At the top of the television market, you have two big players: Samsung and LG. Sure, there are other brands making high-end sets, and competition among budget TVs is fierce and varied. But it’s safe to say that the two South Korean giants have the high end of the market locked down, at least in terms of technical prowess for picture quality.
Lately, LG has taken a small lead thanks to its brilliant OLED tech. Samsung has hit back with Quantum Dot screens (and possibly created a bit of intentional market confusion, too), but the pure blacks and vivid colors of LG’s OLED panels are on top at the moment.
That might be changing soon, thanks to a new Samsung innovation it’s calling “MicroLED.” The company showed off the brand-new panels at CES 2018, to be featured in new televisions releasing sometime in the future. What makes MicroLED screen panels so cool? Let’s break it down.
How Conventional LEDs And OLEDs Work
Before you know why MicroLEDs are better than current LED screen tech, you need to understand that tech itself. So, to put it simply: all LCDs (liquid crystal displays), which make up the vast majority of new screens put into televisions, monitors, and other display devices, need a backlight system. The backlight illuminates the red, green, and blue pixels of the liquid crystal layer, allowing you to see the image. Previous generations of LCD screens used cold cathode fluorescent lights (CCFLs)—miniature versions of the cheap lighting you see in offices and retail stores. CCFLs proved to be expensive, fragile, uneven lighting sources that didn’t offer enough variable light settings.
Older LCD TVs use CCFL backlights—basically tiny versions of fluorescent overhead lights.
Enter LED lighting. LCD-LED screens use the same basic red-green-blue pixel setup, but with cheaper, brighter, and more flexible light-emitting diodes providing the backlight shining through the liquid crystal. These allow for either strips of lights on the edge of the screen or panels of lights directly behind the screen, and offer more even, brighter, and variable lighting. If you’ve bought a television in the last six to eight years, it’s probably used an LCD-LED screen.
This video shows a standard LED-LCD backlight setup. Note that each white LED bulb is several inches apart.
Organic light-emitting diode screens, or “OLED” screens, are a newer class of screens that don’t require a liquid crystal display or a backlight—they’re all integrated into the same layer. OLED screens illuminate each individual red, green, and/or blue pixel with an applied electrical current. This has two advantages: one, the pixels emit light directly without the need of a backlight. Two, when the pixel displays black (or “off,”) it’s not displaying light at all—it’s what’s sometimes called a “perfect black.” In addition to more vibrant colors than standard LED-LCD screens, this gives OLED screens an incredible contrast ratio that’s not achievable with older technology.
OLED screens are thin and flexible, making them popular for applications in smartphones, smartwatches, and other compact electronics. But they’re also expensive to produce compared to LCD-LED screens, and so OLED televisions like the ones LG has produced for several years tend to be confined to the biggest and most expensive models. A 55-inch OLED TV can rarely be found for less than $1500 at the time of writing.
What Makes Micro LED Screens Different?
With MicroLED-equipped TVs, Samsung is hoping to match some of the technical superiority of OLED screens while retaining the cheaper and more widely-available LCD tech it’s currently producing. The solution is an LED backlighting system that’s more…well, micro.
Part of the reason LCD-LED screens aren’t as appealing as OLEDs is that LED lighting has physical limitations. The individual LEDs can only be so close together and only so tightly-packed, so inevitably an LCD-LED will have an uneven backlighting system. Newer and more advanced screens minimize these effects—Samsung’s own Quantum Dot displays are a good example—but they can’t compete with the all-on-or-off, per-pixel even lighting of OLED screens.
Until now. Samsung’s MicroLED fabrication technique creates nearly-microscopic light-emitting diodes, enough that each individual pixel in the corresponding LCD screen can be illuminated or turned off, just like an OLED screen. In fact, Micro LEDs are so small that each individual cell of each LCD pixel—the red, green, and blue lights that allow variable colors to be displayed—gets its own tiny LED light. Not only does this allow for even more fine control of the color system, it means the LCD shutter layer (blocking portions of each RGB pixel for the desired color) is no longer necessary.
At CES, Samsung showed off conventional LED backlights (left) and new Micro LED backlights (right) under digital microscopes.
So, for a standard 1080p screen with 1920×1080 resolution, with each pixel getting three Micro LED backlights all to itself, that’s more than six million MicroLED lights—each of which can be brighter, dimmer, or completely turned off, as the picture’s color reproduction requires. For a 4K display it’s almost 25 million LEDs.
What Are The Advantages of Micro LED Backlighting?
According to Samsung, MicroLEDs can compete with OLED in overall picture quality thanks to the variable settings available at the sub-pixel level. It also plays to Samsung’s strengths, since the company already has massive investment in large-scale LCD manufacturing and has been resistant to switching over to OLED production.
There’s more. Because of its tiny fabrication techniques, MicroLED backlights can be made in modular arrays. That means combining multiple sets of MicroLEDs for enormous displays with no gaps in the border should be possible, and cheaper than simply scaling up a conventional LCD-LED TV or OLED TV. Samsung demonstrated this modular system at CES with a whopping 146-inch, 8K-resolution prototype television it calls “The Wall.”
All of this combines for better color reproduction versus conventional LCD-LED TVs and better scalability for larger displays, two very desirable traits if you’re a TV manufacturer.
When Can I Get One?
That’s unclear right at the moment. Samsung’s presentation at CES 2018 was dramatic, but it didn’t show off any retail televisions. That means that a launch in the next six months is unlikely. It’s possible that MicroLED screens could be available in the most expensive new Samsung TVs available in the third or fourth quarter of this year, but Samsung has made no promises on that point—in fact, it said that any products featuring the new tech would be “very expensive.”
Barring some disastrous flaw in the new tech or a radical shift towards another system, Micro LED televisions seem more likely for a 2019 debut in Samsung’s most expensive TV product lines.