LED, QLED, OLED, min-LED, micro-LED. So. Many. LEDs.
If you’re confused about all the different kinds of TVs out there, I get it. I’ve been at this for over 23 years, and all those acronyms still make my head spin. Not to worry, though. This is your crash course that explains every kind of TV and what makes them work (and therefore how they are different). We’ll also cover a few advantages and disadvantages to each — all so you can make more informed purchase decisions.
To understand where we are in the TV landscape and where we’re going, it helps a lot to know where we’ve been. Let’s take a quick trip back in time, work our way through to the modern day, and then maybe take a peek into the crystal ball and see what might be coming in the near future.
Table of Contents
We’ll start with the CRT TV – also known as the tube TV, because CRT stands for cathode-ray tube. This is what started it all, and we were all pretty happy with it for, oh, a little over 65 years. The first CRT TV was made in 1934 by Telefunken in Germany. These TVs evolved from black-and-white to color, from tiny to relatively large, and eventually were phased out around the year 2000. They used a cathode-ray tube to beam photos at a screen that was coated with phosphors to make a picture. Light hits the phosphors, and the phosphors make the picture. They were very heavy relative to their size and, as we later learned, not particularly great for the environment.
Along with the CRT TV we also got rear-projection TVs, which were simply known as “big-screen TVs.” These huge boxes used three color light cannons to project an image on a screen from behind — hence rear projection. And while they provided a very big picture, they were generally a huge headache because you had to keep the three light cannons in perfect alignment — or convergence — or you got a blurry rainbow-looking image. Also, they weren’t especially bright — the contrast was terrible. But we loved them because they were huge and made it feel like being at the movies at home.
Then came the plasma TV, and along with i,t the term “flat-screen TV.” This is when TVs basically divorced the 4:3 aspect ratio and moved into the 16:9 rectangular screen shape.
Plasma TVs had tiny little pixel pockets of gas in the screen. Put electricity to them and the gas turned to plasma and lit up phosphors. Plasma TVs were about as futuristic as it got at the time. This whole flat-screen TV thing was a big deal. And even though all TVs today are flat screens, that term has held on.
The flat-screen part of the plasma became kind of a distraction from what was really cool about the technology — it was an emissive display.
An emissive display is a screen whose picture comes from each pixel lighting up individually. A transmissive display, for the purposes of this discussion, is one which has a backlight — or a light system at the back of the TV that has to shine through a bunch of layers in order to produce lit-up pixels. As you can imagine, transmissive displays — ones with some sort of backlight — tend to be thicker. Emissive displays, which don’t need a backlight at all, tend to be thinner.
The plasma TV was the flat-panel pioneer. But a lot of work was being done with liquid-crystal displays to make them usable for TV applications. LCD TVs also were flat panels, but they were far lighter and easier to move around, making them a piece of cake to mount on the wall.
LCD TVs at first had a compact fluorescent light bulb in the back shining light through all these different layers so that you got a nice image on the screen. And they were pretty great. They got brighter than plasma TVs and were just generally so cool that the public didn’t really notice that they couldn’t produce black colors very well — or at all. Things that were supposed to be black were really just a milky gray. But nobody cared, because look how cool this is!
But then someone figured out that using the same kind of light bulb in our TVs that we used in our lamps was antiquated. That’s when the LED — the light-emitting diode — came into play.
We ditched the light bulbs for LEDs, and suddenly the race to make the thinnest possible TV was on. LEDs also could get a lot brighter than old-school light bulbs, so these so-called LED TVs were all the rage for multiple reasons. And they still are today. This was still an LCD TV with a backlight, but the backlight changed to LED, so we started calling them LED TVs instead of LCD TVs – much to the annoyance of people like me.
And now we are more or less at the modern day. We’ve got LED TVs, we have plasma TVs — and then comes OLED.
The year was around 2012, and OLED screens were making their way into the mainstream in phone-size devices, as well as TVs. OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode, and in many way,s these new sets were like a plasma TV. But instead of using gas, they used organic compounds that would light up as individual pixels when you put electricity to them. OLED TVs were way lighter, and ridiculously thin because they didn’t need phosphors or even glass to contain everything. They were also quite a bit brighter than plasma TVs, if not as bright as LED TVs, and the colors were unlike anything we’d seen on a TV before because the red, green, and blue light they made was more exact, so you could come up with all these new color combinations. And black was black, because the pixels were completely turned off, without any backlight bleeding through.
And since then, OLED TVs have been at the forefront of TV tech, routinely winning best TV awards year after year from just about everyone. They started out really expensive and even though they’ve come down in price, they’re still expensive compared to many LCD-based TVs.
OLED TVs were so superior in just about every way (except perceived motion) that plasma TVs died a quick and rather unceremonious death. RIP plasma (I still have one, though).
The story goes that LG was the only OLED panel producer around, so it pretty much owned OLED entirely until 2022. You could get a Panasonic OLED, a Sony OLED, or even a Vizio OLED — but LG Display made the panels.
Samsung, meanwhile, was tired of LG cleaning its clock with this OLED business. Samsung and LG, if you’re not aware, are bitter South Korean rivals.
