Just when we thought TV screen technologies had plateaued, CES 2018 introduced a new one: MicroLED. It's not a totally brand new technology, but it's now being championed by Samsung - Apple has shown an interest too - so is expected to take off in a big way over the next few years.
But with LCD, OLED and Samsung's own QLED TVs already on the market, what new features does MicroLED bring and should the competition be worried? Let us explain all.
What is MicroLED?
MicroLED 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, MicroLED displays comprise several microscopic LEDs, which self-illuminate per display pixel - just like an OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) panel would, only MicroLED uses inorganic material. This brings the benefit of ultra-low black levels, just like OLED, but with higher peak brightness.
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"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. MicroLED 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 MicroLED, however, it doesn't need to; this could be the flagship tech to outshine its OLED competition.
How does MicroLED work?
MicroLED 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 it's pure black. MicroLED 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. MicroLED 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.
When can I get a MicroLED TV?
Samsung unveiled its first MicroLED TV at CES 2018, the 146-inch "The Wall" 4K TV.
It's highly unlikely you'll have the space, or the money, to buy Samsung's new screen - which it says will go on sale later in 2018 - but the company hasn't said when we can expect to see "real-world" sizes on store shelves.
Reading between the lines, however, we would expect the tech to trickle into the market at more home-friendly sizes come 2019.
What's this modular stuff about?
The reason Samsung showed off The Wall at CES was simply to show that it can. Making a 146-inch OLED TV would be tricky, as the fail rate at large scale for that technology has taken makers a long time to conquer. MicroLED, on the other hand, is a modular technology - meaning panels are made up of a series of smaller ones, "knitted together" to make one larger whole.
It's still unclear what starting size MicroLED TVs will come in at, though. LED pixels themselves have to be a certain size, which means a minimum screen size restriction for a 4K resolution, for example. With MicroLED, however, the LEDs themselves are smaller - sub-1mm, whereas LED is marginally above 1mm - so it should be possible to see 55-inch MicroLED tellies in the future, not just huge panels like The Wall. Which is good news all round.
Is MicroLED it the future?
On the face of it, MicroLED 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, MicroLED could spell the death of OLED. It's very impressive indeed.