CES is where everybody unveils their big product plan for the year ahead, but this time Samsung’s TV presence is notably understated. There are no mainstream TVs launching at this time; that’s coming in a few months, away from the hordes of Las Vegas.
Instead, Samsung is here with a message. Not only is the South Korean giant resolutely not going to be joining the growing OLED TV game, it has big plans to beat it.
And here’s how.
Right now: Samsung QLED will be upgraded
In 2017, Samsung went big with QLED, the latest iteration of its Quantum Dot-toting LED LCD TVs. The plan involved building strongholds in the land of 1000+ nits brightness and colour volume, heights LCD TVs can reach where the darkness-loving OLED cannot follow.
Things didn’t go as planned. While Samsung did manage groundbreaking levels of luminance and saturation, it stuck with edge-lit LCD designs – and ran into that technology’s limitations. Basically, when you push brightness as high as 2000 nits, edge lighting and zonal dimming simply aren’t enough to stem the tide of lighting artefacts.
Compound those issues with large price tags, plus OLED’s creeping gains in highlight and midtone performance. The final score for 2017: OLED 1, QLED 0.
Samsung has learned from its mistakes. It is continuing with QLED in 2018, and peak brightness is going to be over 2000 nits. The key change is that there will be at least one model with full-array local dimming (FALD). Direct backlighting, not edge lighting, with hundreds of dimming zones.
That’s a massive upgrade in lighting management, but Samsung has learned not to rely on that and has several backup measures. In a bid to ramp up black performance, Samsung is employing layers of black and anti-reflection filter, designed to minimise internal light leakage and external glare. The panel also has layer with a prism-like structure, which aims to improve viewing angles and stop the picture washing out when viewed from the side.
On top of that, Samsung is using software to help. The TV will run an anti-blooming algorithm, which identifies bright areas and dims their boundaries to avoid halo effects.
It works. The combined efforts of these black-improving measures are hugely effective. I looked at the new panel next to a 2017 LG OLED, alongside the Sony ZD9 from 2016 (widely regarded as the best FALD still being sold). The Samsung panel demonstrated noticeably better lighting localisation than the Sony, with less blooming.
Against the OLED? I struggled to tell the difference from a ‘normal’ position, sat down a few metres away. It was only when I walked closer to the TV that I saw some very slight blooming on the LCD. Due to the structure of LED LCD TVs, I don’t think they will ever match the look of emissive tech such as OLED. But that doesn’t mean the improvements aren’t significant.
Conclusion: Samsung’s LED LCD tech is now a lot closer to OLED’s black levels, The full product details are yet to be finalised, so there’s no indication of cost, but if Samsung’s pricing strategy is sensible the 2018 QLED could be a solid retort to OLED.
Coming soon: 8K Micro Full Array
The 2018 Samsung QLED is only a short-term solution. Samsung knows that it will take something more spectacular to steal the spotlight back from OLED. In the second half of 2018, we will see a new tech called ‘Micro Full Array’ (MFA).
MFA is basically FALD tech on steroids. We’re looking at brightness up to 4000 nits, with black levels plunging to an OLED-matching 0.001 nits.
And if the 2018 QLED having hundreds of dimming zones is a good thing (and it is) then how about over 10,000 zones? That promises a level of lighting control never before seen on an LCD TV. I didn’t get to see one of these next to an OLED, so I can’t compare, but that number of dimmable zones has got to be a good thing.
This tech doesn’t just have a massive number of zones; it is also physically massive. It will only be available in screen sizes of 75 and 82 inches. That’s bound to be impractical and insanely expensive, but I get the feeling Samsung is really just trying to make a statement with this.
As for resolution, this TV won’t be in 4K. Because it will have a native 8K resolution.
Every year at CES, I see TV makers bring along 8K displays to show off, but that’s just a willy-waving proof of concept. Samsung, however, is actually brave (or mad) enough to bring one to market. You will be able to buy one of these in 2018.
But why? Bringing out an 8K screen seems an odd move when the blossoming 4K market has yet to become mainstream. And there’s virtually no content out there – I only know of test footage from Japan, where broadcaster NHK has been testing the waters of 8K.
Samsung tells me it’s first and foremost a means of retaining sharpness and clarity, finer details and gradations. After all, if you bump a 4K resolution from 55 inches to 82 inches, the latter is going have a lower pixel density and look a little softer. Samsung’s approach is to feed in 4K video and upscale it to 8K. Samsung calls it ‘AI Upscaling’, a fancy term that doesn’t seem too far off what some TVs do to bring standard definition up to 1080p, or from HD to 4K.
‘AI Upscalng’ will employ noise reduction to preserve details, edge restoration to prevent jagged contours. It also compares incoming video with an image database to make calculations – not far off what Sony has been doing with its highly effective X-Reality Pro upscaling.
The next stage: Micro LED
Samsung isn’t done. Towards the end of 2018 (or early 2019) the company will be the first to commercially bring Micro LED to market.
This is where Samsung finally drops LCD and adopts an emissive technology, similar to OLED and plasma before it. Samsung says it will be less power-hungry than OLED, with less potential for degradation over time. This is about as close to the ‘true’ QLED that folks on the internet have been speculating about for years, before Samsung decided to use ‘QLED’ to brand its Quantum Dot LCD TVs.
Micro LED stems from Samsung’s existing LED Cinema technology, which uses modular LED panels pieced together to create a gigantic picture. The theory here is the same: at CES 2018 Samsung is showing off a 146-inch modular version that it calls ‘The Wall’. It’s not been announced how the modular system works, or what sizes will be available, but it’s safe to say Samsung is starting big before working down to sensible (affordable) sizes.
Samsung’s future is bright. And crazy
I’ve got to give it to Samsung. The 2017 QLED plan didn’t go as intended, but the guys in Seoul clearly weren’t disheartened. It’s quite the opposite – they’ve doubled down on their commitment to fight OLED on several fronts. Some of the plan is practical. Some of the plan is plain mad. But from what I’ve seen, all of it is hugely impressive.
It’s clear that to Samsung, the big ‘OLED vs QLED’ debate is only just beginning.