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Friday
Jan262018

Podcast #828: Samsung’s MicroLED Bet

We first stumbled across Samsung’s new MicroLED technology when we were reading up on CES, and specifically the giant 146” TV the South Korean electronics giant had on display this year. A TV so big, they actually just call it “the wall.” The technology intrigued us, and we thought it may have intrigued a few of you as well, so we took it on ourselves to dive a bit deeper into what it is and why we, as lovers of great televisions, should care.

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Samsung’s MicroLED Bet

We first stumbled across Samsung’s new MicroLED technology when we were reading up on CES, and specifically the giant 146” TV the South Korean electronics giant had on display this year. A TV so big, they actually just call it “the wall.” The technology intrigued us, and we thought it may have intrigued a few of you as well, so we took it on ourselves to dive a bit deeper into what it is and why we, as lovers of great televisions, should care.

If you’ve been with the show for a long time, and we’re talking about a really, really long time, you might remember how we used to get quite geeky in some episodes. The episode numbers were probably in the double digits, but there were so many TV technologies available back in those days that we dove deep into each one to explain, all the way down to the electron and photon level, how they worked. The episode on plasma emissive display technology was especially compelling.

Today’s show won’t go that deep, but if Samsung is really betting on MicroLED, and choosing it over OLED altogether, it probably makes sense to dive in to some of the particulars and see how the two technologies differ, how they are similar, and the relative pros and cons of each. One of them may very well become the next dominant display technology. But just because one may be technologically superior to the other doesn’t ensure it will win out in the end. Rest in peace, plasma. Rest in peace.


Samsung in the Market

According to a ZDNet article entitled Samsung's Micro LED bet will define its future in TVs, while Samsung continues to hold the number one spot in worldwide televisions sales, and has for quite some time, that number one position is anything but secure. Samsung needs to be worried about the future of its display division and has no margin to rest on its laurels while the rest of the industry pushes forward with OLED. Samsung needs to join the OLED revolution, or find their own alternative answer. They’ve chosen to go with MicroLED as that alternative.

The article states: “Unlike its other businesses, Samsung's position as number one in TVs has never been cemented, that is accepted by its rivals, the media, and public, and this frustrates the VD {visual display} business no end. In memory chips, the company has been number one for over 20 years with a market share hovering around 50 percent. In smartphones, it's the biggest seller of Android phones, despite China eating away at its market share. And although having been number one in TVs for 13 years, a market share of around mid-20 percent translates as Samsung having to square up to more challengers than it does in chips and phones.”

Samsung has tried, and continues to try, OLED alternatives for its top-of-the-line television sets. They released their quantum dot (QD) LCD TVs in 2015 and later renamed them to QLED sets in 2017. But whatever name you use, Quantum Dot or QLED, neither surpassed OLED in color, contrast or clarity.  Although QLED is a great improvement on traditional LCD or LED based sets, it simply isn’t a big enough improvement to take on OLED. MicroLED is a much better OLED rival, but unfortunately it is far more difficult to produce and commercialize than the current QLED sets. QLED is an upgrade to existing technology and manufacturing. Like OLED,. MicroLED is a brand new way of doing things.


How it Works

MicroLED and OLED share a number of common traits, some of which are common to Plasma technology as well. The primary similarity, which is also a primary differentiator between both of them and the existing LCD/LED televisions on the market, is that they are both emissive, or self-emitting, technologies. That means each pixel is its own light source, unlike current LCD sets that require a dedicated backlight. A typical LCD TV uses a CCFL tube as the backlight, while the newer “LED” televisions use LEDs in place of the bulb as the light source. For those who own or owned a plasma, you know there are huge advantages for emissive displays, namely improved contrast ratios and deep, deep blacks.

There are, of course, differences as well. While OLED uses organic material to create the diodes (thus the letter O in the name) MicroLEDs are really just the same, traditional LEDs that have been around forever, just shrunken down to microscopic sizes and placed into an array. A MicroLED is so small in fact, that each one measures less than 100 µm - less than the width of a human hair. While the underlying LED technology isn’t new, the manufacturing process is very new, and creating a full panel array using such tiny LEDs is not an easy thing to do. Scaling the technology up to TV sizes from smaller form factors like smartphones and smartwatches, has proven to be quite difficult.


How They Compare

In the battle of MicroLED vs OLED, as we’ve already discussed, both emit light on their own without the need for a backlight. And it turns out they both have very similar performance capabilities. They both have a contrast ratio of essentially 10,000 to 1. Since both have the ability to completely darken a pixel, they are equal when it comes to perfect, inky blacks. On the resolution side, you can fit more MicroLED pixels per square inch, which should give it an advantage in resolution as we scale up beyond 4K. Both are quite a bit more efficient, thus consume less power, than LCD sets. While both are better than LCD, MicroLED does outperform OLED in power consumption or brightness to power efficiency. So the TV can consume far less power than OLED, or the manufacturer could dramatically improve brightness for daytime viewing without consuming any more power than an OLED TV.

However similar they may be, MicroLED does maintain a few additional advantages over OLED beyond just power efficiency. The first is the lifespan of the television. OLED uses organic material that degrades over time so the pixels die out faster. But MicroLED does not, it uses the standard inorganic material of its larger LED cousins that doesn’t degrade as quickly, and the sets should last longer as a result. Like plasma before it, OLED has been dogged by burn-in issues. MicroLEDs should be far less susceptible, if even susceptible at all. And MicroLED will also make it easier for Samsung to make a plethora of screen sizes - you’re just talking about more or less of the tiny LEDs. The manufacturing needs to be figured out, but the potential is there. Each OLED television, on the other hand, is made from a set substrate size. To make a different size television, you need a different substrate entirely.


The Future

We survived for a long time with LCD, DLP and LCOS rear projection televisions as our primary options for high definition TVs. As they faded, we continued to survive with LCD and Plasma both occupying unique niches in the market. Eventually plasma fell and we only had one true option available for a while. It is entirely possible that OLED and MicroLED will exist side by side in the market for quite some time. Like flat panel LCD before it, one may emerge as the winner, or like rear projection LCD, DLP and LCOS, both may go the way of the dodo in favor of yet another, newer, better technology that we haven’t even seen yet.






 

 

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