Mini-LED backlight illustration from TCL.

Mini-LED displays are just making it on to the market, and they’re affordably priced. This new technology offers more local dimming zones for deeper blacks and improved contrast. Let’s cut through the jargon.

What Is Mini-LED?

Mini-LED is a new display technology that promises improved contrast ratios and deeper blacks compared to LCD panels that are lit with regular LEDs (light-emitting diodes). As the name suggests, mini-LEDs are a lot smaller than regular LEDs.

Diodes that are smaller than 0.2 mm are generally classed as mini-LEDs. These are used to light up a regular LCD panel, just as a traditional LED-lit TV would. The key difference is that a lot more mini-LEDs are present compared to older TVs.

While mini-LED technology can’t quite match the picture quality of an OLED or micro-LED display, mini-LED models are much cheaper to produce. The larger the panel, the bigger the savings. Manufacturing large OLED TVs is still tricky and expensive.

How Does Mini-LED Improve on Traditional LED TVs?

Most modern LCD models use LEDs for backlighting. When you shine an LED through an LCD panel that’s showing a black or dark scene, the blacks become washed out. There’s only so much work the LCD panel can do to “block out” the LED light shining through behind.

To combat this, TV manufacturers turned to local dimming. By dimming specific LEDs behind the LCD panel, blacks appear deeper because less light interferes with the image.

The problem here is that due to the size of traditional LEDs, you can fit only so many behind the panel. Vizio’s standard LED-lit 65-inch PX65-G1 Quantum X LED TV has 384 local dimming zones, which are essentially individual LEDs.

TCL 8-Series 4K Mini-LED TV

By comparison, TCL’s comparably-sized mini-LED 65Q825 8-Series has around 1,000 local dimming zones and tens of thousands of micro-LEDs. This results in deeper blacks and less washed-out dark scenes since the dimmable regions are a lot smaller and provide far more granular control over the image.

This makes mini-LED technology a great stop-gap between traditional LED-lit displays and OLED or micro-LED displays, at a competitive price point to boot.

Mini-LED vs. Micro-LED: What’s the Difference?

Micro-LEDs are even smaller than mini-LEDs, with each micro-LED being placed in a pixel. Samsung, which has shied away from mini-LED in favor of micro-LED, uses three tiny LEDs per pixel in its current micro-LED displays. This means each pixel can be turned on or off individually, and display a different color to the pixel next to it.

Ultimately, this provides the gold standard in terms of contrast ratio and color control. The drawback is that micro-LED displays are still very expensive to produce. A 4K micro-LED TV requires 25 million micro-LEDs, and the manufacturing process isn’t easy. This means the technology isn’t yet viable on account of the costs associated with manufacturing.

That might soon change: Market research firm IHS Markit predicts a dramatic drop in the cost of manufacturing micro-LED panels that should lead to around 15.5 million displays shipped annually by the year 2026 (compared with just 1,000 in 2019). That number doesn’t just include TVs but smartphones, wearables, and other devices.

OLED (organic light-emitting diode) is a similar display technology to micro-LED in that it allows each pixel to emit its own light. This is why OLED displays currently offer the deepest blacks and sharpest color contrast in the consumer market. They too are expensive, but the price of production has fallen considerably since their introduction.

RELATED: What Are Samsung's MicroLED TVs, and How Are They Different from OLED?

Can You Buy Mini-LED TVs Today?

TCL was the first manufacturer to bring mini-LED TVs to market with its 8-Series models in October 2019. The smaller 65″ display (65Q825) debuted at $1,999 while the larger 75″ model (75Q825) started at $2,999. Both are available exclusively through Best Buy at a discount. At CES 2020, TCL announced mini-LED will be making its way into its 6-Series models, too.

Although the smaller 65″ doesn’t offer huge savings compared with comparably sized OLED displays from the likes of LG, the 75″ model represents excellent value considering how expensive large OLED displays are. Best Buy’s current cheapest comparable OLED display is a whopping $4,300 (on sale) for the 77″ LG B9.

TCL appears to be the only company who has brought displays using this technology to market so far. Mini-LED is new, so it’s hard to shop specifically for a mini-LED TV right now. This is evident by the fact that mini-LED TVs are currently lumped in with the regular LED or QLED labels while shopping online.

If you want a mini-LED TV, you’ll need to go with TCL for now or keep an eye on other companies who commit to the technology. It’s possible that mini-LED will remain a bit of an obscure choice, as companies like Samsung forge ahead with micro-LED adoption, potentially side-stepping the technology altogether (as they did OLED).

Should You Buy Mini-LED, OLED, or QLED?

Which display technology you pick comes down to a few primary factors like price, panel size, brightness, and overall image quality.

If money is no object, micro-LED displays are the superior choice. They offer all of the benefits of OLED, with a brighter display and no susceptibility to screen burn-in. Unfortunately, no micro-LED displays are on sale to consumers right now, and they might still be a year or so away.

OLED is the next logical choice. Each pixel in an OLED display can generate its own light, which means deep blacks, sharp contrast, and no “halo” effect as seen in traditional dimmable LED TVs. It’s also expensive, but prices continue to fall. OLED panels are available in 55″, 65″, 77″, and 88″ sizes.

LG 88" OLED Z9 Series 8K TV

Mini-LED offers a competitive alternative to OLED, bringing some of the benefits without the cost associated with large panels. Since each pixel doesn’t create its light, the deep blacks and sharp contrast aren’t quite on-par with OLED, but they’re much improved over the traditional LED. For larger panels, you can save literally thousands of dollars by going the mini-LED route. This should improve further when more models make it to market.

And then there’s QLED, where the Q stands for Quantum Dots. Essentially, this is a film with small light-emitting nanoparticles in it, which also attempts to mimic OLED technology. This falls short of what is possible with mini-LED and OLED, but QLED is capable of producing a brighter image than OLED. They’re also a lot cheaper than OLED displays, particularly for large panels since they’re a lot easier to produce.

Finally, there are straight-up vanilla LED-lit LCD panels, which are among the cheapest displays on the market. You might notice uneven backlight dimming, but LCD panels can still be bright and vibrant if you’re prepared to spend a bit more. Our advice (with all displays) is to view them in person before you buy, so you can compare the pack and come to your own conclusions.

RELATED: QLED Explained: What Exactly is a "Quantum Dot" TV?

The Future Is Bright (and Very Dark)

Mini-LED is just one of many display technologies finding their footing on to the market. TCL has leaped ahead with its 8-Series, which provides a real alternative to OLED displays at a much more consumer-friendly price point.

Ultimately, there are a few things to look for when buying a TV, but don’t lose track of the important things: your budget and desired panel size. And remember: If you’re buying a TV primarily for playing games, your priorities will be a little different.

RELATED: What to Look For When Buying a New TV

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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