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MicroLED vs. OLED: The differences explained

Caleb Denison

In 2017, Samsung introduced a new 34-foot cinema display to relatively little fanfare. It was an LED screen that aimed to replace projectors in movie theaters, but what most folks didn’t catch was the new TV tech the huge, modular screens were packing: MicroLED. Now that cutting-edge technology has made its way to the consumer level in the form of the Samsung 146-inch MicroLED TV, which the company debuted at CES 2018 under the name “The Wall.” The company may even be planning to bring this technology to consumers in 2019.

The new TV immediately turned heads due to its sheer size, but dig a little deeper and it becomes clear this isn’t just another massive TV for the early-adopting 1 percent. This is a shot across LG’s OLED bow, and it could very well be an OLED killer in the long term.

To understand why MicroLED is such a big deal, we need a quick refresher on how modern-day TVs work: Presently, what we call LED TVs are really LCD panels with a bunch of LED lights behind them. LCD screens can’t make their own light, so it’s necessary to shine a light behind them in order to get a picture.

The reason OLED TVs get such great reviews is that OLED panels are what we call an “emissive display” technology. Each pixel in an OLED screen makes its own light — no backlights necessary. The advantages of an emissive display like OLED are perfect black levels, excellent color, and near-perfect off-angle viewing — in a nutshell, OLED is excellent at everything LCD/LED TVs are not. The downside to OLED? Because they are made with organic compounds, they are expensive to make, somewhat limited in brightness, and can suffer burn-in under the most excruciating viewing scenarios.

Samsung-146-inch-MicroLED-detail

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The exciting thing about MicroLED is that it is also an emissive display, but unlike OLED, it doesn’t rely on organic compounds to make light. In theory, MicroLED displays should offer perfect blacks, excellent color, and near-perfect off-angle viewing, just like OLED, but they should also be even brighter, very slim, immune to burn-in, and, in the long run, less expensive to make than OLED.

In addition to promising stellar picture performance, Samsung’s MicroLED TVs are based on a modular system, allowing users to customize the size the of their screen, with the potential to grow it in the future. For now, since this is a brand-new technology, Samsung is only offering a MicroLED TV in a huge, 146-inch package. But, as has always been with massive first-time introductions, the tech in the TV will trickle down to smaller and less expensive TVs over the next few years.

Samsung isn’t the only company looking into MicroLED. Reports began to surface in 2017 that Apple was experimenting with its own displays using the technology, but it seems that the company has an entirely different use case in mind. Recent reports indicate that instead of massive displays, Apple plans to use MicroLED for tiny screens, like the one used in the Apple Watch. While it has yet to be confirmed by the company, sources say that Apple has produced a prototype watch with a MicroLED display, and we could see models using the technology on sale within a few years.

Though MicroLED sounds great in theory, it remains to be seen if it will compete with OLED in practice. To be sure, our first impressions on picture quality are mostly positive. As you’ll see in our video above, the picture quality was extremely impressive, with the deep blacks, ultra-vibrant color, and excellent off-angle viewing playing out exactly as we were led to expect. Look a little closer, though, and you can see that Samsung’s MicroLED prototype needs some work before it is ready for prime time. When the picture dims, individual panels are clearly visible — not something folks will be so willing to accept.

Samsung-146-inch-MicroLED-detail

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Whether Samsung can get MicroLED scaled down to 55-inch and 65-inch screen sizes and smooth it out soon enough to take a bite out of the premium TV sales share LG is enjoying with OLED right now is another matter entirely.

We might not have to wait too long to find out. In July 2018, the president of Samsung’s visual display business Han Jong-hee said that the company would begin mass-producing MicroLED displays in September 2018, and would begin selling MicroLED TVs aimed at the home luxury market in 2019. This would make it seem that the company is ironing out the issues we mentioned above, but we won’t be able to say for sure until we see these newer panels for ourselves.

Expect to see much more coverage on MicroLED from Digital Trends in the future, including an even more comprehensive look at MicroLED versus OLED TVs.