It feels like a weird time for both average consumers and tech enthusiasts alike because a lot of familiar technology is entering a transition phase. Phones are folding, tablets and laptops are potentially merging, and LED TVs are on their way out in favour of OLED and MicroLED.
The latter is what I want to focus on because this weird transition between technologies is leaving buyers in a mediocre place for the time being.
Truly outstanding TVs cost an arm and a leg more than you should pay for them, while mid-range options are lacklustre as manufacturers use a lot of marketing gimmicks (as always) so they can jack up prices on what is essentially the same tech as last year and even a few years ago. Sadly, in terms of overall value, the market is bleak.
So let’s break down some of the most common offerings in 2019 by category. We have OLED TVs, widely considered the leaders in picture quality, the popular Samsung QLED TVs, mid-range or premium LED TVs, and of course what’s left on the low end.
Three out of four of these TV categories have one or more fundamental flaws that make them hard to justify purchasing right now. Read on to see the only one that’s somewhat in the clear; it might surprise you.
Also read: 60Hz vs 120Hz vs 144Hz vs 240Hz displays
The problem with OLED TVs
Just about no one disputes that OLED TVs offer the best picture quality on the market. On top of displaying incredibly gorgeous, vibrant, and accurate colours, they’re known specifically for having perfect blacks.
OLED TVs emit light on their own without the need for a backlight, which means individual pixels can turn on or off as needed. For dark scenes, pixels shut off entirely, so you’re left with outstanding contrast and blacks that blend in seamlessly with the bezel.
On LED TVs, this isn’t possible. Black levels have improved dramatically over the years, but they’ll never be true blacks like with OLED.
Unfortunately, OLED displays are plagued by a long term issue called burn-in. When static images are displayed on a screen for long periods, they can “burn” permanently into the display — you can always see them in some form.
This isn’t nearly as much of an issue for people who watch a wide range of content like movie buffs, but for gamers who have static elements on screen or people who avidly watch the same news channels, this could be a serious problem a few years down the line. Many OLED TV owners have experienced it after just a year or two.
A lot of people who make a living marketing OLED TVs will tell you this isn’t an issue because of certain built-in features that claim to minimise burn-in, but I beg to differ.
Even if you don’t experience burn-in for several years to come, OLED TVs are far from cheap. If I could pick up an OLED TV for US$600, I would be more than willing to absorb the risk of burn-in. But LG’s OLEDs start at $1,599 and go all the way past $7,000.
If you’re spending that much on a TV, you should be able to use it however you desire — even if that means watching 12 hours of news every day. For thousands of dollars, no one wants to restrict their viewing habits or live in fear of needing yet another TV in just a few years.
Again, the picture quality is terrific, but the long-term risks of OLED aren’t worth the price right now. Either wait until the price comes down or the technology can prove its longevity.
The problem with Samsung QLED TVs
Now that we’ve tackled OLED, you might have heard of something else in recent years called a QLED TV. QLED TVs are, well, LED TVs. The Q stands for quantum dot because QLED TVs have nanoparticles that emit light at different frequencies to produce more colours. This undoubtedly results in better picture quality with colours that pop, but ultimately, QLED TVs are just conventional LED TVs with some fancy marketing sauce on top.
The downsides of a QLED TV are pretty much the same as regular LED TVs, namely mediocre black levels and poor viewing angles. While they do have better black levels than some other LED TVs, they’re nowhere near OLED’s perfect blacks. However, the upside is that QLED TVs will never burn in.
QLED is just a minor evolution to existing LED panels. It’s not a technological leap by any means like OLED.
Plus, at CES 2019 Samsung debuted its future MicroLED TVs which combine the best of both worlds: perfect blacks and amazing viewing angles of OLED without burn-in.
MicroLED is the future, and Samsung knows it. While we won’t see MicroLED hit the market for several more years, if you’re trying to buy a TV now to last, you might be let down when a superior technology eventually lands.
Plus, Samsung has vastly overpriced its QLEDs. In fact, they’re similar in price to OLED TVs which cost several thousand dollars. Only a few QLEDs on the lower end start at $799 or so. Not worth it for what is essentially conventional tech.
The problem with mid-range or premium LED TVs
I won’t beat around the bush for this section: the problem with mid-range, premium, ultra-premium or [insert hyperbolic marketing adjective here] TVs is the price. These mid-range TVs generally cost between $500 and $1,000, but they’re always still just regular LED TVs.
Buying a TV is a bit like buying a bottle of wine. Eventually, you hit a price point at which for each additional dollar you spend, you’re getting less incremental value. For a bottle of wine, that’s about $15. For example, a $15 bottle of wine is likely noticeably better than a $10 bottle, but a $60 bottle is only marginally better than a $50 bottle.
TVs are the same — you’re ultimately getting less bang for your buck the more money you spend on one. Sure, there’s one additional value leap around the $1,500 mark right now if you switch up to OLED, but before you get to that extreme point, TVs are expensive for no reason.
Pretty solid 4K LED TVs are available for under $300 at this point. If you spend $900 on a 4K TV, you aren’t going to get a TV that’s three times better than the $300 one or even double as good. It’s really only cosmetic improvements in design (e.g. thinner bezels), improved colour, and slightly better black levels with local dimming.
If you’re not a trained techie though, most people rarely notice a considerable difference between these premium mid-range options and TVs on the lower end. Even if you do, it’s rarely worth the extra money unless you have an unusually large budget.
Best bang for your buck at the bottom
We arrive at the very bottom, which is oddly enough the best place to be. For between $300 and $500 you can grab a seriously incredible TV in 2019.
TCL has an enormously popular 55-inch 4K smart TV for just $419 on Amazon. Another good option is LG’s 49-inch UK6300 for under $350. These are far from the best TVs you can buy, but they never claim to be. For their price points, they’re great. Dollar for dollar, you won’t get a better TV than what’s currently being offered under $500.
I have high hopes for the future of televisions. Prices will drop even further for LEDs, OLED should improve, and MicroLED is going to be huge. But for now, in 2019, so many higher priced offerings just don’t have much meat to them.
Also read: QLED vs OLED display: Which one is better?