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State of the TV 2021

Choose the Perfect TV 2021: Which Display Tech to Go for?

There may be only two, but it’s — needlessly — complicated. So here’s some help!

While televisions have progressed at an amazing rate during the last decade or so, making a choice between dozens of new models every year does not get any easier. In fact, the exact opposite. (Image: Samsung)

Every year millions of people decide to get a new TV for their home — not just for their living room anymore either — and every year more than a dozen different manufacturers bring out more than a hundred different TV models in total, making the choice between any one of those rather tricky. What’s more, it does not seem to get any easier: new tech jargon gets thrown around in marketing campaigns every year in the hopes of impressing consumers, in practice only confusing them further.

There must be an easier way to choose a good TV set — the perfect one for each and every consumer, even. Indeed there is! During the next 10 days this is exactly what 10 concise and to-the-point articles on the subject will help everyone do: learn what they need to know in order to make the best choice for their next television set.

So, first things first: TV screens. The kind of display technology any TV set’s screen is based on defines the expectations one can have of the picture quality delivered and the viewing conditions that should match that tech (and vice versa). The good news: there are only two mainstream display technologies to choose from in the market right now, LCD and OLED. The bad news: the first one has been around for so long and there are so many different brands of it, that some explaining is in order. The second one is much easier to define.

The dominant species: LCD and its variants

LCD TVs use liquid-crystal displays in order to produce images. The screen panel itself contains the pixels that make up the picture and those are displayed by using some form of backlighting. Most models used backlighting placed around the panel, which was simple but imprecise, hurting picture quality. Many entry-level LCD TVs still use this kind of backlighting and it is perfectly serviceable for typical use, as long as one does not have expectations of a high-quality picture, especially in modern (HDR) productions.

LED/LCD TVs can work without trouble in bright environments while OLED TVs can look dim in the same kind of setting. (Image: Samsung)

The need for better control of lighting up those pixels led to (sorry) LED TVs: these are LCD TVs still, but they feature backlighting coming from just behind the screen, not around it, allowing for more precise “dimming” (lighting of pixel groups on or off) in specific parts of the picture. This results in images of higher contrast and color saturation, capable of deeper blacks and brighter whites on the same scene or frame. The more “dimming zones” a LED TV employs behind the LCD screen, the brighter it can get and the better it can theoretically be in picture quality terms. Every very good TV that is not an OLED TV is an LED TV these days.

Manufacturers that want to achieve the highest possible picture quality with their top-end LED TVs either employ as many dimming zones as possible driven by specialized software algorithms or add their own supplementary technologies (or both). Samsung, for instance, adds a special “quantum dot” layer to the panel of its better models (called QLED TVs), improving color. In 2021 the best among those QLED TVs employ thousands of dimming zones created by an advanced backlighting system called MiniLED (so these specific models are called Neo-QLED). LG does something along the same lines this year, with as many or more MiniLED zones, only it’s calling its own models QNED TVs. Yeap. Not confusing at all, that one-letter difference!

The picture quality kings: OLED and its caveats

OLED TVs are simpler: their screens (made of organic material instead of liquid crystals) do not employ any backlighting system because their panels are made up of self-lit pixels. Not only can these be turned off completely (resulting in perfect blacks), but they can also be turned on or off extremely quickly (so their screens do not suffer from any display delays). OLED TVs can be viewed from any angle without loss of color saturation and, oh, they look beautiful to boot being so thin and all. On the other hand, OLED TVs don’t get very bright — probably bright enough but that’s subjective — and they need to be treated with care in order to avoid burn-in (the permanent presence of e.g. TV channel logos or other elements that stay on screen without moving for prolonged periods of time).

LED/LCD TVs have gotten much, much better over the years, but they still cannot offer the perfect blacks, extreme contrast or natural colors all OLED TVs are known for. (Image: Sony)

What do these display tech differences between LCD TVs and OLED TVs mean in practice? Going into much detail will complicate things a lot (there’ll be separate relevant articles in the next few days), so let’s keep it simple here. One: LCD TVs can get almost four times as bright as OLED TVs, which makes for a more spectacular picture in many circumstances. Two: OLED TVs will always offer the absolute contrast and accurate color that LCD TVs can’t match, which makes for a more cinematic picture. Three: LCD TVs are preferable for use in bright environments while OLED TVs excel when working in the dark or in light-controlled conditions. Four: OLED TVs are better for video games or in situations where more than a few people are sitting in front of the same set. Five: LCD TVs do not have the burn-in issue so they are a safer choice for TVs that stay on for many hours daily.

As for the all-important factor of retail pricing for both? That is, thankfully, the easiest way to compare these two television types. The cost of LED/LCD TVs depends on the type of backlighting as well as its size but they have been around for a long time, so there are cheap options, affordable options, reasonable options, expensive options and ultra-expensive options for everyone. OLED TVs, on the other hand, are not quite as costly as they used to be but, on the same diagonal as an LED/LCD TV, they remain considerably more expensive (especially in large sizes). The best LED/LCD TVs in large sizes also cost a pretty penny, though, because of all that advanced tech striving to offer an OLED-like picture without OLED-like compromises.

2021 LED/LCD TVs are closer than ever to OLED TVs in picture quality terms while remaining more affordable. Jumbo-size models remain expensive no matter what screen tech one goes for, though. (Image: Samsung)

Over the next nine days stories that follow this one will examine, one by one, matters such as TV screen size, viewing distance, resolution, Smart TV platforms, different use cases and more — so… stay tuned!

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Kostas Farkonas

Kostas Farkonas

Veteran journalist, project kickstarter, tech nut, cynical gamer, music addict, movie maniac | Medium top writer in Television, Movies, Gaming | farkonas.com