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MicroLED vs. OLED: The differences explained

Caleb Denison

If you’re just now hearing about MicroLED, you’re not alone. It’s only really been on the display scene for a few years, but the cutting-edge technology made its way to the consumer level at CES 2018 in the form of the Samsung 146-inch MicroLED TV, which the company called “The Wall.”

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 early adopters. This is a shot across OLED’s bow, and it could very well be an OLED killer in the long term. Below we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of MicroLED and discuss why it could be the TV technology of the future.

TV Tech 101

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’re made with organic compounds, they’re expensive to make, somewhat limited in brightness, and can potentially suffer burn-in under the most excruciating viewing scenarios.

Samsung-146-inch-MicroLED-detail

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The benefits of MicroLED

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 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 the case with new innovations, 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 have indicated that instead of massive displays, Apple plans to use MicroLED for tiny screens, like those inside iPhones, or possibly even 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.

When will we get it?

Though MicroLED sounds great in theory, it remains to be seen if it will be able to 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’s 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 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 remains to be seen.

We might not have to wait too long to find out, though. 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. A report from FlatPanelsHD in September 2018 also claimed Samsung may be working on a 75-inch display to show off at CES 2019, so the company may well be 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 as the story continues to unfold.