The Future of TV: OLED vs. Ultra HD

Posted Fri Aug 30, 2013 at 11:45 AM PDT by

by Steven Cohen

We break down the pros and cons of both burgeoning display technologies along with eyes-on impressions!

With the recent release of large-screen OLED displays from both LG and Samsung, and the continued push for 4K adoption from home theater manufacturers, the entire landscape of television is starting to change, offering more pixels, better colors, and deeper blacks. But just what are the differences between these two new innovations? Is Ultra HD better than OLED? Does increased resolution offer more of a benefit than improved contrast? Are the two technologies even mutually exclusive?

Well, fret not, we here at High-Def Digest are going to answer your questions, providing a rundown of the general strengths and weaknesses that face current OLED and 4K displays. Is there actually a clear winner between the two? Let's find out...

OLED: The Pros and Cons

Long heralded as the holy grail of future display technologies, OLED televisions have been teased and demoed for years, but it wasn't until earlier this month that Samsung and LG finally started selling their first large-screen OLED sets to American consumers. Standing for Organic Light-Emitting Diode, OLED displays offer a notable break from traditional LCD, LED, and plasma televisions.

In contrast to LCDs which use liquid crystals or plasmas which use ionized gases, OLEDs use organic compounds to produce light when charged by an electric current. Because the pixels emit light on their own, there is no need for an additional backlight, resulting in truly inky black levels and far superior contrast ratios. Likewise, OLED displays can achieve higher brightness than plasmas. Coupled with excellent viewing angles and fast response times, the technology essentially promises all of the strengths of LCD and plasma sets without many of their weaknesses.

While that's a very lofty claim, current OLEDs are not without their potential problems. For starters, much like plasmas, the TVs are still susceptible to temporary image retention and, under extreme conditions, even burn-in. Plasmas have come a long way in regards to this issue, however, and it remains to be seen how OLEDs will compare.

The lifespan of an OLED set is also a potential stumbling block. The degradation rates of blue, red, and green pixel luminance have revealed shorter display lifetimes than LCD or plasma sets, and blue pixels are especially troublesome. This could also lead to color balance issues over time as the blue pixels fade quicker than red and green. Advances have been made to help combat this problem, but only long term testing with the current crop of displays will really let us know how serious the issue is.

Though this next quirk could be considered a pro or a con depending on personal taste, both LG and Samsung's 55-inch OLEDs feature a curved screen design. It's not entirely clear why the companies decided to go in this direction, but speculation is that the curved look was chosen to help further differentiate the sets from current LCDs and plasmas. Regardless, the curve makes it impossible to mount the TV on a wall which might be a point of contention for potential buyers.

Of course, the most obvious con to current OLED displays is their resolution. For the time being, all OLED sets are only being offered in regular old 1080p. While that might be perfectly fine for most users, particularly at current display sizes, it could offer some problems down the road, especially when 4K content eventually becomes the norm.

We've yet to get any one-on-one time with Samsung or LG's OLED TVs, but I did recently get to check out one of LG's 55EA9800 curved screen sets at a Best Buy Magnolia store. Unfortunately, the lighting conditions in the room and the heavily compressed demo reel on display didn't really show off the technology's trademark benefits. With that said, I was pleasantly surprised by how subtle the curve seemed in person. I was expecting to be irritated by the arching screen, but I actually found the curve to be quite subtle, and viewing angles seemed to hold up very well despite the slight bend.

Beyond lifespan and design quirks, current prices for OLED displays are definitely a hindrance as well, but that's to be expected with any new technology. The Samsung KN55S9C is currently available for a suggested retail price of $9,000, and the LG 55EA9800 is currently available exclusively at Best Buy Magnolia stores for $15,000, though rumors suggest LG might soon match Samsung's lower price.

Ultra HD: The Pros and Cons

Offering four times the pixels of standard 1080p televisions, Ultra HDTVs provide a resolution of 3,840 × 2,160 (though full 4K resolution for cinema exhibition is actually 4096 × 2160). This results in a much sharper and more detailed image. The only real catch is, in order to see the full benefits from this increase in resolution, one is said to need a very large screen and a relatively short viewing distance. With that in mind, I've actually remained pretty skeptical about the advantages of 4K resolutions for 55-inch or 65-inch TVs, but I recently got to check out Sony and Samsung's 55-inch offerings at a Best Buy Magnolia store, and that skepticism is starting to melt away.

The Samsung UN55F9000 ($4,498) had a single demo playing on repeated loop that featured breathtaking shots of a cityscape. From a comfortable distance of about 7 feet, the image looked incredibly detailed, making it possible to clearly make out every window on each towering skyscraper. Was the picture actually appreciably better than a 1080p set? Well, it's hard to truly say without seeing the exact same content being played on a standard HDTV side by side, but the image was certainly eye-catching and stood out much more than any other regular 1080p display in the room.

