Kevin Hunt - The Electronic Jungle
The Electronic Jungle
3:38 PM EDT, September 23, 2013
The world's first OLED television, Sony's XEL-1, was a low-resolution model with an 11-inch screen that cost $2,500 when it arrived several years ago.
At that size and price, it didn't make the wish list of many Black Friday shoppers that year. Yet the OLED set's extreme thinness (3 millimeters) and uncanny picture quality — even at less-than-HD resolution on a tiny screen — were quickly pronounced the future of television technology.
If only the developers could adapt it to America's big-screen tastes. Finally, they have. LG and Samsung each recently released 55-inch models with stunning picture quality, otherworldly design and eye-popping (make that in 3-D) prices: LG's 55EM9800 at $14,999 and Samsung's KN55S9C at $8,999.99.
A Tesla Model S electric car costs up to $100,000, and a round-trip ticket into space on Virgin Galactic costs $250,000 (not including baggage fees). So who's complaining?
"Actually," says Jim Willcox, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who has one of the first in-depth reviews of the Samsung set in the magazine's October issue, "I was surprised it wasn't even more expensive, especially since LG came into the market at $15,000."
Willcox's takeaway from a technical analysis of the Samsung OLED: This technology, at least in the Samsung set, combines the best qualities of LED/LCD and plasma. It has LCD's brightness, plasma's deep black levels, high contrast levels, exceptional detail, wide viewing angles and unmatched 3-D performance.
"It's clearly the best TV we've tested in a variety of ways," he says.
The two 1080p OLED sets will find a place in HDTV history, though at these prices not in many homes. Willcox remembers testing a Pioneer Kuro plasma set, a longtime benchmark for black level and overall picture quality that arrived in the marketplace several years ago at $5,500 for a 50-inch, 720p screen.
"Every new technology has its challenges," Willcox says. "The best one for OLED right now is just manufacturing. We expect as manufacturing gets better — we've seen yields in maybe the 30 percent range, where out of every 10 TVs only three are ready to be sold — the yields will get better."
The OLED sets look different than any plasma or LCD HDTV, even unplugged. Both LG and Samsung produced a gently curved screen, bowed at the top and bottom. (Each screen is less than half an inch thick.)
"They're bringing very expensive televisions into the marketplace," Willcox says, "so beyond whatever they're saying about it creating a more immersive experience, it does help to differentiate these TVs in a consumer's mind. These TVs look different."
The screen shape creates a viewing sweet spot for maybe two or three people on a couch, but Willcox says off-axis viewing is better than with LCD screens, which appear washed out when viewed from sharper angles.
"If you're not a TV reviewer," Willcox says, "you might not notice, but there was some slight geometric distortion. We're talking about a marginal difference that most people aren't going to notice. So if you go extreme off axis, you might notice some geometric distortion."
Willcox says he spotted only one other minor fault with the Samsung OLED set: some motion blur, similar to an LCD set. But Samsung installed a Clear Motion mode that inserts black frames between live frames, eliminating the blurred effect.
"It's the way that your eye perceives motion temporally," Willcox says. "Inserting a black frame between certain frames just makes it a little easier on your brain to see clearer images vs. blurred ones."
That's it for OLED's flaws. Willcox calls this technology a game-changer that needs only time to develop manufacturing efficiencies.
"It's going to be a couple years before OLED becomes a mainstream product," he says. "What we're doing is getting a glimpse of what TV technology can look like right now."
How they work
LED (Light-Emitting Diodes): A liquid-crystal display, or LCD, creates images by directing LED backlighting through red, green and blue color filters.
Plasma: Cells of electrically charged ionized gases excite red, green and blue phosphors.
OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diodes): A film of organic material between two electrodes emits light when electric current is applied, illuminating the pixel's red, green and blue subpixels.
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