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Hype-emitting diodes: can anyone ship an OLED TV?

Hype-emitting diodes: can anyone ship an OLED TV?


OLED TVs, whether produced by Samsung, LG, or Sony, have been the perpetual darling of consumer electronics trade shows, however they have yet to make the leap from the exhibition floor to retail shelf space.

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When it comes to OLED TVs, I start to feel like Roy Batty. The things I've seen on trade show floors are almost beyond articulation: TVs so thin that they make the latest superphone look fat, contrast ratios high enough to challenge Pioneer's legendary Kuro, and nearly 180-degree viewing angles. What amazes me to this day is that you can find all of these components of desire coexisting within just one display.

Whether produced by Samsung, LG, or Sony, OLED televisions have been the perennial darling of technology trade shows, however they have yet to make the leap from the exhibition floor to retail shelf space. Some smaller OLED panels have managed to escape the factory and go on sale in limited quantities, but the promise of a living room TV powered by organic light-emitting diodes remains tantalizingly out of reach.

This year, LG and Samsung seemed determined to put an end to the torment, with both using CES in early January as the launch platform for brand new 55-inch OLED TVs. The marketing teams jumped into overdrive — Samsung introduced the concept of Super OLED, LG decided to add an extra white subpixel and wow us with WRGB — and stirred up an exciting and bright outlook for 2012. We weren't just going to finally get an OLED HDTV worthy of taking center stage in our homes, we were going to have a choice.

Fast-forward a few months and, alas, the entire CES hoopla looks to have been just more of the same. Hints about a summer retail release from LG have come and gone, Samsung's stayed true to a "second half of 2012" roadmap that is rapidly running out of road, and Sony's decided to sit out this year while developing Crystal LED and preparing for a large panel OLED partnership with Panasonic in 2013.

The IFA 2012 landscape is disappointingly unchanged from IFA 2011. Samsung and LG continue to have "OLED islands" where they stack up these astounding displays that nobody is able to buy. They aren't sitting entirely still, as LG is pushing 3D capabilities and Samsung is showing off a slick Multi View implementation, but they remain in a weird sort of purgatory where they're neither abandoned nor being sold.

Vaporous mirage or visual miracle?

Walking around these islands of otherworldly beauty, I can't help but feel that the OLED technology itself is to blame. The process by which an OLED panel emits light can be described as a form of controlled self-destruction: each pixel lights up when a current is passed through it, essentially burning itself in order to give you a vibrant, luscious picture.

Samsung's 'second half of 2012' roadmap is rapidly running out of road

The problem large OLED panel makers are clashing against seems to be one of usage models: you can get away with a certain lifespan in devices like smartphones — where even the most intensive user won't have the display on for more than a few hours a day — that simply isn't adequate for TVs. Plenty of people keep a television on even when they're not watching anything in particular, just as background noise to whatever they're actually doing. OLED's ability (or otherwise) to handle this expanded utilization is likely what's behind the industry's hesitation to go to market.

LG told me that its 55-inch HDTV is still undergoing testing back home in Korea, with a specific focus on quality and longevity. It doesn't take long to recognize that quality at the outset of an OLED TV's life isn't the problem — it's how long you can maintain that level of performance that may be the culprit here. Of course that's just one of many potential stumbling blocks, such as low error tolerances in manufacturing preventing the ramping up of production, but ultimately it's as good an explanation as any for this perpetual wait.

Samsung and LG have poured large sums of money into OLED TV design and manufacturing, they will surely be looking to recoup their investments by actually putting a product out on the market. But for now at least, the OLED HDTV remains a vaporous mirage instead of the visual miracle we've long been promised.