Earlier this week, LG proudly announced that it will be showing off "the future of TV technology," in "the world's largest OLED HDTV" at the company's CES booth.
Uh-huh. And Karolina Kurkova has promised me a date.
First, what's all the OLED hubbub, bub? I've been seeing OLED sets at CES for years, in ever increasing sizes (last year's largest was a 31-incher, also from LG; the year before, at CES 2010, Sony and Samsung showed 3D OLEDs), each with accompanying "coming soon" and "future of TV" pronunciations.
All right already, when's this OLED HDTV future coming? Sometime between Congress paying off the national debt and the Cubs winning the World Series?
I guess OLED could be 3D and 4k2k, so all three predictions might be correct, but even LG is showing each as separate CES booth attractions. Not even Criswell would be nutty enough to wander so far out on the HDTV prognostication limb. Grave robbers from outer space — far more likely.
And and — OLED is LED, right? Don't we have LED HDTVs already?
Well, no. I'll explain.
Everything OLED Is New Again
OLED stands for "organic light emitting diode." You've heard of LED, like the expensive replacement for incandescent light bulbs, right? Same basic technology.
But it's not the same thing as current so-called LED HDTVs.
The current LED HDTVs you may confuse OLED ones with aren't LED HDTVs. They are LCD HDTVs that use LED backlighting to illuminate the liquid crystal panel (the "LC" in LCD), sort of how a movie projector shoots a stream of light through film so you can see the images.
But to make LCD with LED backlighting sound extra sexy, HDTV makers started calling them LED HDTVs, as if they were something different than LCD. They're not, but now I have to spend a good portion of my TV-buying-advice-giving day explaining to mom and pop America that LED is really LCD.
Thanks a lot, guys.
OLED is completely different. The lab coat-wearing crew has somehow managed to combine the color creating and the backlighting aspects of LED into a single, thin sheet. (Wikipedia's phantom scribes offer a more detailed, technical explanation that is a bit more technically specific, if you're interested.) OLED is so thin that LG's 55-inch HDTV measures a silly 4mm thin — that's about the width of a #2 pencil — and weighs just 16.5 pounds, a third of a normal LCD 55-inch HDTV.
The promise of OLED is a sheet so thin and flexible that maybe, one day, you may be able to roll up and carry an OLED HDTV like a yoga mat. Maybe even a 4k2k yoga mat.
What's Wrong With OLED
I got a laugh out of a recent piece on Forbes entitled "There's Just One Problem With the New LG OLED TV". The piece outlines how LG's four-color technology (adding white to the usual red, green and blue) is incompatible with nearly every extant video format.
No whites in current video sources? That's OLED's only problem? That's not even in my top five.
First off, as far as LG's announcement is concerned, the 55-inch may technically be the world's largest, but it's actually tied. A month ago, Samsung announced with far less fanfare that it, too, would be exhibiting a 55-inch OLED HDTV at CES.
I admit OLED does look really great — bright vivid colors, pin-point details. But representing a slight improvement over current technology is not a great bellwether for future success. Super VHS, Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) and SACD were all touted as the future of their respective product niches. Generally speaking, slightly step-up versions of a breakthrough product rarely capture the public's imagination of shopping dollars.
For instance, plasma looks better than LCD and is less expensive. But LCD HDTVs outsells plasma about eight-to-one.
Finally, OLED is spectacularly thin — but when did a 4-inch thin TV become too fat? 4mm may be sexily slim, but it's not like Brad Pitt is going to divorce Angelina Jolie because Karolina Kurkova is a little skinnier. (Okay, a lot skinnier.)
Now How Much Would You Pay?
Even if it turns out the LG and Samsung OLED sets at CES are spec-F@%$#*!@-tacular compared to plasma and LCD, their mere exhibition is just a big tease.
As the Forbes contributor E.D. Kain points out, OLED production models are likely more than a year away, at least. And we don't know whether low yield rates will further delay OLED's consumer availability, or what the life of the panels will be compared to plasma and LCD.
What we do know is OLED HDTVs will be far more expensive than current sets — twice to five times as pricey, $4,000 to $10,000, depending.
Maybe OLED HDTVs will reach current plasma and LCD prices, but it'll take years since plasma and LCD prices continue to shrink.
And that's if OLED lasts that long.
By the time OLED sets reach current HDTV pricing, they may not even be around (as paradoxical as that sounds).
With cheap and getting cheaper plasma and LCD HDTVs, initial OLED models may get off to a slow selling start. Facing such public indifference, OLED HDTV makers may decide to shift strategy. Instead of HDTVs, OLED could become a screen replacement on laptops and tablets, where weight and thinness are more critical.
So, while an OLED HDTV future sounds fascinating, it'll likely prove as illusory as a promise from a skinny Victoria Secret model for an unspecific future night out.