Are OLED TVs Taking Another Step Back?

Reports from Asia suggest that Sony and Samsung are putting less focus on OLED TVs. LG still bullish.

LG's Gallery OLED TV is currently shipping to retailers.

Last year both Samsung and LG (actually, LG was first) launched new OLED HDTVs. Those 55-inch curved OLED TVs, outrageously priced, but gorgeous to behold, seemed to be breakthrough products heralding a new age in TV picture quality and design.

The timing was almost perfect, because the leader in TV picture—Panasonic plasma—was only months away from officially withdrawing from the market, and OLED seemed poised to fill the void and then some.

And then CES happened in January, and the world was treated to more OLED TVs, including bendable models that flapped their wings like giant glowing stingrays.

Recently two separate news reports out of Asia seemed to throw cold water on our hot desire for these awesome TVs. “Sony has decided to put commercial development of OLED televisions on ice for now and instead focus on 4K ultrahigh-definition LCD TVs,” read an article on Nikkei. The report said that Sony was reassigning staff working on OLED to instead build more 4K Ultra HD TVs.

A day later a similar wet towel was toss at Samsung’s OLED plans. This, also from Nikkei: “Samsung Electronics has abandoned plans for a new facility to manufacture next-generation display panels for televisions, deterred by the inefficiency of production amid intense price competition in the TV market.”

The report didn’t actually say that Samsung was walking away from OLED, only that it was not going to invest in a planned larger plant to make them. The implication is that OLED is not going big time, at least not yet.

The Nikkei article blamed Samsung’s decision on inefficiencies in production. We’ve known for a while that the yield on OLED panels is low compared to LCD TVs—that’s one of the reasons OLED costs so much. However, last year both Samsung and LG made statements about yield improvement, and bold expectations about the future of this technology.

Sony, was a bit more cautious recently. The company showed no new OLED TVs at CES in January. Panasonic talked about OLED at CES (and had an awesome display at the booth), but put the technology’s focus on commercial applications, not consumer TVs.

A few days after the Nikkei article, Sony made a statement to What Hi Fi denying that the company was putting the breaks on OLED. “Sony continues developing and looking into reliable ways to mass produce OLED displays for consumers while continuing to build experience via providing OLED displays for professional, medical and broadcast use.”

When I asked Samsung about the report, the company offered a similar response. “We have been providing customers across the world with the best possible viewing experience through our industry-leading UHD, Curved, and OLED technologies. We will continue our investments and R&D in OLED TVs as according to market demands.” The Nikkei article stated that Samsung would release no new OLED TVs this year, and Samsung’s response to be didn’t address that question.

Samsung’s 2013 curved OLED TV.

The other major OLED maker, and in fact the first company to offer an OLED TVs of reasonable size is LG (Sony briefly sold a very very small one several years ago). I asked LG if they were having second thoughts about the OLED business. Tim Alessi, LG’s director of new product development said “We’re excited to expand our OLED line-up to include multiple new models this year. In fact we’ve already started shipping our EA8800 Gallery OLED series, which is available at retail currently. As the year progresses, we expect to add four more SKUs on the market, including even larger screen sizes and the first Ultra HD OLED models as well.”

Alessi went on to say that LG’s W-RGB format of OLED is better suited to large screen sizes than Samsung’s OLED technology. He also asked that we remember that in the early days of LCD TVs, panel yield was an issue, but the industry eventually overcame that challenge.

So will 2014 be a year of major OLED development? That depends on what manufacturer you talk to. One thing is sure, it doesn’t sound like LG is going to have much competition in the OLED TV market, which may also mean that the company will have little incentive to be price competitive. If you’ve got the only products on the market, you can charge whatever you feel like. In fact, when LG first introduced its 55-inch curved OLED last year, the product was priced at $15,000. When Samsung came out with a nearly identical model for $9,000, LG eventually dropped the price on its model.

If you’re an aficionado of picture quality, will you sit on your hands until OLED matures a little, or will you take home a big Ultra HD LED TV instead?

More about smart TVs here:
Understanding OLED TVs
Choosing a TV: What the Pros Look For


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