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Since televisions became commercially available in the ‘20s, picture quality has steadily improved. But as flat-CRT, Plasma, LCD, and LED technology sharpened our displays, there has always been technological progress to make. Color, black levels, brightness, contrast, sharpness, resolution, viewing angle, motion—TVs have a lot to do, and they can’t seem to do it all. But last week, our evaluation of the new Samsung OLED technology showed something we never expected: perfect black levels. This is a conquered test, and it has some awesome implications.
Before the OLED, our top-rated plasma TV came within a hairs breadth of a perfect score—0.004 candelas per meter squared—almost as low as you can get while still registering a reading. With scores that low, it appeared there was an asymptote at zero; we didn’t think it was possible to completely turn off or dim a pixel. But the OLED’s score really was black. And since you can’t get darker than zero candelas, this was a perfect score.
Black levels are widely considered the single best indicator of screen performance, and OLED’s perfect numbers mean we’ve reached the pinnacle of television technology—at least as far as the eye is concerned. Because they affect many other aspects of television quality, this has a huge effect across the board. With black levels of zero candelas per meter squared, televisions can finally attain infinite contrast ratios (whatever amount of maximum brightness divided by zero), mimicking the dynamic range of the real world.
There are many more indirect beneficiaries of perfect black levels. Improved black levels mean TVs can exercise improved control over gamma correction, since the middle grays are made up of black and white. And since a screen’s inability to completely dim a red, blue, or green sub pixel causes most of the significant color issues, OLED televisions have the ability to ace our color tests, as Samsung’s did.
OLED technology leaves so little to improve on, and even the diminished returns will likely be too negligible to notice. Beyond black levels, contrast, color, and gamma, other areas are already conquered. We can barely distinguish 4K from 1080p, OLED design creates a near 180-degree viewing angle, and televisions have been bright enough for quite some time. In its current conception, the television display is completely mature technology.
Perfect black levels aren’t going to mean the end of TV innovation, but this will result in a paradigm shift. It’s true that OLEDs have shown us some of television’s technological limits, but those are only technological limits. As more TVs adopt this technology and flaunt near-perfect displays, manufacturers will be able to focus on other areas like features, user experience, access to content, efficiency, aesthetics, and on getting the less-expensive models up to this standard. This is an exciting time for TVs, and we’re expecting innovation in these other areas.
We want to be as clear as these displays that this is the upper technological limit. While it’s impressive to see Samsung’s OLED reach this limit, don’t expect the more affordable models to hit these numbers yet. Samsung’s OLED may have been a near-flawless work of craftsmanship, but some OLEDs will likely sacrifice some quality to make them affordable. Perfection, after all, is pricey.
But even if these OLEDs represent mature television technology, it’s certainly not mature display technology. With a little help from the hollywood imagination, we’re expecting holograms, google glass contacts, invisible screens, direct brain interfacing, and more—all of which will most likely start far below the impeccable standard of OLED image quality. And we we'll be waiting to review those.