JUL 20, 2024

Best TV technology: OLED vs LCD vs QLED

If you’re after a new TV, you’ll see row after row of relatively thin flat panels. Some are LCD, some are OLED, some might be described as QLED or even Mini LED. So how do you pick the best TV type for your needs, and what’s the difference?

For most of us, when we go TV shopping, we’ve probably got a budget in mind, and maybe also a screen size. Screen sizes for TVs are always measured diagonally in inches, with sizes typically ranging from 24 inches all the way up to gargantuan models 85 inches or even bigger. Sales figures suggest that many Australians opt for screens 55 inches or above, but often settle more around a more pragmatic measure: The budget they can afford for a new TV.

With budget in mind, you want to make sure that you’re getting the best TV for your money, right? This is where it can really pay to know a little about underlying screen technologies and what they typically mean for picture quality. The use of “typically” there is quite deliberate, because even the best 8K TV will struggle if you’re watching a grainy YouTube video on it – and likewise, that super-cheap TV you got from an online-only brand might not do full justice to your 4K footy match either! The picture quality of what you’re watching and how it’s being broadcast or streamed to you will have an effect on its overall quality, though a lot of TVs now also do some level of post-processing to try to improve overall picture presentation.

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LED LCD: Affordable but basic

For the most part if you’re buying the cheapest tier of TVs – essentially most panels under $1,000 – you’re getting a basic LED LCD TV. These use a backlight to illuminate the display for a reasonable but basic picture quality. LED LCD panels are fairly easy for companies to manufacture, which is a big part of why they’re cheaper to buy.

The issue that most LED LCD panels have relates to contrast – in very simple terms, the difference between the blackest of black tones in an image and the brightest areas. So if you’ve got a street scene at night with a single light in view, most of that scene should be black, except for the area around the light, which should be quite bright, and, depending on the kind of scene, possibly even a little colourful. That contrast is typically not handled well by cheaper LED LCD TVs, with a lot of colour bleed and/or areas that look more grey than properly black.

QLED: Enter the Quantum realm

So, what do you do if you’ve got an LED LCD and you want a little better contrast and picture quality? The next effective step up in the quality ladder is QLED. QLED (Quantum Dot Light Emitting Diode) TVs use the same kinds of backlighting technologies as regular LED LCD TVs, but with an added layer of quantum dots in a film on the tv panel that enables better colour representation and higher levels of brightness. That brightness is especially important if you’re placing your TV (or a computer monitor) in a room with a direct window that gets a lot of sunlight.

If you do have your TV there, you’re almost certainly aware of how the glare from the sun can totally wash out a lot of TV images. Having a TV with high brightness can combat that problem to an extent, making it possible to continue watching your favourite programs without having to draw the curtains.

OLED: Supreme contrast, high cost

OLED TVs (Organic Light Emitting Diode, if you’ve ever wondered) for the longest time have been held up to be the gold standard of TVs… and despite advances in competing technologies, most experts agree that they still are.

OLED TVs do not require a backlight array on the rear or sides of the TV to illuminate their panels, because each individual pixel onscreen has its own lighting within it that it can emit – or not emit – as needed. As such, OLED can deliver “perfect” black tones from pixel elements not on right next door to the brightest elements in a picture. A newer variant of OLED, typically called QD-OLED combines the Quantum dot technology used by QLED with the supreme contrast of OLED – though these are amongst the priciest TVs you can buy. That cost can be a big issue across the board, though with more OLED brands on the market these days, there’s some stiff competition, which can lead to some price cuts.

It used to be the case that there were only a few brands offering OLED, with LG being its longest champion, but these days most major reliable brands have some kind of OLED display to sell. One quick tip here: It’s best to buy a panel based on quality rather than specific smart TV features, and it’s not uncommon to see older OLED panels in stores on sale to make way for new stock. You can sometimes score a great OLED panel for a lot less this way, but it does involve knowing the model numbers and dates to ensure you’re getting the best possible deal.

Mini-LED: Lots of little lights is better than one big one

Another term you may see for some TVs is Mini-LED. These are still LED LCD TVs at their heart, but they’re TVs that a lot more LED lights than a regular LED LCD tv. A whole lot more, but in order to fit them all in, they’re individually smaller – hence Mini-LED.

The advantage with Mini-LED is that because the TV has a whole lot more individual lighting modules, it can more rapidly and accurately adjust that light intensity to deal with the classic contrast issue of cheaper LED LCD panels. Mini-LED can look very good under the right circumstances, while still having the brightness benefits of classic LED LCD TV panels.  The downside is that the inclusion of all those Mini-LEDs means that they’re more expensive at the same size than a comparable LED LCD panel.

What about gaming monitors and computer screens?

Most TVs can of course act as computer monitors or gaming monitors – and some TVs include specific “Game” modes that optimise screen presentation specifically for console or PC style play – but in the specific computer monitor space, you’re more likely to see LCD screens. The big differentiator to keep in mind here, especially if you’re keen on gaming, is the screen’s refresh rate support, measured in Hertz. A basic TV picture in Australia is 60Hz, meaning that it refreshes 60 times per second, but for many gamers, faster refresh rates such as 144Hz or more are desirable, especially if you’re playing faster action games. That’s more common in the gaming monitor space than directly stated for TVs, depending on which models you’re looking at.

The other issue to consider here is that while OLED gaming monitors do exist – and can look great – the underlying technology of OLED is prone to image burn-in, which could be a consideration if your computer usage (whether gaming or productivity focused) has the same or similar images onscreen for a long period of time.

Whatever happened to Plasma TVs?

In the early days of flat panel TVs, if you wanted the best of the best, everyone (yours truly included) recommended Plasma TVs. Plasma TVs used ionised gases responding to specific electric fields to display images, and for their time, they were both the largest and sharpest panels money could buy.

So why don’t you see row after row of Plasma TVs on store shelves any more? It’s largely a question of cost, as the competing technologies behind LCD panels very quickly caught up, delivering similar screen sizes in TVs that were cheaper to produce – and therefore cost less to buy – and also lighter, which meant they were cheaper to ship and easier to mount to walls. At the same time, the display quality of OLED panels blew away the best that Plasma could offer at the time, which led to their discontinuation in stores. If you’ve got a Plasma TV still running, well done on keeping it to the end of its service life – but you absolutely will not be able to replace it with another plasma TV when it finally goes to that big TV factory in the sky.

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Photo of Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.