What is OLED? | Tom’s Guide

In the land of high-end displays, OLED – or organic light-emitting diode – technology is considered the pinnacle of picture quality.

Just look at a recent phone like the iPhone 13 Pro Max and it’s easy to see why. From impressive color saturation and ultra-wide viewing angles to perfect blacks, OLED displays make most regular LCDs look jaded.

(Image credit: Samsung)

The latest trend is for bigger and better OLED displays, which have found their way into everything from the best OLED TVs to laptops and smartwatches. And OLED displays make the best phones look better than ever.

But what makes it stand out from OLED and what can compete with it?

What is OLED and how does it work?

OLED technology contrasts sharply with LCD and plasma screens. Unlike other screen technologies, OLED screens use organic compounds that include carbon and other ingredients to create colors. Each color shown on the screen has a different mix of carbon and other elements.

Illustration: Sony

When you turn on your TV or smartphone, the electricity activates the OLEDs inside your screen, which turn on or off depending on what the picture calls for.

OLED does not require backlighting, it is considered an emissive technology. This singular feature – the ability for OLEDs to turn off completely – creates what are known as true blacks.

When an image calls for black, an OLED turns off and creates true black. In contrast, LCD panels, such as those found on most flat-screen TVs, require LED backlighting, which means black areas of the screen will always show some degree of light.

LG's Signature W7 TV is only 0.15 inches thick.  Credit: LG

(Image credit: LG’s Signature W7 TV is only 0.15 inches thick. Credit: LG)

Since OLEDs don’t require that extra layer of LEDs, manufacturers can make the panels very thin and easily bendable, allowing the technology to be used for both wafer-type displays, such as the LG W7 TV. “Wallpaper”, and curved screens, like the Samsung Galaxy S8.

How does OLED compare to other technologies?

Because they don’t require a backlight, OLED panels can be much thinner than other display technologies. After years of waiting, LG has finally brought its incredible roll-up OLED TV to the market. The display uses an ultra-thin OLED display printed on flexible glass, letting it roll up for storage when not in use. No other screen technology can benefit from flexible glass panels in the same way.

The thinness of the OLED panels allows the technology to be used for curved and even folding screens, as seen in the best foldable phones.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

However, OLED displays present certain challenges to the companies that produce them. In fact, only a handful of companies, including LG Display and Samsung Display, currently manufacture OLEDs.

OLED panels are generally fragile, and production methods are far from perfect. Even though Apple is relying on Samsung’s OLED displays for its current iPhones, it has been reported that the company is investing heavily in microLED technology as an alternative to OLED displays in its phones and portable devices.

As manufacturing increases and yields improve, these challenges have driven prices up. If you’re looking to buy an OLED-equipped device, expect to shell out a lot of money.

LG G1 OLED review

(Image credit: LG)

On the image side, you can expect OLEDs to give you better blacks than any other screen tech. And at least so far, OLEDs have proven to deliver exceptional color accuracy. However, OLED panels cannot emit as much light as LCD screens, making them more difficult to see in a brighter environment.

Older OLED TVs had input lag issues, making it more difficult for them to refresh the screen in time for fast-paced action sports or video games. That, in turn, meant gamers and sports fans alike would find a better solution with technology like plasma.

However, LG has made some improvements to the input lag performance of its TVs, and the technology is quickly catching up to its competition.

Finally, if you plan to place your TV in a room where some people aren’t sitting right in front of it, consider an OLED. It has the best viewing angles of any screen technology in the television industry.

For a closer look at how OLED TVs stack up against other tech, find out how many OLED models made it on our list of the best TVs. And you can learn about OLED and new advancements in OLED technology in our LG OLED vs. OLED evo: Which TV should you buy? or Micro-LED vs. OLED TV: which TV technology will win?

What devices have OLED screens?

On the TV side, LG and Sony are among the biggest companies offering OLED TVs. LG, for example, sells a host of OLED sets that vary in screen size and price. From the ultra-thin LG G1 OLED TV to the stunning new roll-up TV, LG TVs use OLED to push the concept of what makes a TV further than ever before. And there are even affordable OLED options, like the Vizio OLED TV, which sometimes sells for under $ 1,000.

Vizio OLED TV (OLED55-H1)

(Image credit: Vizio)

Sony, meanwhile, offers the Bravia XR A80J OLED, which won an Editor’s Choice award for its stunning picture quality, and retails for just $ 1,799. It’s not even Sony’s best OLED TV.

Beyond that, there are several phones and other mobile devices that offer OLED displays. Flagship phones like the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and Google Pixel 5a all come with OLED displays.

best smartwatch

(Image credit: Avenir)

In the wearable market, several devices are equipped with OLED displays, including the Apple Watch Series 6, Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, and Fitbit Sense.

Dell XPS 15 OLED review

(Image credit: Avenir)

On the laptop side, OLED displays have appeared on gaming laptops like the Alienware m15 R4 and Razer Blade 15, as well as productivity-focused laptops like the Dell XPS 15 OLED (2021).

If you’re in the market for an OLED monitor, take a look at the Asus ProArt PQ22UC.

What should I expect from an OLED image?

We haven’t tested all OLED displays, so it’s impossible to say that you will get a fantastic viewing experience every time. But in some of those high-end TVs and handsets we’ve tested, the OLED displays deliver great images.

With OLED, you can expect pure black because OLEDs turn off whenever they need to create color. OLEDs aren’t as bright as the best LCD sets, but OLEDs are generally very bright for most users.

OLED viewing angles should be exceptional, allowing you to place an OLED TV anywhere in the house while still enjoying an engaging viewing experience. In fact, OLEDs currently have the best viewing angles of any screen technology.

All OLED TVs have 4K resolution and high dynamic range, or HDR, to improve color accuracy. These technologies, along with the inherent functionality of OLED, work together to create compelling images.

MORE: Here’s where you can get HDR content on your phone or TV

But this superior tech doesn’t come cheap: expect to shell out some cash for OLED devices. As noted, OLED TVs cost thousands of dollars more than regular LCD screens. And at least for now, there’s no sign that OLED TV prices will drop anytime soon.

Should I buy an OLED device?

If you have the cash and don’t mind spending a lot of money to get a high-end display in a new device, choosing an OLED product makes sense. Phones with OLEDs are a no-brainer, if you don’t mind paying a premium.

OLEDs offer device manufacturers more flexibility, allowing them to create more compelling product designs, while delivering unmatched image quality. And because OLED displays are often one of the best looking options out there, the visual experience they provide is generally exceptional.

Still, if price is a factor in your decision making, OLED devices might not be for you. There are a plethora of devices with LED and LCD displays that can come close to the visual experience you would get in an OLED display. For example, Samsung is investing heavily in quantum dot technology, which has some advantages over OLED, especially in terms of brightness.

Overall, however, OLED is a great tech that most users would be happy to have in their devices.

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