After years of desperately waiting for OLED TV prices to come down enough to be competitive with traditional LCDs, at CES 2018 AV fans were finally given something to look forward to.
The show saw the surprise emergence of an entirely new form of display technology called MicroLED, which offers all the benefits of OLED without the horrifically difficult manufacturing process.
So far we’ve only seen one piece of MicroLED tech out in the wild. Manufactured by Samsung, The Wall is a gargantuan 146-inch TV that acts as a proof of concept for what the technology might one day deliver.
But what exactly is MicroLED? Here’s everything you need to know.
Hang on a minute, don’t LED TVs already exist?
We agree, the name can seem a little bit confusing at first, especially when it comes to TVs. Haven’t we already had LED screens for years?
Well, yes and no. There are a lot of TVs on the market that are currently marketed as ‘LED TVs’, but in truth these are actually LCD TVs that use an LED backlight, and this is very different from what MicroLED will end up being.
These TVs have two main components inside of them, the liquid crystal layer, and the LED backlight. The liquid crystals that give each pixel their colour don’t actually produce any light themselves, and so they have to be illuminated by a backlight.
Old LCD TVs had a fluorescent backlight that illuminated the screen, but adding an LED backlight allowed the image to be dimmed in certain areas, creating more contrast between the light and dark parts of an image.
So what’s MicroLED?
MicroLED is different. It’s a completely new type of display panel and it’s hoped that it will one day find itself in everything from smartwatches to phones and TVs.
Rather than using a separate LCD layer and LED backlight, MicroLED combines them. That means that when you’re looking at a pixel, you’re actually looking at a cluster of three LEDs that are producing each pinprick of detail.
Because the light is being generated directly by the pixels themselves, they’re actually able to turn off entirely to create a so-called “perfect” black, which means that the overall image has a far greater sense of vibrancy and depth.
It’s similar in many ways to what OLED panels are able to do, and it means that MicroLED will be able to offer similarly vibrant images with great viewing angles.
However, the problem with OLED is that despite having existed as a technology for over a decade, manufacturers still haven’t solved the problem of building OLED displays cheaply in large quantities, because so many of the panels fail during production.
OLED TVs also aren’t able to match the brightness of their LCD counterparts, which means HDR images don’t have the same peak brightness (or “sparkle”) on an OLED screen. The technology has felt tantalisingly close for years, but it’s yet to reach a mainstream price, and people are losing hope that it ever will.
That’s not to say MicroLED doesn’t have problems of its own. For one thing, getting LEDs that small to reach the right brightness levels is proving to be quite a challenge, and then once you’ve done that you have to pay for literally millions of the things to build a 4K TV. Finally, you’ll have to minimise the space between them if you want to avoid every TV turning into a 146-inch monster.
A final benefit of MicroLED is that itcan be modular. While traditional TVs have to be made a bespoke size that can’t be altered, MicroLED TVs can be made up of a number of smaller panels, and then attached together to form a bigger screen.
This has a number of advantages. You could, for example, buy a couple of modules to make a smaller TV, and then add more if you move into a bigger house with more space for a TV. Samsung has even indicated that you could use modules to build a MicroLED TV that’s got a completely different aspect ratio to your average TV.
But the biggest advantages of this modularity are likely to be felt by manufacturers, who’ll be able to produce one panel for all of their different TV sizes and then assemble them as required, rather than having to produce endless varieties of different panels.
Is it just a TV technology then?
Absolutely not. Earlier this year a Bloomberg report claimed that Apple is investigating making MicroLED panels of its own. Instead of using them to make massive TVs however, Apple is instead planning on using the Apple Watch for its debut.
But it’s not just smartwatches that are set to receive the display tech. The same report also claimed that Apple is investigating using the tech for future iPhones, although it warned that we shouldn’t expect to see this for a number of years yet.
TVs and smartwatches are the biggest and smallest screens in most households, and if MicroLED is able to work at both extremes, then there’s nothing preventing it from becoming the default display technology in the future.
When can I get it?
If the prospect of perfect blacks and excellent peak brightness sounds intriguing to you, then you might want to lower your expectations for the timebeing because MicroLED isn’t going to be widely available for a while yet.
The first commercially available product will be The Wall by Samsung, which is due to go on sale this August at a price that’s yet to be announced. Given its 146-inch size, we don’t expect this massive TV to come cheap.
However, after that the concrete information dries up. The Wall is hardly a typical TV, meaning the technology could take years to hit a more mainstream form-factor, and Apple’s efforts aren’t expected to be ready any sooner.
But if engineers can finally crack the manufacturing difficulties, MicroLED might mean we’re finally on our way to moving on from LCD technology, which at the beginning of 2018 has long outstayed its welcome.