Just when we thought TV screen technologies had plateaued, 2018 saw a new technology introduced: Micro LED. It's not a completely brand new technology, but it's now being championed by Samsung (while LG has also demonstrated it) so is expected to take off over the next few years. At CES 2019, Samsung confirmed that it's going to be a consumer proposition in 2020.
But with LCD, OLED and Samsung's own QLED TVs already on the market, what new features does Micro LED bring and should the competition be worried? Let us explain all.
What is Micro LED?
Micro LED is a flat-panel display technology first developed by professors Hongxing Jiang and Jingyu Lin of Texas Tech University while they were at Kansas State University in 2000.
As the name implies, Micro LED displays comprise several microscopic LEDs, which self-illuminate per display pixel - just like an OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) panel would, only Micro LED uses inorganic material. This brings the benefit of ultra-low black levels, just like OLED, but with higher peak brightness.
"But I already have an LED set," we hear you say. You probably do. But it's actually an LCD panel with LED-based back or edge illumination. Micro LED doesn't require this separate backlighting, which means darker blacks and brighter whites, while negating light bleed associated with current LED-lit tellies.
LG, Panasonic, Philips and Sony are currently the only manufacturers producing OLED TVs, something that Samsung hasn't got behind. With Micro LED, however, it doesn't need to - this could be the flagship tech to outshine its OLED competition.
How does Micro LED work?
Micro LED has some similarities to OLED. With OLED, each pixel is its own light source, being able to turn on or off as required, providing incredible contrast and no light bleed on surrounding pixels. If an OLED pixel is off, then it's black. It's not just a darker shade of black, it's off and there's no light. Micro LED achieves exactly the same results as it also has self-illuminating pixels.
However, while OLED panels are improving, their peak brightness levels are limited compared to current LED (especially Samsung's QLED panels). Brightness not only determines how good a picture is, but it's a major factor in the effectiveness of HDR (High Dynamic Range) content. Micro LED can illuminate far brighter than OLED, with a contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1. That's up to 30 times brighter than comparable OLED TVs.
This is thanks to the inorganic material used (gallium nitride), which enables the individual RGB LED sources to go brighter - and for longer. If an OLED panel is too bright for too long, its organic material diminishes. That's not as big an issue with inorganic material, which has a longer overall lifespan.
The peak brightness of The Wall 2019 is 2000 nits.
When can I get a Micro LED TV?
Samsung unveiled its first Micro LED TV at CES 2018, the 146-inch "The Wall" 4K TV. This was followed by a commercial launch of The Wall Professional - designed for industrial installations.
However, Samsung says that you'll be able to get a Micro LED TV in 2020 and it has produced a 75-inch 4K version, hitting the sweet spot for many home cinema fans.
LG also previewed its own 175-inch Micro LED TV at IFA 2018, which you can see here - but there's no word on whether you'll be able to buy it.
What's this modular stuff about?
The reason Samsung originally showed off The Wall at CES was simply to show that it can. Trumping the 146-inch version, in 2019, Samsung showed off a 219-inch version.
Micro LED is a modular technology - meaning panels are made up of a series of smaller ones, "knitted together" to make one larger whole. That also means you can have creative customisation, able to install a MicroLED TV to suit the customer requirements, whether that's 21:9, 16:9 or whatever - it's a very flexible solution.
You can also have a Micro LED TV in sizes that are irregular, with Samsung saying that upscaling and processing to make surer the delivery of the images remain sharp.
Is Micro LED it the future?
On the face of it, Micro LED has the potential to take on and outperform OLED. The same black levels but with greater brightness, lower power consumption and longer life-span is all hugely appealing to home cinema enthusiasts.
The problem, we suspect, is manufacturing costs. We expect the price tags for such TVs will be wince-inducing when they first hit the shelves. But as manufacturer investment goes up, who knows, Micro LED could spell the death of OLED. It's very impressive indeed.