MicroLED was little more than the latest tech buzzword a few years ago, but today it stands poised to be the next big thing in TVs. We don’t mean that figuratively — MicroLED is the technology behind the world’s largest panel-based displays, including this 292-inch monster from Samsung, and an even bigger 17-foot behemoth from Sony.

But once you get over the enormity of the displays that MicroLED makes possible, it becomes clear this isn’t just about making monster TVs for the 1%. This is a shot across OLED’s bow, and it could very well be an OLED killer in the long term. Below, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of MicroLED and discuss why it could be the TV technology of the future.

In theory, MicroLED should offer perfect blacks, excellent color, and near-perfect off-angle viewing.

TV Tech 101

To understand why MicroLED is such a big deal, we need a quick refresher on how modern-day TVs work: Presently, what we call LED TVs are really LCD panels with a bunch of LED lights behind them. LCD screens can’t make their own light, so it’s necessary to shine a light behind them in order to get a picture.

The reason OLED TVs get such great reviews is that OLED panels are what we call an “emissive display” technology. Each pixel in an OLED screen makes its own light, no backlights necessary. The advantages of an emissive display like OLED are perfect black levels, excellent color, and near-perfect off-angle viewing. In other words, OLED is excellent at everything that LCD/LED TVs are not.

The downside to OLED panels? Because they’re made with organic compounds, they’re expensive to make, somewhat limited in brightness, and can potentially suffer burn-in under the most excruciating viewing scenarios. They’re also very difficult to manufacture in large sizes. To date, LG’s 88-inch 8K Z9 OLED is the biggest ever made.

Samsung-146-inch-MicroLED-detailRich Shibley/Digital Trends

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The benefits of MicroLED

The exciting thing about MicroLED is that it is also an emissive display, but unlike OLED, it doesn’t rely on organic compounds to make light. In theory, MicroLED displays should offer perfect blacks, excellent color, and near-perfect off-angle viewing, just like OLED, but they should also be even brighter, very slim, immune to burn-in, and, in the long run, less expensive to make than OLED.

Because small MicroLED panels can be combined into larger displays, there’s also no limit — from a manufacturing point of view — on screen size. The cost will still play a role, however. In addition to promising stellar picture performance, MicroLED TVs are based on a modular system, allowing users to customize the size of their screen, with the potential to grow it in the future. That said, while the modular technology is advertised as “seamless,” while the displays have improved immensely, so far in our experience, there are still seams if you look closely enough.

When can we get it?

Samsung is now selling The Wall Luxury, a MicroLED TV that can be expanded from a 2K, 73-inch display all the way to an 8K 292-inch unit, for those with the cash to buy it (Samsung does not discuss the price of the Wall Luxury with the press). The push will continue in 2020, with Samsung recently announcing it stretched its biggest 8K MicroLED TV configuration out to 583 inches.

Sony’s Crystal LED is its version of MicroLED, and it’s also now available to those with the $5 million it would take to buy the largest, 16K edition. But, as has always been the case with new innovations, the tech in these TVs is expected to trickle down to smaller and less expensive models over the next few years.

At CES 2020, Samsung indicated that it was readying large-scale production of up to 150-inches in size. If these plans materialize, 2020 might be the first year we see MicroLED become realistic for a consumer who does not belong to the 0.01%.

Samsung and Sony aren’t the only companies actively working on MicroLED. Reports began to surface in 2017 that Apple was experimenting with its own displays using the technology, but it seems that the company has an entirely different use case in mind. Recent reports have indicated that instead of massive displays, Apple plans to use MicroLED for tiny screens, like those inside iPhones, or possibly even the Apple Watch. While it has yet to be confirmed by the company, sources say that Apple has produced a prototype watch with a MicroLED display, and we could see models using the technology on sale within a few years.

Better than OLED?

As you’ll see in our video above, MicroLED displays — especially those on a larger scale — are simply stunning, with a brightness and color that has never been seen in a display at this size before. As mentioned, even the noticeable seams from early prototypes have been largely dealt with unless you walk right up to a panel and look closely.

But whether MicroLEDs represent a step-up from OLED TVs depends a lot on the size of the screen you want. For the moment, MicroLED screens in the 70-120-inch range are stuck with a lower resolution than similarly sized LED or OLED TVs. For instance, the 75-inch MicroLED TV that Samsung showed at CES 2019, was a 4K model — whereas both OLED and QLED TVs are available in 8K resolution at the same size. So unless your goal is to take over an entire wall, OLED remains a better bet both in terms of image quality and budget.

As we pointed out above, this will change as the technology comes down in price and newer models improve on what MicroLED can do. However, MicroLED and OLED are no longer the only emissive panel technologies.

Samsung recently announced that it would start building TVs based on its QD-OLED (quantum OLED) tech — a hybrid of the quantum dot layers that Samsung uses in its QLED TVs, and OLED technology. This may not increase the size of OLED TVs, but it could have a huge effect on how bright OLED panels can get, without sacrificing their ability to get completely black.

Another possible contender? Mini LEDs are behind some impressive new displays from TCL, which has been focused on shrinking the size of LED backlights. The smaller the individual backlight LED, the closer you can get to the true-black of OLED.

Which of these budding technologies will reign supreme is largely yet decided. OLED is currently enjoying its time in the sun on the strength of sheer availability and affordability, but prices on tomorrow’s tech will surely plummet as the calendar continues to turn. Whether the next step for TVs is an evolution of OLED, MicroLED, or something entirely new will depend on a multitude of factors.

Quality and specs are weighty in terms of importance, but that won’t mean much if only a small fraction of the world can afford it, and with how fast technology moves these days, it wouldn’t surprise us if something even better came along to shake things up before the market settles. An OLED set with properly mastered content is still a beautiful sight to behold, and you should certainly consider buying one in 2020 if you’ve been dying for an upgrade, but with its standout improvements and performance, MicroLED offers the first viable threats in almost every contentious category. Don’t be surprised if it’s the pick for TV makers moving forward.

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