The new high dynamic range 165-centimetre OLED televisions from Panasonic and Sony will stop you in your tracks. They're stunning. Pin-sharp definition, beautiful colour balance (to my eye the Sony has a fractional edge) and detail just a tad short of real life. But it's the contrast that blows everything else away. With no backlighting, OLEDs – organic, light-emitting diodes – make blacks utterly black and present excellent detail in dark scenes. OLEDs are also super thin, adding almost nothing to the thickness of the surface they're applied to.
OK, I concede that when I saw them side by side at my local discounter both were running vision shot specifically to make them look as good as possible. I don't care, I want one. Either will do.
The only thing standing between me and the Sony is six grand. Quite a substantial thing really, and the Panasonic is a grand less and has a much more practical table-mount. But there's another thing, the eternal question of home electronics: in a couple of years will these things be better and cheaper?
That's a pretty safe bet going by the latest information from IHS Markit, an international market analysis company that keeps tabs on such things.
Jimmy Kim, principal analyst for display materials at the company, expects a significant expansion of the OLED television market as the manufacturing cost gap between them and the far more common LED/LCD panels becomes significantly tighter. He estimates that the total manufacturing cost of a 140-centimetre OLED panel (that's the panel alone, not the supporting hardware around it making up the rest of the television) currently stands around $US582. That's a drop of 55 per cent from where it stood in the first quarter of 2015. And he expects it to drop further to $US242 by the first quarter of 2021.
"The manufacturing cost of a 55-inch (140-centimetre) OLED ultra-high definition television panel has narrowed to 2.5 times that of an LCD television panel with the same specifications, compared with 4.3 times back in the first quarter of 2015," he said.
"Historically, a new technology takes off when the cost gap between the dominant technology and the new technology narrows. A narrower gap will help the expansion of OLED televisions."
Interestingly, his analysis underlines the fact the OLEDs are much harder to make than LCDs. The gap in the cost of materials between the two is just 1.7 times.
"Factors other than direct material costs, such as production yield, the utilisation rate, plant depreciation expenses and substrate size, do actually matter," Kim said. "The total manufacturing cost difference will be reduced to 1.8 times from the current 2.5 times when the yield is increased to a level similar to that of LCD panels."
Making OLED panels big enough for televisions is a complex business, with a lot of wastage through failure, although this is now far less than when the televisions first came to market in 2012. The technology has been around for many years in small displays, such as for phones, tablets, cameras and car audio equipment, but perfecting manufacture for screens of 140 and 165-centimetre has proved extraordinarily difficult.
There is a growing number of smaller OLED manufacturers springing up in China but only two major producers in the world – Samsung Display, specialising in small panels, and LG Display, making television-sized panels for LG as well as Panasonic, Philips, Sony, Grundig, Loewe and Metz. Each of these brands then adds its own electronics.
The question is simple: must you have it now or can you wait until 2021?