The television industry invites jargon like few others, an alphabet soup of specs and techs. Some of these convey important information; others emerged, devoid of any useful meaning, from the marketing gloaming. In that spirit, The Wall, Samsung’s new 146-inch stunner, invokes a term as yet unfamiliar the broader TV-buying audience: MicroLED.
Good news first: MicroLED is an actual thing, a type of display technology that represents a significant improvement over the LED televisions that dominate today’s market. Samsung’s implementation is also not pure prototype, or even probable vaporware; the company says that The Wall (that name!) will be purchasable sometime in 2018.
But fully understanding the potential impact of Samsung’s Wall—and why it even exists in the first place—requires a little more context. Your next TV almost certainly won’t be MicroLED, or even the one after that. Someday, though, it could become the industry standard, one that’s bigger, brighter, and more beautiful than almost anything on the market today.
LED, OLED, MicroLED
Let’s get a little technical (but only a little). The type of display technology that currently dominates the market is LED, which stands for light-emitting diode. It’s also a bit of a misnomer; the LEDs in question simply provide a white backlight, while a liquid-crystal display and layers of polarizers, color filters, and glass shape that light into the images on your television.
LED works just fine, and can produce a pretty darned good picture. But because it requires light blasting in from the rear, it can have a hard time achieving those inky blacks that make your Battlestar Galactica binge so engrossing. The light seeps, which can also futz with contrast ratio, the all-important gap between the brightest and darkest a TV can be. You notice this especially on so-called edge-lit displays, which, as you might guess, push the light in from the side, creating a weird halo effect around your TV’s border.
If you want to confirm for yourself how all this looks in practice, well, turn on your TV. Unless LG or Sony made it, it’s an LED—even if the manufacturer gave it a fancy-sounding name, like Super UHD. Not bad, right? But it could be better.
In fact, it already is. That LG and Sony exception exists because they’re the only company making so-called OLED televisions. OLED requires no backlight; instead, it lights each individual pixel as needed, an electric current sparking an organic substance into action. No backlight, no warm haze oozing where it shouldn’t. Blacks are black, full stop, to infinity. Contrast ratios break the scale. The picture quality is, as Ray Soneira, president of DisplayMate, put it in 2015, “visually indistinguishable from perfect.”
Not too shabby! And exactly the sort of effect that MicroLED hopes not only to accomplish, but improve on.
Like OLED, Micro LED ditches the backlight, favoring instead extremely tiny LEDs, each of which comprises a red, green, and blue sub-pixel that can provide its own light. It also swaps in an inorganic material—gallium nitride, for those keeping score at home—for OLED’s organic offering, a critical difference for a few reasons.
“OLEDs are made of organic materials that age, resulting in a decrease in luminance over time, with the potential for uneven aging,” says Soneira. “LEDs are inorganic, can be made brighter than OLEDs, and aren’t as susceptible to aging.” OLEDs can also suffer “burn-in;” if you leave a static image on for too long, it can linger even when you move on to something else.
The OLED manufacturing process also limits the possible screen shapes and sizes; Samsung describes The Wall’s MicroLED technology as “modular,” which likely just means it you can configure its underlying LED panels however you please.
Which adds up to a pretty terrific television set: a picture every bit as good as OLED, that also avoids its pitfalls. So what’s the catch? Depends on how patient you are.
Hurry Up and Wait
Yes, Samsung has promised The Wall for this year—albeit “at a price consistent with modern technologies as they’re introduced,” per a spokesperson, which roughly translates to “yacht money.” That still doesn’t mean you’re going to buy one in 2018. Or the next year. Or the next.
“For a consumer product, it’s a bit of a stretch to call it that at the moment,” says Paul Gagnon, display analyst at IHS Markit.
Gagnon pegs mass availability as at least four years away, and even then at a price that would drop most jaws. The features that make MicroLED so appealing, it turns, out, are almost comically hard to produce at any sort of scale.
“MicroLEDs are manufactured and assembled one sub-pixel at a time,” says Soneira. “A 4K TV has 25 million sub-pixels that have to be assembled—and they all have to work.”
That’s why, so far, MicroLED had mostly been a focus for smartwatches and smartphones; Apple even acquired MicroLED shop LuxVue in 2014, presumably with an eye toward its small screens. The tech still hasn’t materialized in an Apple Watch; imagine what it takes to spread those sub-pixels across a 146-inch Wall.
That timeframe isn’t so daunting in and of itself; not so long ago, 4K seemed just as far away, and that turned out just fine. But what makes MicroLED a wee bit more fascinating is that it’s not a generational leap. It’s mostly playing catch-up with what OLED can already do.
So why the hassle? Because in 2018, LG is the only company that produces commercial OLED TV displays. (Sony buys components off of LG for its OLED sets). And in the long term, it makes more sense for a behemoth like Samsung to pursue its own near-perfect picture than to rely on a competitor, especially when it already has such deep investments in its own LED manufacturing.
And that’s how you get The Wall: A genuinely exciting incoming technology that looks a lot like one that already exists.