OLED Again

There have been stirrings on the webs about a new push for OLED (or organic light emitting diode-based) TVs. These Holy Grail televisions promise the ultimate in black level, contrast ratio, and color fidelity, they poop kittens, solve baldness, and make people like you.

Most of that is true. Some. OK, part.

Sadly, an imminent OLED renaissance is still highly unlikely. Unlikely, like me dematerializing and rematerializing in the next room unlikely.

Based on some optimistic language used by an LG executive, the 'verse became alight with hope and speculation regarding the return of OLED. The enthusiasm is understandable. OLED is undeniably cool. Using layers of light-emitting polymers, OLEDs can be insanely thin. Because each pixel emits its own light, it's possible to cut the current and turn them off. This means potentially better black levels than plasma, and better contrast ratios than plasma and local-dimming LED LCDs. They're also much more efficient than LCD or plasma displays, meaning lower power consumption. There's potentially no limit on dimensions either, so wall-sized OLEDs are certainly possible. Check out some of our previous OLED coverage here.

The problems

There are several issues with getting big-screen OLED to market. The first - and by far the most important - is yield. When manufacturing any product, you lose money for every one you build but can't sell (as in they're defective, don't live up to quality standards, etc). Accordingly, you need to price the ones you can sell at a rate high enough to cover the costs of the ones you lost in production. As yields go up, prices go down. Right now, OLED yields are so low that panels have to be expensive at retail for the venture to be profitable at all.

Brightness and longevity are also problems, as in OLEDs are not bright (compared to LED LCD anyway), and don't last long. Unlike some of my compatriots in the tech punditry, I think these issues are more than likely to be overcome as the tech advances. The yield/price problem is far more disconcerting.

And why at all?

Don't get me wrong, I want OLED. I reviewed Sony's glamour product, the XEL-1 desktop OLED television, and was one of the few people that liked it. And that's despite its absurd $227-per-inch cost. (Check out Al's review here.)

But here's the thing: These days, the better TVs - whatever the technology - look really, really good. LED edge-lit LCDs are already incredibly thin. The local-dimming technologies coming down the pipe promise even better performance. So the question is, does the market need an uber-priced, better-performing flat panel? Especially one that in Best Buy or Costco is going to look worse than a cheap LCD (you can't judge contrast ratio with the lights of a big store)?

Would any company risk coming to market with an ultra-high end OLED TV in the hopes that they can sell enough of them to bring the price down to compete with LCD/plasma? Risk is a four letter word, literally and figuratively.

While the enthusiast in me says, "Bring it on!" the pragmatist in me says, "They'll never sell enough." Here's hoping I'm wrong.

In the mean time, check out this amazing video on how OLEDs work, using an electrified pickle. You read that right.


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