Should LG License OLED?

Remember the battle between LCD and plasma? That same scenario may play out in the UHD TV world between quantum dot and OLED display technologies—with potentially the same doomed outcome for the latter that plasma suffered.

Unless, IMHO, LG changes its OLED strategy.

Both Samsung and LG recently unveiled their spring 2015 UHD SKUs. Headlining Samsung’s selections are its S-UHD sets, souped up by quantum dot, aka “nano pixel,” technology that widens LCD’s comparatively bland color gamut and vastly improves black levels.

LG, meanwhile, is placing its largest UHD bet on OLED, with its day-glow painting-on-glowing velvet vividness and its 4mm thin ergonomics, thanks to its individual self-illuminating pixels that can be individually programmed.

The problem LG faces with OLED is almost the same Pioneer and Panasonic faced with plasma—maybe worse. While OLED produces vastly superior video compared to quantum dot LCD that even the average consumer can see, LG is OLED’s lone promoter.

Seeking a UHD solution

LCD TVs have traditionally been beset by refresh and black level issues that could be somewhat compensated for through digital trickery. But using such a compromised display technology for 4K UHD TVs is akin to strapping a Formula One engine into a Honda Civic.

OLED, with its perfect blacks, seemed like the obvious UHD answer. Over the last few years, every TV maker displayed OLED prototypes at IFA and CES—until this year.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, LG cornered the market in the best OLED technology. The company bought the so-called WOLED, or white OLED technology, which LG calls “WRGB,” technology, from its inventor, Kodak, and then toiled for around 10 years to get the manufacturing process perfected, or at least economical.

All other OLED contenders, however, had to create WOLED workarounds or develop completely new approaches, none of which resulted in a profitable, high-enough yield manufacturing process. LG, however, managed to get its WOLED yields up past 80 percent.

With no workable OLED solution, Samsung instead turned to quantum dot technology to boost its already impressive LCD technology. Quantum dot uses 2-to-10 nanometer crystals that each emit their own color, depending on the size of the crystal, and are layered on as a filter. (There are actually two nano pixel application techniques: this film layer method and the cheaper edge-array method used by QD Vision on UHDs from TCL.)

But at their heart, quantum dot is simply an upgraded LCD.

Not that OLED doesn’t have its own inherent technology problems. Like plasma, OLED is an emissive technology, and while its self-illuminating pixels are more precise with faster, plasma-like refresh rates, they also result in image retention. LG has had to build in image retention compensation technologies into its OLED. Brightness is gradually stepped down if the set senses a static image on screen. Additionally,  a “refresh” algorithm runs that re-sets retained pixels when the set is turned off to reduce burn-in. How successful these efforts are remains to be seen.

LCD, with or without quantum dot, is a transmissive technology. A backlight is required to illuminate the display, which leads to slower-than-OLED refresh rates and the need for a color/black level enhancement technologies such as quantum dot, so the backlight doesn’t bleach out everything on screen.

LG OLED Alone

Even with LG’s manufacturing success, OLED sets will be—like plasma—more expensive than LCD-based UHDs, especially non-quantum dot models. Samsung flagship 65-inch JS9500 quantum dot UHD is priced at $6,000, for instance, while LG’s comparable 65-inch EG9600 flagship OLED model, due to start shipping in the next couple of weeks, will sell for $9,000. The 55-inch version, shipping later this summer, will be priced only $500 less than Samsung’s 65-inch quantum dot flagship.

LG exhibited its own quantum dot UHDs at CES, but these are not included in the company’s official spring line-up announced last week. Instead, LG is promoting its 65-inch Prime UF9500 LCD UHD ($4,500) boosted instead by the company’s proprietary wide color gamut (WCG) technology—a 4K UHD that’s half the price of the company’s OLED set.

And it’s still unknown what the effective screen lifespan of an OLED set will be. LG says 30,000 hours to half brightness; thankfully, LG’s WOLED method uses color filters to eliminate the nagging longevity problems of blue OLED phosphors.

But it’s neither the price nor the technical pros and cons that might doom OLED.

Few single manufacturer technologies succeed when arrayed against a variety of competitors using a different technology (with Apple an arguable notable exception), as the handful of plasma makers discovered, including—ironically—Samsung and LG. Going it alone has rarely resulted in long-term success.

OLED competition would boost not only OLED’s reputation but help drive prices down faster. We’ve heard through the grapevine that the varying Japanese TV brands may be pooling their OLED efforts via a government-sponsored development program, but observers feel it’ll be at least three to five years before any real OLED competition to LG emerges from Sony or Panasonic.

If prices on LG’s OLEDs fail to fall, it’s doubtful OLED can successfully compete vs. quantum dot or plain LCD ultra HD models in the ultra price-sensitive TV world. Consumer electronics history has clearly proved that pure quality advantages don’t overcome advantages afforded by convenience or price, and consumers get cynically leery when only one company is hawking a particular technology.

So, should LG consider licensing its OLED technology or produce OLED sets for other brands to make it at least appear that OLED is more widely accepted and here to stay?

Because, if LG remains OLED’s only champion, it may not be enough to keep OLED in the running.