Going organic seems to be in fashion at the moment, from healthy eating to natural clothing. So why would it be any different for televisions?

OLED screens – or displays that use Organic Light Emitting Diodes – are the next big thing in television technology. Thinner, lighter and more striking visually than a traditional LED TV, OLED technology is finally about to make its way into consumers homes.

Both LG and Samsung have been showing off OLED TVs at trade shows like IFA and CES in 2012, blowing away viewers with the technology’s breathtaking depth, colour reproduction and black levels, and the 2013 January CES may see the entry of more nameplates, as well as a definite timeline for the introduction of  OLED tellies into the consumer space.

While expected on shelves in October this year, for example, LG’s 55 inch failed to materialise, with the no-show providing some insight into the challenges facing manufacturers: OLED is expensive to make (LG’s was touted at $10, 000) and the technology has been beset with problems for years.

OLED displays from the likes of LG and Samsung deliver images with superior colour reproduction and contrast. Energy consumption is less than equivalent sized LED-type displays too, but lifespan and affordability present significant hurdles.

How does it work?

What makes OLED such an amazing technology is that it doesn’t require a backlight. Every other form of television technology, whether it is CRT, plasma or LCD, requires a light to shine from behind the screen, giving the luminosity to create a picture. Even the traditional LED TVs that currently dominate the market are just LCD TVs that use LEDs instead of fluorescent lights to illuminate the pixels.

OLED is different. With OLED displays, each light emitting diode is covered by an organic compound which, when touched by an electric current, creates its own light. There’s no need for a backlight to give you a complete picture, because each pixel is capable of lighting itself.

And without the need for a backlight, OLED panels can be razor thin, with stunning bezel-free designs. The emphasis is on the ‘razor’ part – less than a millimeter is a real possibility for OLED screens. Engineers have even produced flexible prototypes, which can be curved, rolled up and wrapped around things.

This opens up a whole new world of display possibilities, with everything from display advertising to dynamic newspapers that can be rolled up like the traditional paper version.

OLED technology allows televisions to be made extremely thin – around 1mm.

Picture quality

Aside from the obvious benefit of having thinner, lighter televisions, the fact that every pixel can create its own light source has other benefits, the most important being picture quality.

While LCD backlighting technology has progressed significantly in the past few years thanks to things like localised dimming, it doesn’t even come close to the contrast of OLED. With the ability to switch off the light completely by cutting the current to each pixel, and brighter whites thanks to the fact the light doesn’t have to filter through LCDs, the resulting picture is bright, dynamic and stunning to behold.

It also makes an OLED screen much more energy efficient, unless you’re showing a mostly white screen (like a work document), in which case each pixel is burning brightly and guzzling down the electric juice.

More impressive are the almost instant response times on offer via OLED screens. Where LCD televisions offer response time starting at 2ms, OLED is capable of handling a 0.01ms response time. The lack of delay between the signal being sent to the TV and the TV displaying it makes OLED perfect for action, fast-moving scenes, sports and pretty much every other type of content you can throw at it.

It’s even been shown that OLED screens can be made by printing the organic compounds onto a special substrate using a regular inkjet printer. This kind of versatility promises a bright future for OLED technology, where portable screens can be printed at home, once the cost of the substrate drastically reduces.

Challenges

For all its amazing benefits, the technology is not without its serious drawbacks. These are the factors that made the 10 inch XEL-1 from Sony cost $6999 when it launched in Australia back in 2009, and explains why no other OLED TV has hit the local market since then.

Sony's 10 inch XEL-1 demonstrated the challenges of producing affordable large screen OLED displays.

For a start, engineers at electronics companies have been trying to find ways of improving those organic compounds that create OLEDs to make them last longer.

One of the biggest hurdles the technology needs to overcome is the challenge that blue OLEDs only take about 14,000 hours before they can only offer half brightness, which equates to less than five years if you watch eight hours of TV each day.

This leads to contortion in the picture quality, with red and green colours crowding out the blue thanks to its weaker half-life. Obviously this isn’t the kind of shelf life you’d expect from a $10,000 device.

Also problematic is that water is like kryptonite to the organic compound. That may not be such a problem for your OLED wall mounted TV, but it makes the process of keeping flexible OLED screens safe significantly harder, and a little less flexible.

The cost is the most obvious other issue. With an asking price around the $10K mark, compared to similar sized LCD and plasma screens for around two grand, OLED is going to be a hard pill to swallow for many consumers. However, it is still early days for the technology, and it’s worth remembering that the first plasma screens cost more than $20,000 as well. Given a few years, OLED will become much more affordable.

Four-colour OLED v Super OLED

To make matters slightly more confusing for potential OLED buyers, Samsung and LG have been showing off slightly different versions of the technology in their trade show units.

LG has developed a special four-colour pixel technology, which adds a fourth white sub-pixel to accompany the red, green and blue already there. It also helps take the load off that blue sub-pixel, by squeezing it together with the red and green ones, and then passing the subsequent white light back through an RGB filter.

Samsung's Super OLED technology claims superior pictures, but is reported to be more difficult to mass produce.

Even though this sounds like a convoluted way of doing things, it has the added benefit of being easier to mass produce, meaning quicker release times and lower costs sooner, as well as being scalable to different screen sizes.

Samsung, on the other hand, has been developing what it calls Super OLED. What makes this technology ‘super’ is the fact that it doesn’t require a colour filter, instead letting the RGB sub-pixels create the perfect image every time. While the end result is breathtaking to behold, it is more difficult to manufacture and mass produce.

Neither LG nor Samsung have gone on the record about how their upcoming OLED televisions will perform over time, and whether they have had any luck dealing with the short half-life of the blue sub-pixel. That said, LG has claimed that its four-pixel solution helps increase the screen’s longevity, but refused to give specific numbers.

See the future

Either way, compared to every other television format currently available, OLED walks away with the best picture crown. Even the upcoming 4K displays that offer almost four times the resolution of a Full HD display can’t compare to OLED’s clarity, brightness and contrast.

It’s kind of like comparing a 68cm Trinitron with a 55 inch LED LCD – both TVs were amazing when they launched, but side by side, the older technology just can’t compare.