness levels as microLED. The organic substances used for OLEDs also lose their luminosity over time, leading to decay and loss of picture quality. This is another issue that doesn’t happen in microLED panels.
They also aren’t susceptible to burn-in, something that happens on OLED panels when the same picture is kept on the panel for hours on end. The picture seems to burn itself into the panel, with a shadow of the image remaining irrespective of what is played.
That said, it’s worth noting that these are problems that are applicable to at an absolute level. Companies have figured out solutions for them too, making OLED panels just as feasible as any other.
What are the downsides to using microLED displays?
Despite its advantages, microLED panels are in their infancy right now, with the technology extremely expensive to make. Samsung, for instance, offers it on its The Wall TV, which is meant to be put to use in commercial spaces. Why? Because it cannot charge prices for these TVs that regular consumers can afford. Period.
On the other hand, Apple purchased a microLED maker LuxVue earlier, and is expected to use microLED panels in some products. Samsung itself has said it’s working on smaller versions of The Wall too, so the technology is definitely moving fast. Still, where microLED prices aren’t even discussed right now, OLED TVs have already come down from Rs. 3 lakh and more to the low Rs. 1 lakh segment. In the long run though, many expect microLEDs to replace OLED panels, because they have almost all of their benefits and none of their weaknesses.
In this way, microLED is to OLEDs what LED panels were to plasma TVs.
Who will use microLED panels?
So far, a television called The Wall by Samsung has been the poster boy for microLED televisions panels. As mentioned above, Samsung wants The Wall to be used mostly for commercial purposes, perhaps replacing cinema screens some day. But the company has been working on smaller iterations of that TV too. Rival Sony has also been researching microLED technology and introduced its ‘Crystal LED’ series last month. If Sony and Samsung have jumped in, can LG be far?
But as mentioned before, companies are also getting around the challenge of shrinking micro OLED displays to smaller, even handheld sizes. According to a February 10 report by Nikkei Asia, Apple is working with TSMC to develop microLED panels that will likely be used for its wearable devices.