What’s the Difference Between OLED and Samsung’s QLED TVs?

Organic light-emitting diodes, abbreviated as OLED, are all the rage for high-end HD televisions. The technology has jumped from phones and tablets to larger screens, and its vibrant colors and “perfect” black levels make for amazing picture quality. But it isn’t the only player in town.

At the moment, Sony and LG are pushing OLED technology hard on their top-tier televisions, but Samsung seems to be doubling down on improvements of conventional LED screens instead. (Which is an odd move, since Samsung is one of the biggest manufacturers of OLED screens for mobile devices.) Instead, Samsung says that its new “QLED” televisions, using a marketing abbreviation for “Quantum Dot LED,” are better than LG’s best OLED screens. But not only is that something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, it’s also a bit of intentional confusion on Samsung’s part.

What Makes OLED TVs So Special?

This Consumer Reports photo shows the dramatic difference in black levels between OLED (left) and LED (right).

The biggest difference between organic LEDs and more conventional designs is the backlight mechanism—or more precisely, the lack of one. Because of the molecular structure of the organic compounds involved in its fabrication, each individual OLED pixel is illuminated when electrical current is applied. Those pixels that have no current applied—for example, when a full black, 0-0-0 RGB value is called for by the display mechanism—simply don’t activate. This allows OLED screens to achieve “true black,” since the portions of the screen displaying full black are completely un-powered when showing a black image. Conventional LCD or LED screens need some kind of powered backlight across the entire screen whenever they dispaly any image. As a result, the contrast ratios for OLED screens are incredible.

Without a backlight mechanism, OLED screens can also be made physically thinner and smaller than LED screens, and are easier to curve in the most premium designs. Drawbacks for OLED screens include much greater expense in manufacturing (at least at the moment) and a greater tendency towards a burn-in effect when used to display static images for hours at a time.

What’s Quantum Dot Tech About?

Samsung’s QLED displays still rely on a conventional LED backlight.

QLED is Samsung’s abbreviation for Quantum Dot LED, a more advanced form of a conventional LED screen. In addition to an LED backlighting system—which is blue instead of the standard white—the layer of quantum dots allows that light to be specifically tuned on a per-pixel basis using higher or lower frequencies. In this configuration, the standard red-green-blue subpixel structure that’s the foundation of most LCD technology is split up: blue light is controlled by the backlight, while red and green light is tuned by the respective dots on the quantum dot layer. Combine different levels of blue LED output with differently-tuned red and green quantum dots, and you get an RGB picture that’s brighter and more vibrant than a standard LED screen while being less expensive to produce than OLED.

But, while quantum dot technology is impressive as an improvement on today’s LEDs, it still needs a standard LED backlight to produce a picture. That means that it can’t produce the pure blacks and vivid contrast that are possible in OLED’s combined color-and-light-in-one approach.

Samsung’s QLED Branding Is a Bit Confusing

Samsung is pushing quantum dot technology hard in its premium television sets, and there’s no reason that it shouldn’t—the results are impressive and economical, especially for content that benefits from bright colors, like HDR. But the company is also presenting quantum dot tech as an alternative—and indeed, a superior alternative—to OLED screens from LG and Sony.

That’s problematic. Not because OLED is so objectively better than QLED, because that isn’t true. But directly comparing OLED technology and quantum dot-equipped LCDs will produce different strengths in different areas for both screens.

Samsung isn’t the only manufacturer to use quantum dot layers in its high-end televisions, and that’s an important point…because it is the only one that uses the abbreviation “QLED.” In fact, Samsung started making quantum dot televisions back in 2016, and marketed them with the fully spelled-out “Quantum Dot” label, along with more specialized terms like “SUHD.” But starting with televisions and monitor models in 2017, Samsung switched to “QLED” branding with the logo below:

Squint a bit, or simply don’t pay attention, and Samsung’s font on “QLED TV” looks an awful lot like “OLED TV.” With the flurry of marketing surrounding any high-end television purchase, and the generally pushy nature of high-end retail sales, it would be easy to conclude that Samsung shifting from “Quantum Dot SUHD” branding to “QLED” branding is intended to cause confusion between the features of its own televisions and similarly-priced LG and Sony sets.

Try Before You Buy

It’s still a bit early to call this battle in favor of OLED over conventional LEDs, or even over quantum dot LEDs. But Samsung has made a big bet that the more expensive OLED manufacturing process won’t spread to even more competition. At present, the company has not publicly stated any intention to enter the OLED market for larger-scale screens.

That being said, just because Samsung is being less than frank with its branding and package design doesn’t mean its televisions aren’t pretty good. If you’re in the market for a high-end television of any design, make sure to go to a retailer like Best Buy to see all of your options in person, and read detailed reviews at sites like Rtings.

Image credit: Consumer Reports, Samsung, Amazon

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.