Is OLED Dead At Samsung?

At last year's CES, we heard how OLED was the future of TV. Blacker blacks, more vibrant colour and dangerously sexy curves. Flash forward a year and Samsung is cheering for a new technology: SUHD TV, powered by Quantum Dot technology. But what of OLED? Can you still buy a great Samsung OLED TV in 2015?

The short answer is yes, but the full story is a little more complicated than that.

The pitch around the new SUHD TVs is that they produce better and more vivid colour than LCD/LED and deep blacks to rival those pumped out by gorgeous yet expensive OLED sets.

The S-branding doesn't come from anything technical that you have to remember, it basically just means that it's a flagship TV model in the same way that the Galaxy S phones and tablets are flagship mobility products.

To make it worthy of flagship status, Samsung has done a bit of science and packed the new SUHD range with Quantum Dot technology: nano-scale crystals that absorb light and re-emit it at a different, very specific, wavelength. They basically do what the hydrocarbon semiconductors in an OLED set do but without all the fancy organic chemistry. They could hold the key to creating plasma-quality colour saturation that never fades, brighter panels with increased contrast, and wider gamuts—all for not much more than today’s LCD sets.

Samsung handed the TV components over to its medical business which is — no joke — working on nanobots designed to find cancer cells inside the bloodstream and fight infection, and asked the team to go down into microscopic detail on how to make the TVs better. Et voila: quantum dot.

Furthermore, Samsung is introducing more smarts into its SUHD products over and above the Quantum Dot technology. Film studios are now working with Samsung as part of the UHD Alliance to display colour better on TVs. Studios come to Samsung and say what they want their movies to look like, and colourists work to build a profile specific to the TVs themselves so images are displayed as the artist actually intended.

It will be interesting for us to get an OLED TV and an SUHD TV next to each other in the lab later on in the year, mostly to compare the black level. Because OLED pixels don’t need to be backlit like LCD LED TVs, parts of the panel are actually off in order to display deep blacks. That’s a slam dunk for OLED, because it means nothing can get darker.

Samsung admits that making OLED sets is hard. Every manufacturer with skin in the OLED game agrees. There's a massive amount of wastage, breakage and care that goes into producing one OLED set, so Samsung going back to making an LED TV makes sense. It's simpler, and produces less waste in the construction process. Faster manufacturing and less chucked in the factory skip means that Samsung will offer its SUHD TVs at a crazy cheap price (compared to OLED) later on in the year.

The 85-inch Curved S9500 SUHD TV (pictured) will come in just shy of $25,000, for example. While that may not be cheap for the average TV buyer, it's indicative of a trend: Samsung can make flagship TVs with image quality close to that of OLED available in the market cheaper than its competitor can make OLED sets. The range will span from 48-inches in size up to the massive 100-something-inch range because it's easy to make in larger quantities for OLED. For Samsung, it's barely a compromise.

Meanwhile, it will still sell OLED TVs for those interested, but it won't have the volume or scale we saw in 2014. According to one Samsung spokesperson we chatted to on the show floor, "SUHD is better in every way".

We walked over to the LG stand after this conversation to check out the competition, and found that it had found a way to manufacture OLED at scale that didn't seem to push prices up that high. LG's yield rates are better during the manufacturing process, which means it can sell more of what it makes. LG's OLED range starts at 55-inch and ranges up to 77-inches.

As a way of hedging its bets, however, LG also has Quantum Dot TVs like Samsung in its range, just waiting to see which one consumers will latch onto first.

At this stage, both Samsung and LG are hedging their bets on the future of TV, and it's up to you to decide who wins.

Luke Hopewell attended CES as a guest of Samsung.

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