Samsung took the approach that it knew its LED/LCD TVs were brighter, and the black levels were getting better and better. It just needed to take the color to the next level so it could claim that Samsung TVs are better than OLED TVs. And then Samsung planned to get a bunch of other brands on board with it, and it would be everyone else versus LG.
And the QLED TV was created. The Q in QLED stands for quantum dots — tiny nanoparticles that glow with great efficiency when you shine a light on them. And Samsung used them to make its LED backlights even more powerful. So QLED TVs got brighter, more colorful, and with brighter colors. And then Samsung marketed the heck out of QLED and said, you know, anyone else can do this if they want. You can use the term QLED, too. Let’s take the TV market over with these things.
Well, that didn’t exactly work. Because as bright and colorful as QLED was, it still had this Achilles’ heel that reviewers and critics like me just could not get over, and that was backlight blooming, halo, and generally not-great black levels. Those are all transmissive display — ones with a backlight — problems, whereas OLED, being an emissive display, is more or less perfect in those areas. So, then, how do we make the backlight better?
Mini-LED! Yes! Let’s take the array of backlights that we’re using in QLED TVs, make them far smaller, and then use way more of them. We will master black levels, and eliminate blooming and halo through sheer brute force of numbers.
And so we have the mini-LED TV. It’s still an LCD TV. It’s still backlit. It’s just a much more refined backlighting system. Also, quantum dots are still involved, so they are mini-LED QLED TVs (I know, I know — I’m sorry, don’t shoot the messenger).
So today we have LED TVs, which are decent-quality TVs that are ridiculously affordable. but don’t have especially great performance when it comes to color, contrast, and motion.
Then we have QLED TVs, which are more premium, with higher overall brightness, more accurate and brighter color, decent motion resolution, and generally solid contrast and backlight control, but with a little halo effect or blooming around bright objects on dark backgrounds.
Then we have mini-LED QLED TVs which are at the top of the LCD TV or transmissive TV food chain. These are the most premium LCD-based TVs. They can get incredibly bright and have excellent HDR performance and the best contrast and backlight control available, along with vivid colors and very good color accuracy. Still, they are backlit, so you may see backlight fluctuations and a tiny bit of blooming or halo, but usually not much. Now, as the industry is increasingly embracing mini-LED backlighting as the norm, we may see more variations in how mini-LED TVs perform, but generally, these are the best you can buy when it comes to a backlit TV.
Then we have OLED, which requires no backlight at all and offers excellent contrast, near-perfect black levels, and incredible color accuracy and saturation. It can also get sufficiently bright for most situations. These have been and continue to be the preferred TV for dedicated movie rooms or entertainment spaces where you can control the lighting in the room.
MLA OLED and QD-OLED
But now, we have two new kinds of OLED TVs to get familiar with. There is the new MLA OLED and QD-OLED. Both of these are basically brighter OLED TVs, and they come at a premium as regular OLED TVs continue to drop in price. To keep things simple, understand that OLED now comes in three tiers, all of them very premium. These are standard OLED, MLA OLED, and QD-OLED.
That’s six types of TVs to choose from. So, OK, we’re done now, right? We’re good for a bit? Nothing more to worry about?
Well, yeah, you’re good. Until next year maybe. Yeah, sorry, TVs are still evolving. So if you want to have the latest and greatest, we’ve got a couple of more technologies coming down the pipeline.
Slowly making its way onto the scene now is micro-LED. Now, you might think this is another backlit display, where the backlights are even tinier than mere mini-LED — but that’s not the case. Like OLED, micro-LED is another king of the emissive display. No backlight. But it is the brightest emissive display of all. So it has the perfect blacks and amazing contrast, but that contrast is cranked up to 11 because micro-LED can get so incredibly bright — like, almost blindingly bright.
The downside to micro-LED for now — and the reason you are not likely to see it for sale on the floor of your preferred electronics store — is that it is super expensive, and it’s really hard to get 4K resolution at normal screen sizes because the pixels aren’t as tiny as they are on the other types of TVs we’ve talked about.
The other interesting thing about micro-LED displays, at least for now, is that they are modular, which has its upsides and downsides. For now, micro-LED panels are smaller squares, and you can stitch them together to make a display of varying sizes and shapes. That’s flexibility, a good thing. But the downside is that there are seams, and while you can’t see the seams between these panels when the TVs are bright — at least not from a normal viewing distance — you can see them when they are dimmer if you look closely enough.
Now, until just this January, most micro-LED displays were basically the size of an entire wall, but they are being scaled down to normal TV sizes — like 55- and 65-inch diagonal screen sizes. So, we’ll see where micro-LED goes this year, but I still think we’re a year or two out until these become competitive with QLED or OLED.
And finally, if you dig deep enough while doing TV research, you could hear about emissive quantum dot displays. These go by different acronyms, but the idea is that the quantum dots that are used to enhance existing TV technologies might become emissive display tech on their own. If they do? Wow, they could be really amazing. But like all new TV tech, we’ll want to wait to see how they perform, and we’ll need them to come down in price for a few years before you would ever want to consider buying one.