Three LEDs on a green background
Sirisako Studio/Shutterstock.com

You can’t go anywhere these days without hearing about LEDs, whether in TV sets, light bulbs, smartphones, or otherwise. But what are they, and how are they different from other light sources? We’ll explain.

A Diode That Emits Light

LED stands for “Light-Emitting Diode.” The word “diode” is a key component here, because a diode is a semiconductor that only allows electricity to flow in one direction.

To make an LED, manufacturers take two materials and place them in close proximity. The first material is typically a metal, such as aluminum or gold. The second is usually a compound such as gallium arsenide (GaAs). When you apply electricity to these two materials, one material absorbs electrons from the other. This results in a flow of electricity through them, which produces light.

A diagram of an individual LED.
Designua/Shutterstock.com

Believe it or not, LEDs were first invented in 1927 by Oleg Losev in Russia, but a practical commercial LED wasn’t developed until the 1960s. That’s when James R. Biard and Gary Pittman created a GaAs-based LED while working at Texas Instruments. Since then, LEDs have been used in consumer electronics devices such as calculators, optical communications equipment, and in almost every manufacturing industry.

Today, we often encounter LEDs in consumer light bulbs, certain types of TV sets and computer displays, LED strip lights, and indicator lamps on consumer electronics devices.

The Best LED Strip Lights of 2022

Best Smart Strip Lights Overall
Govee 65.6ft LED Strip Lights
Best Budget
TJoy 50ft Smart LED Strip Lights
Best Waterproof LED Strip
Hitlights Waterproof White LED Light Strip
Best for Alexa
Cozylady 50ft Alexa LED Strip Lights
Best LED Strip Light for Google Assistant
Philips Hue Lightstrip

Why Do LEDs Use Less Energy?

LEDs are more efficient than traditional light sources because they don’t use heat to produce light. Traditional light sources, such as light bulbs, produce light by heating a resistive tungsten wire until it glows white-hot.

In contrast, the semiconductor materials in an LED use electricity more efficiently, creating more photons and less waste heat than incandescent bulbs per watt, which means they don’t require as much electricity to produce light.

What Are the Advantages of Using LEDs?

LEDs have many advantages over traditional light sources. For example, they last much longer. A traditional incandescent light bulb lasts about 1,000 hours, while an LED can last for 50,000 hours. This means that you would have to replace an LED only once every 10 years.

LEDs are also more durable than traditional light sources. Traditional light sources contain fragile glass bulbs. If you drop them or tap them too hard, they will break. An LED, on the other hand, is much more resistant to physical damage. Also, an LED bulb doesn’t contain mercury like a compact fluorescent bulb, so they are safer if you break them by accident.

A series of hanging LED light bulbs.
DKai/Shutterstock.com

Also, as mentioned in the section above, LEDs are far more efficient at producing light than incandescent, fluorescent, or halogen bulbs, so they use less power.

While LEDs have many advantages over traditional light sources, they also have some disadvantages, including varying color temperature, and the potential for flicker if the bulbs are poorly made. The biggest disadvantage is their initial cost. An LED is more expensive than a traditional light bulb up front. However, the initial cost of an LED is often offset by its longer lifespan and lower electricity consumption. You will end up saving money with LED bulbs in the long run.

OLED vs. LED

An OLED is a type of light-emitting diode (LED). OLEDs are made of organic materials that emit light when an electric current is passed through them.

OLED displays are different from traditional LCD flat panel display because they do not require a backlight. Instead, each colored pixel emits light itself. This means that OLED displays can potentially be thinner and more flexible than LCDs. Also, OLED displays offer much higher contrast than LCDs because blacks can be truly black instead of just blocking an always-lit backlight, which is the case with an LCD.

Bright Times Ahead

LEDs have a bright future. In addition to becoming more energy-efficient and longer-lasting with new research, LED-based lighting technologies are becoming more affordable. As their price continues to drop, LEDs will likely continue to become more popular as standard lighting in homes and as the basis of ever-higher-resolution digital displays in the future with OLEDs.

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
Read Full Bio »