Are Curved OLED TVs a Big Deal?

LG and Samsung selling pricy curved OLED TVs. There must be something to this, right?

In July LG launched its 55EA9800 55-inch OLED TV through a few of Best Buy’s Magnolia stores. Unfortunately the two things about this TV that have received the most attention are, to me, the two least important things: the curved screen and the price.

I’ll discuss the price first.

The TV is $15,000. There’s no question that’s a lot of money. A very good front projection system, with a 100-inch screen, 1080p projector (like this one) and 7.1 surround system can be purchased and professionally installed for less money. In fact, for nearly everyone who wants a cool home theater room, that’s a much better option. But this TV isn’t for everyone.

RELATED: Samsung Launches Curved OLED TV for $9K

Related: LG’s 100-Screen and “Laser” TV Projection System Costs $9,000

New technology is always expensive. When standard definition plasma TVs first hit the market they were similarly priced (and looked terrible, by the way, but people still wanted them). Now you can get a decent-looking 50-inch plasma for about $800. Aside from Sony’s brief experiment a few years ago, this (along with the similar Samsung model) is the first living-room sized OLED TV available to consumers. That’s a big deal.

OLED TVs aren’t just a small progression the way LED LCDs were over CCFL LCDs. It’s even a bigger deal than 4K, which is just more pixels, but basically manufactured the same way they were before. An OLED panel is a completely different panel structure with some serious benefits. OLED TVs can produce incredibly dark blacks, blacker than plasma TVs. Since the TVs use an emissive technology, without a back light or liquid crystals, they can offer great viewing angles. OLEDs are also stunningly fast. If you think refresh rates of 240Hz are fast now, consider that LG says this TV is 10,000 times faster than a conventional LCD.

RELATED: Understanding OLED TVs

Of course with new technology come challenges. While it hasn’t been said, my guess is that one of the reasons LG chose to launch the TV through a limited number of Magnolia stores is that they don’t actually expect to sell many because they can’t make many.

Yield rates on OLED panels have been reported to be extremely low—perhaps as low as 30 percent. That means that seven out of every ten panels made have to be thrown out. That would contribute to the high price and the limited availability.

The LG model is meant to be a statement piece. Something that shouts out “Look what we can do.” Best Buy Magnolia showrooms make great exhibition spaces for those TVs because they provide lots of consumer exposure—more than independent stores can do. LG wants lots of people to see the TV and to think of LG when they think of cutting edge products. It’s a real product, but it’s also a branding play.

At the press conference LG’s James Fishler referenced a DisplaySearch study that stated worldwide sales of OLED TVs would reach 7 million by 2016 (one million in the US alone). What does that mean? It means that by then demand and yield will have increased significantly and prices will have dropped. That’s the way the system works. The first ones cost a bundle, but prices come down.

So what about that curved screen?

Geoff Morrison of CNET did a pretty good tear-down of the benefits of curved TVs, which you can read here, but the issue is actually a lot less complicated than that. Here’s bullet point message:

The curve isn’t about picture quality; it’s about style.

That’s basically it.

At this week’s LG press conference I sat down with LG’s director of new product development Tim Alessi and he said essentially that. While LG’s engineers spent a lot of time coming up with exactly the perfect curve for the TV, the main purpose of it isn’t to give you a better view of the picture, it’s so the TV looks cool.

“We thought that since this [OLED] is such a big technology breakthrough we should combine it with a design breakthrough as well,” says Alessi.

In case you hadn’t noticed, all TVs look pretty much the same. Some are thinner. Some have wider bezels, some have speakers that are visible and some hide the speakers, but other than that, they’re all just big, flat, black rectangles.

This TVs says they don’t have to be.

LG wouldn’t reveal the degree of the curve, but it appeared, when I was up close to it at the Richfield, Minn. Magnolia store for the launch, to be less pronounced than the samples shown in January at the Consumer Electronics Show. The curve is slight, so slight that it’s really not very noticeable when you’re looking at the picture and not the device.

Because the technology is self-emitting, off-axis viewing is excellent—the best I’ve seen on a TV. If the curve was done to an LED TV, then it would impact the off-axis in a big way for viewers standing to the side of the TV, but I noticed no discernible image degradation no matter what position I was in. Sure, you could stand so far to the side that the curve actually cuts off a portion of the image, but your viewing room shouldn’t be arranged like that in the first place. From any normal viewing distance, the curve does not degrade the picture.

Of course, it doesn’t improve it either.

To make that curve meaningful from an image standpoint, the screen would have to be a lot bigger—IMAX bigger—otherwise it creates a sweet spot for only one person.

So with the big price and the small curve, who is this TV for? Have you heard the term prestige car? A Bentley or Porsche is a prestige car. They’re expensive, include high-performance features that most people won’t appreciate and are available in limited quantities. That’s this TV, and that’s why it’s curved. It’s different. It gets attention.

The few people who buy this model will buy it because it’s the latest, greatest, and looks really dazzling, even when turned off. Standard, flat screen OLEDs will follow. Over the next few years they’ll also get cheaper, probably come in a wide range of sizes, and be the videophile’s choice for HD (or eventually UHD) TVs. For now, let’s just enjoy the spectacle and stop freaking out.

More photos of LG’s 55EA9800 curved OLED TV here.

More helpful HDTV articles:
The Case for Dumb TVs
Samsung and Panasonic Top HDTV Shootout
Choosing a TV: What the Pros Look For

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