OLED vs QLED: the battle of the TV tech titans

It's like plasma Vs LCD all over again. From nowhere a year ago, Samsung's QLED TVs are suddenly everywhere. 

But does QLED represent the current peak of TV technology – as many people appear to think – or does it just get more of an advertising push? Is OLED technology – supported by almost all other TV brands – the real deal? 

If you hate acronyms and having to choose between their meaningless-ness, this is what you need to know about both TV technologies – what they are, how they differ, and which brands support them. 

Samsung has been aggressively promoting its QLED brand

What is OLED?

OLED Pros and Cons

Pros:
Lighter and thinner (2.57mm)
Self-lighting pixels
More convincing blacks
Faster refresh rate (0.001ms)
Judder and blur-free 

Cons:
Only found in three screen sizes: 55, 65 & 77-inch
Muted brightness (1,000nits)
Expensive

The battle between QLED and OLED is best summarised in one sentence: QLED is a mis-termed tweak of existing LCD technology, while OLED is a completely different technology. The key phrase is 'self-emissive'. OLED – which stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode – uses a carbon-based film between two conductors that emits its own light when an electric current is passed through.

Since the pixels themselves are producing the light, when they need to be black they are switched-off completely. That means no chunky LCD backlight, remarkably realistic blacks,  so-called 'infinite' contrast,  lightning-quick refresh rates and a muted brightness ideal for movies. Watching an OLED TV for the first time will give you that rare feeling of having just witnessed something really very special. 

Sony has embraced OLED

What is QLED?

QLED Pros and Cons

Pros: 
Brilliant whites
Ultra-bright (1,500nits)
Variety of screen sizes between 49-88-inch

Cons:
Not as slim (25.4mm)
Overly bright
Less convincing blacks
Slower refresh rate

In a lot of ways, QLED is meaningless marketing. Until last year Samsung called its flagship TVs SUHD, but that didn't fly, so it's now called them QLED. Yes, it sounds very, very similar to OLED, which suggests either a decision to muddy the minds of the TV buying public, or an inferiority complex. Or both. In fact, QLED – which stands for Quantum-dot Light Emitting Diode – is very different to OLED. 

The weirdest thing is that QLED TVs are not QLED TVs. A QLED TV should be just like an OLED TV in having a panel that's self-emissive, so that it can switch individual pixels on and off. Samsung's QLED TVs can't do that, and in fact just put a quantum dot colour filter in front of an LCD backlight. It's premature to call them QLED, and they should really be called QDCL-LEDs.  Thankfully, not even the acronym-riddled TV industry could live with that. 

The inorganic quantum dot light-emitting diodes in a QLED panel do not emit their own light, but instead are illuminated by a backlight, just like any LCD TV. That's why they're not a thin as OLED TVs. 

So, really, it's not a next-gen display technology at all, just a tweak to LCD TV tech. However, that doesn't mean it's not impressive – it really is very good. 

Which brands support OLED & QLED?

"More than 10 brands, from a variety of countries and backgrounds showed OLED sets at IFA 2017," says David Tett, Market Analyst at Futuresource Consulting. "However, QLED was only on display by three vendors." The battle between OLED and QLED is a story about branding, and it's also about a South Korean rivalry. Every single OLED panel found inside every single OLED TV is made by LG Displays, and every single QLED panel is made by Samsung. 

Team OLED: 

Most TV brands are lining-up behind OLED, believing it to be the superior technology for picture quality. It's hard to disagree, but despite LG, Sony, Panasonic, TP-Vision (under the Philips brand in the UK), Loewe, Bang & Olufsen, Skyworth, and ChangHong all now selling OLED TVs, they do tend to be very expensive. The maker LG Display just can't produce enough OLED panels fast enough to bring them in at a lower cost, which is making OLED TVs seem like a top-tier premium TV technology only. 

Team QLED: 

Samsung abandoned its efforts to make OLED TVs in 2014 due to low production yields, and in 2017 has been talking about QLED. It's trying to popularise the technology by getting other companies involved. 

Though the brands behind QLED are fewer, they're quickly getting Unionised. "Samsung, Hisense and TCL formed the QLED Alliance in April 2017 to work together to progress QLED development and fight the increasing use of OLED panels in TV sets," says Tett. 

The QLED Alliance is mostly about trying to shift more TVs in China, the world’s biggest TV market. 

Panasonic now sells four OLED TVs

Should I buy a QLED TV or an OLED TV? 

If you're after a high-end 55-inch TV, buy an OLED TV, since both technologies are the same price at that size. However, if you have something else on your mind – a smaller screen size and/or smaller budget to play with – it's more complicated that that. 

Since LG Displays makes all OLEDs and Samsung all QLEDs, you might think that it's possible to draw grand conclusions about which tech is better with – for example – games, and which is better with movies. That's not the case. As with all consumer electronics products, it depends on (a) how much you spend, and (b) which brand you opt for. Samsung's flagship QLED TV is the QE65Q9F, while LG's Signature OLED77W7P best extol's OLED's virtues. Check out our reviews of these two sets if you want to see the best both technologies have to offer. 

The future for OLED & 'true' QLED

If you are after the very best in picture quality, the advice is simple; buy an OLED TV. However, it's a close run thing, and besides, that situation may not last for long because so-called QLED TVs may soon ditch the LCD backlight to actually become QLED technology proper … and therefore catch-up with OLED. Cue 'true' QLED. 

"True QLED sets are self-emissive, as with OLED sets, and are not yet in the market, but are anticipated to be so in the coming years," says Tett. "When it is released it is expected to provide the strongest challenge to OLED yet, as it brings many of the same benefits as OLED, with few potential drawbacks." 

So-called 'true' QLED TVs that are self-emitting are rumoured to be incoming from Samsung in 2019. As well as being self-emissive – so as capable as OLED TVs at switching pixels on and off individually – 'true' QLED TVs should retain their brightness advantage.

If the future is bright for QLED, those behind OLED panels are hoping that one of the technology's native characteristics, flexibility, wins the day. "OLED sets can offer new audio solutions that see the panel vibrate to create sound and could also offer new form factors, both due to their flexible nature of the panel," says Tett. 

For now it's OLED that takes the crown for the best – and most expensive – TV tech around, but unless LG Display can massively increase its production rate and create more screen sizes, the immediate future of the mainstream TV could still belong to QLED. 

  • For our top TV recommendations, check out our guide to the best 4K TVs