Television terms are notoriously tricky — promotions and ads tend to throw numbers and letters at you without ever explaining what they are or why they should matter to you. Fortunately, explaining things like 1080p and 4k are easy enough. They refer to the number of pixels on the screen, with more pixels allowing the television to show a finer level of detail, resulting in you seeing fewer tiny, jagged edges where the pixels are on screen (you can see this easily if you have an old, pre-HD television).
But, when you see terms like plasma, LCD, or LED, things are less clear. Remember when LED TVs first came out? It took a long time for it to become common knowledge that those LED TVs actually still had LCD screens, only with an LED backlight supplying the light that was passed through the LCD screen to create the picture on your television. Things figure to get more confusing with OLED, but good news! OLED technology is a complete change in television display technology, and it’s one that’s going to make a much bigger impact on image quality than an increase in pixel resolution.
Despite all appearances, OLED technology isn’t a slight variation on LED technology. OLED stands for ‘organic light-emitting diode,’ which refers to how the image is created. Instead of requiring a backlight to create the image, these diodes can create their own light when supplied with a charge, meaning that each pixel is lit independently. It’s a complete departure from LED technology in how the image on a television screen is produced.
That sounds cool, but what does it mean to you? Without needing that extra LED backlight, televisions can be thinner, but they’re pretty thin already! We’re reaching a point of diminishing returns with device thinness. No, the real prize with OLED TV technology is color contrast. Because LED TVs use backlighting to light up the pixels on display, a lot of light bleeds into pixels that shouldn’t be lit. That means areas of the screen that should be dark or black in a given scene actually appear brighter than they should be, which obscures details in dark parts of the scene and makes brighter colors elsewhere seem duller because of the lack of contrast.
With OLED TVs, pixels that are supposed to stay black actually do, because there’s no backlight to create that bleeding effect. Each pixel is lit (or not) independently, allowing the television to display the darkest possible shade of black simply by not lighting the pixel. That means any subtle details in a darkly-lit movie or TV show — let’s say something like The Dark Knight or Marvel’s new Jessica Jones series — will be clearly visible, giving you the best possible viewing experience.
We could try to describe it more, but at this point, you’re best off seeing for yourself. Head to your local electronics store and check out the new LG televisions that are carrying the OLED banner — compare a dark scene to one shown on a non-OLED TV, and chances are you’ll see the difference right away.
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