Is OLED dead? The great hope for TV tech is fading fast

Production problems and high prices are holding OLED back

Is OLED dead

A banner reading "OLED: The future of TV" hung beneath a stunning display of seven 77-inch curved TVs on LG's stand at last week's IFA 2014 exhibition in Berlin.

It's not the first time we've seen those words - they've been paraded around trade shows for over a decade - but could it be the last?

It sounds like marketing hype, but there are some good reasons why OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) has long been promoted as being the next, and best ever, TV tech.

Just 4mm in depth, OLED's self-lighting pixels achieve brilliant, precise colours, infinite contrast with deep, convincing black, and utterly smooth, judder and blur-free fast-moving images. It routinely makes LED TVs look awful.

But aside from LG's trumping of OLED technology, there was precious little else on show at Berlin's recent IFA 2014 exhibition from the major manufacturers. Development of big screen TVs using the "new" tech appears to have ground to a halt.

Once rosy prospects

Until last week you could be forgiven for thinking that OLED's future was rosy indeed - and we're not just talking about its lusciously vivid colours. LG has been selling its 55-inch 55EA980W for the last few months, and at January's CES in Las Vegas we witnessed a curved, bendable OLED among others.

Is OLED dead
LG believes that OLED has a chance as long as it's both 4k and curved

On simple OLED economics, LG is very clearly in the lead: the 55EA980W sells for £2,999 and is widely available, while Samsung's sole "true RGB OLED" TV, the curved and Full HD 55-inch KE55S9C, cost around £7,000 when it launched in the UK last October.

Not surprisingly, it's no longer for sale. The reason for this schism in price is that LG's four-colour WRGB technology (which adds a white sub-pixel to the usual red, green and blue mix) and pixel-dimming system has led to OLED panels that are far easier to manufacture than Samsung's RGB technology, which has been difficult to commercialise.

With both of the giant-sized OLED TVs to go on sale so far fitted only with Full HD resolutions, the technology isn't part of the Ultra HD 4k parade - and until it is, OLED can't compete.

From the 77-inch, 65-inch and (perhaps) 55-inch evidence from IFA 2014, it looks like LG is good to go with next-gen 4k OLED TVs. However, why it insists that a 4mm TV - the first TV that's truly ideal for hanging on a wall - needs a curve is completely beyond us.

Samsung steps back

Last spring, Samsung apparently decided not to pursue OLED, drastically cutting its investment in the technology.

"OLED panel production is still very difficult," says Paul Gagnon, an analyst at NPD DisplaySearch. "Samsung has pulled back from large-format OLED - though it's still very much in the small OLED market - but LG continues to press forward, and is the only brand to have ramped up commercial production of large OLED displays."

He point out that other brands are still in a development phase.

Is OLED dead
Samsung kept OLED in the shadows at IFA 2014

At IFA 2014 Samsung did show off some OLED TVs (specifically a flat Full HD and a curved 55-inch Ultra HD 4k OLED TV), but with zero fanfare.

The huge area was dominated by a 105-inch Ultra HD 4k LED TV with a motorised curve, no less, with old OLED pushed into the furthest corner. Back there Samsung presented a 55-inch OLED and two examples of Samsung's Full HD OLED TVs, both former stars of the CES 2014 and CES 2013, respectively. They received zero attention.

"OLED production processes still suffer from low yields, which greatly increases the price of the panels," says Gagnon. "Although LG has been able to improve the production yields of the panels with its white OLED (white OLED light over a red, green, blue and white colour filter) the prices to produce the panels are still significantly higher than comparable LCDs."

Is OLED dead
Sony at IFA 2014: wot no OLED?

Panasonic went one better by at least trying to signal its continuing interest in OLED, though its we're-not-telling-you-how-big-it-is display of three 60-inch-ish OLED TV prototypes didn't look all that serious.

Sony (briefly Panasonic's OLED development partner in a project that was cancelled last year before a ball was kicked) has no OLED TVs whatsoever, and appears to be focused only on Ultra HD 4k LED TVs.

Waiting and watching

Nor did Toshiba show any OLED TVs at IFA 2014, though its stance is illuminating since it sources all panels for its TVs from other companies. "We're not creating the panel at all, so we're always waiting for the great picture quality," says Tatsuhiro Nishioka, Senior Manager, Global Marketing, Visual Solutions at Toshiba.

"We'll use the best panel possible, but OLED still has a quality problem for the large scale screen size, which is why, I guess, that Samsung is stopping production. Sony and Panasonic were showing off their OELD panel at the last CES, but not since. They know they are struggling with the production quality, but when those things are cleared up we'll use the best panel - we're waiting and watching on OLED."

Is OLED dead
Could LG's OLED push create a repeat of its passive 3D success?

However, Nishioka thinks OLED has a future. "OLED is a very sensitive display, with wide colour gamut, very bright images and a super-great black level. I personally love it, especially for 4k - it's ideal - but it's a very very high technology, and its production is really really hard. The problem is bringing the price down to a reasonable level and having an acceptably long life display. While they're struggling about OLED, the LED technologies are getting better and better," he says.

Until that happens, Toshiba et al are hoping that LED technology keeps on progressing, but Nishioka isn't the only hopeful voice for OLED.

"Most would agree that OLED produces a substantially better picture than LCD, and with plasma fading from the market, there is an opportunity for another display technology to emerge for the video enthusiasts who are passionate about picture quality," says Gagnon.

"For OLED to emerge as a significant technology in the high-end TV market, and later the mainstream, it needs to come down in price to a level comparable with the best LCD TVs."

With a 4mm depth and truly awesome picture quality, OLED just has to succeed. Plasma TV production was stopped by Panasonic, and LG and Samsung won't be continuing with the technology for much longer, largely because plasma TVs aren't slim enough and their reputation for superior picture image quality was about to be eaten up by the super-slim, super-back OLED.

So, we don't just want OLED, we need it.

By making its OLED tech economically viable LG might already have put itself into a position where its next-gen TVs are streets ahead of every other brands', but this is a market where a palatable price is all-important.

If it can get the price of a 55-inch 4k OLED TV down, a repeat of its success with its passive/polarised 3D technology looks on the cards, but on a much grander scale. Just drop the curve please.

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