OLEDs Aplenty at IFA

A little less than a year ago in these virtual pages, I mused that perhaps instead of going it alone, LG ought to license its OLED technology to other brands in order to normalize the technology for skeptical consumers. It’s doubtful my presentation had any effect on LG’s business model decisions (although I flatter myself that it did), but at nearly every TV maker stand here at IFA in Berlin at the end of August are UHD OLED sets, all using panels sourced from LG.

But LG is tempering its licensing decisions; none of the non-LG-branded UHD OLED sets on display are due for the U.S. market. Most are or will be sold in 4K-manic China and OLED-hungry Germany.

For instance, Chinese brand Skyworth exhibited two UHD OLED models, the 65S9D and the 55S9D, as yet unpriced and due to be available next year in China only. Skyworth also is making booth-mate and German premium brand Metz’ Novum 65- (€6,999) and 55-inch (€4,999) OLED models, due to go on sale in the next couple of months, only in Germany.

One of Skyworth’s Sino competitors, Changhong, is already selling its LG-sourced curved 65- and 55-inch Q34 U-Max and Android-endowed smart OLED UHD sets in China, and “may” expand into Europe sometime next year.

Hisense is and will not be starting its own OLED production facility in China, as often rumored. Two different Hisense execs told me succinctly that “only LG” is supplying OLED panels to other TV makers.

While Hisense is not selling OLED, the company seeming is trying to capitalize on the technology’s premium reputation. Instead of OLED, Hisense exhibited its Ultra LED, or ULED, UHD TVs. Thanks to its rainbow-filled “U,” the ULED logo, at first and even second glance, bears a striking, if not deceptive, resemblance to “OLED.”

Neither TCL nor Konka, the other two major Chinese TV brands, exhibited at IFA.

In Europe, Panasonic became the first LG OLED licensee when it unveiled its Viera TX-65CZW954 (€9,999) at last year’s IFA. Laurent Abadie, Panasonic’s European chairman and CEO, told me this first LG-licensed OLED is still selling “well” but had reach its “end of life.” In its booth, LG displayed what Abadie described as a “working sample” of its next un-numbered OLED edition, a super slim white-framed model which possibly will go on sale during the company’s usual product line changeover in March or April. Like its initial OLED, Panasonic’s new LG-sourced edition will be available only in Europe.

More finitely aimed at the German market, local brand Loewe will start selling the Bild 7.65 (€6,999) and the Bild 7.55 (€4,990) LG-paneled OLED models, dubbed “the most beautiful OLED TV in the world” by one admiring German magazine, in “a few days.” In addition, the company also is gauging IFA attendee reaction to two concept OLED models with minimalist “floating” triangular stands and wall mounts by industrial and product designer Bodo Sperlein, the Bild 9.65 and the 9.55.

Grundig will start shipping its VLO9790 65-inch OLED, with both HEVC and VP9 decoding capabilities, sometime later this year or early 2017 at a price to be determined, also in Germany only.

Turkish giant Vestel exhibited both flat and curved 65- and 55-inch OLED models with LG panels, showcasing both with four different stand models. The company will sell the as-yet numbered and as-yet priced set—with just one of the displayed stand styles—in Turkey and likely elsewhere in Europe sometime next year.

IFA OLED Holdouts

The major IFA OLED holdouts were Toshiba (who I was actually surprised to see displaying TVs since it stopped TV production last winter and is now licensing its TV name to varying vendors in varying locales), Sharp/UBC and, duh, Samsung. For its next-gen display, Sharp exhibited an 8K (7680 x 4320) 120Hz IGZO panel, while Samsung continues to hawk its quantum dot sets as if it were the only maker using the color-enhancing technology.

Samsung not only doesn’t have OLED since bailing on its large screen OLED attempts a couple of years ago, it was the only active anti-OLED exhibitor at IFA. On IFA’s first day, the company announced a new 10-year no-burn-in guarantee on its SUHD models, an obvious swipe at OLED’s reputation for image retention.

Throughout Samsung’s CityCube booth were various “organic vs. inorganic”/OLED vs. quantum dot comparisons—not favorable to OLED, naturally. These comparisons included a table-top set-up with two side-by-side monitors, one purportedly an OLED (which I don’t think it was) and the other an UHD, and a small wheel on the table. When you turned the wheel, you saw a time lapse aging comparison of the two monitors to demonstrate how “organic” sets lose their blues, yellows and brightness over time compared to how “inorganic” quantum dot maintains its color and brightness virtues over the same period.

Over how much time these changes take place, however, was conveniently left out of the scientific-looking animated bar graph on the “OLED” screen that charted these losses. (Just for the record, LG insists its 2016 OLEDs are rated to lose around half their brightness in 100,000 hours, or in around 30 years if viewed 10 hours a day. The half-life of an LED LCD is actually less than that of a current LG OLED panel. But I digress.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this IFA OLED invasion was that LG, the panel source for all these new models, didn’t introduce any new OLED models of its own. But the company did produce IFA’s biggest attraction—a 5-meter tall, 15-meter long tunnel constructed from 216 55-inch curved OLED panels displaying a variety of enveloping and often vertigo-inducing sea, space and fantasy scenes to lead attendees into the LG booth and its own Signature series of UHD OLED sets, the only OLEDs on sale in the U.S.

Whether or not LG will license competition for its own OLEDs models in the new world remains to be seen. We’ll find out one way or the other in four months at CES.