Shedding Light on OLED Displays
What exactly are "organic light-emitting diodes," who's making them, and what challenges does this new technology face?
Sony XEL-1
Sony XEL-1’s 11-inch screen is a mere 3 mm thick and features a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio.
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March 11, 2008 by Scott Wasser

Crowds are as common at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as dirty faces are at an elementary school ice cream party. The same goes for shoving and line-cutting. But the elbowing and jockeying for prime position that took place at Sony’s massive display during the 2007 show exceeded the norm.

All of the jostling at a show that for several consecutive years had championed a “bigger-is-better” approach was to get a glimpse of a tiny Sony television. But this one was special. It was a TV whose 11-inch display used OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology; a set that wound up being a prototype of a model whose sales launch Sony announced a year later at CES 2008.

The excitement over Sony’s OLED TV, now officially called the XEL-1, makes sense once you see it. The display is a marvel – both for its diminutive physical dimensions and the picture it displays. Ignoring its elegant and appropriately futuristic stand, the display itself is just 3 mm (just over one-tenth inch) thick. By contrast, Vizio’s recently discontinued 13-inch LCD TV is 2.5 inches thick. The difference between the Sony XEL-1’s picture quality and conventional LCD displays is equally dramatic, thanks to its 1million:1 contrast ratio, extensive color spectrum, and nearly limitless viewing angle.

Sony deserves kudos for being the first to market with an OLED TV. But the inherent advantages of OLED technology ensure it won’t be the last. Samsung already has demonstrated a 40-inch OLED TV. And although they haven’t publicly announced it, you can be sure other manufacturers are working feverishly to get OLED televisions into production.

That’s because the advantages of OLED compared to other commonly used television technology – particularly the most popular one, LCD – can be striking. But like any new technology, manufacturers face a formidable challenge of making OLED technology affordable for it to become commonplace. For example, Samsung, generally considered the largest TV maker in the world, is on record as saying it won’t put OLED sets into production until they can be sold for around the same price as TVs based on other technologies. Sony, on the other hand, obviously believes that there are at least some consumers willing to pay a premium—$2,500 for its 11-incher, which is more than the street price of some very good 55-inch plasma models – to have the latest and greatest TV technology.

And there’s little doubt that OLED is the latest and greatest current display technology available. So much so that if production costs become competitive and no other viable technology emerges, every TV made a few years from now could be OLED. Here’s why:

Better Picture
OLED displays offer higher contrast, brighter images, wider color spectrum, and better viewing angles than LCD displays. Other than that, they’re nothing special. Kidding aside, the OLED technology edge comes from its design technology (see sidebar). Unlike LCD displays, which require an always-on backlight and create black by partially obscuring that light, the pixels that make up an OLED display are naturally black. That leads to remarkable contrast by today’s TV standards. The brighter images and broader color spectrum (around 16 million colors versus 260,000 for a typical LCD, according to Kodak) are characteristics of the technology. So is OLED’s 178-degree viewing angle, which means its picture looks great from anywhere in front of the display. And OLEDs will be unbeatable when it comes to reproducing rapid motion because their pixel response time is virtually instantaneous. By contrast, the fastest LCD TV refresh rates are typically around six milliseconds. 

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