The Sony XBR-55X900A ($3,998) actually had a much more varied demo on display, offering beautiful nature shots, a soccer game, a clip from 'Total Recall (2012),' and a particularly striking sequence involving a cornucopia of red desserts and strawberries. Detail was simply jaw-dropping and colors were incredibly rich and vibrant. Again, while I didn't have a 1080p set with the same content to make direct comparisons to, the picture was very impressive, even from a reasonable distance -- and again, this is coming from someone who has remained fairly skeptical about 4K sets.

In addition to the demo reel, I also got to play around a bit with the display's settings, opting to quickly disable the default vivid mode for the far more natural and accurate cinema setting. I was also able to sample the TVs upscaling features, and considering the fact that 4K content is still rare, this is a pretty big selling factor for early adopters.

First I viewed scenes from the standard release of 'The Amazing Spider-Man' with the Sony Blu-ray player set to upconvert to 4K. While it's hard to truly judge the picture under retail store conditions, my initial impressions were very positive. Likewise, I also got to sample scenes from 'Spider-Man (Mastered in 4K),' a release that is specially optimized for upscaling on this Sony TV and a disc that I've previously reviewed myself on a standard 1080p display. With the TV set to its "Mastered in 4K" setting, the film looked very good, and while I can't make a firm judgment without seeing direct comparisons under proper home theater conditions, the upscaling definitely offered improvements.

As impressed as I was with the TVs in person, current Ultra HD sets still have several notable drawbacks. For one, they're all still based on traditional LCD LED backlit technology and are all still prone to their same nagging weaknesses -- most notably lighter black levels, uneven backlighting, and less than ideal viewing angles. Good black levels are particularly integral for a display's overall image performance, and even with local dimming capabilities, LCDs just can't compete with OLEDs, which offer the best black levels of any current display type.

Another potential snag standing in the way of the 4K revolution, is the current lack of a universal Ultra HD standard. This means exact specifications for color gamuts, frame rates, compression, and support for future HDMI revisions have yet to be set. In contrast, OLED televisions won't have this problem since they adhere to the standard HDTV spec. With that said, Samsung has stated that there will be some form of upgrade available to make their current sets compliant with any new HDMI revisions and Sony has hinted at similar options.

At the end of the day, an overall lack of actual 4K content might be the most notable problem. In fact, both Samsung and LG really don't have a 4K media delivery system yet, making it difficult to truly show off the advantages of an Ultra HDTV, while the benefits of an OLED will be readily apparent with all current content. Sony, however, does have the FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD Media Player which offers a library of downloadable 4K films, including 10 preloaded titles that feature a decidedly eclectic mix of films like 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' 'Taxi Driver,' and 'That's My Boy.' While the media player is definitely a step in the right direction, it only works with Sony's 4K sets and can't compete with a true 4K media format, which has still yet to be announced.

Much like OLEDs, prices are quite high compared to traditional 1080p displays, but this is thankfully starting to change, and a recent wave of price cuts from Sony and Samsung just went into effect with LG planning to follow suit as well. The XBR-55X900A is now listed at $3,998 and the XBR-65X900A is selling for $5,498. Samsung's UN55F9000 is retailing for $4,498 and its UN65F9000 is now available for a suggested retail price of $5,998. LG also has their own 4K lineup, which includes the 55LA9700 and the 65LA9700 which will feature reduced prices of $4,999 and $6,499 respectively starting September 1st.

Conclusion: Can't we all just get along?

Though 4K and OLED sets are poised to compete with each other for the time being, the reality is, neither technology is mutually exclusive and there is no clear "winner" between the two. In fact, they really shouldn't be fighting at all -- they should be joining forces. While not commercially available yet, Ultra HD OLED displays have been demoed before and are perfectly feasible. The main roadblocks are of course price and manufacturing challenges. Right now, Ultra HD and OLED sets are expensive enough on their own and OLED TVs have especially low yields, so merging the two would simply prove to be cost prohibitive. Of course, this will change in the coming years as manufacturing expenses go down and market adoption increases, and it's very likely that the true future of television won't rest in either technology alone. It will rest in their combination -- a prospect that should leave any home theater enthusiast foaming at the mouth.

We'll try to get some true one-on-one time with these Ultra HD and OLED televisions in the near future, but for now, we hope this break down has been helpful. And if you'd like to check out 4K TVs in person, you can see them demoed at several Sony Stores and Best Buys. Likewise, the LG OLED is currently on display in select Best Buy Magnolia stores, and Samsung's OLED should start showing up in limited retailers as well.

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Tags: OLED, Ultra HD, 4K (all tags)