OLED, QLED, QNED: What's the difference?
Let's get to the bottom of all these TV terms
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Shopping for a TV in 2021 can feel a little like waking up on the day of a big test only to realize that you haven't studied any of the material. There's a long list of TV buzzwords, from 4K/HDR to eARC, and the list is always growing and evolving.
However, while you might not need to dive deep into the tech specs, some terminology is an absolute must to understand while shopping for a new TV. As the latest TVs make their way to market, you might find yourself considering an OLED, QLED, or even a new QNED TV. Here's a breakdown of the difference between these technologies (and others) so you can make an informed choice.
First, a bit about the basics
If you want to understand what terms like OLED or QLED mean (and how they "work"), it's important to first understand some of the more traditional terminology. If you already know what a LED or LCD refers to in terms of TVs, you can skip this section. If not, it might be time to brush up on some of the basics.
The one thing that we see a lot of consumers get confused about is the difference between an "LED" and an "LCD" TV. So, here's the scoop: all LED TVs are LCD TVs. In fact, these days, if it's not a plasma TV (remember those?), an OLED TV, or one of the (very new) MicroLED TVs, it's an LCD TV. LCD, or Liquid Crystal Display, refers to a kind of panel technology sometimes called "transmissive" technology. This is because LCDs need a backlighting element (often just called a backlight) in order to transmit an image. By contrast, technologies like plasma, OLED, and MicroLED are called "emissive" because the panel creates, or emits, its own light. As you'll find out below, this basic function is what makes OLED TVs so awesome looking.
As transmissive TVs go, what's often called an "LED TV" is just an LCD TV with an LED backlight. LCD TVs used to use cold-cathode fluorescent lights (CCFLs), which is why the terminology came into being as a differentiator. But nowadays, any name-brand TV you buy is going to use LEDs in its backlight. In fact, in the last few years even the basic LED backlight has been improved: new "mini LEDs" (more on them below) promise big improvements to basic backlight functions. As for the liquid crystal part: how it works is complicated, but all you really need to know is that it's a plastic substance that shifts between closed/open states (to let light pass through).
What is OLED?
OLED (short for organic light-emitting diode) is one of the most ballyhooed display technologies in existence for very good reason.
While traditional LED/LCD TVs rely on a backlight to illuminate the picture, each pixel in an OLED panel turns on and off independently. Instead of using a backlight, the pixels emit light all on their own, which makes OLED an "emissive" display technology.
This means that when the TV needs to display black, i.e. the absence of light, the pixels are turned off completely and you're getting "real" black where you need it. The end result is contrast that is essentially impossible to duplicate on traditional LED/LCD TVs, which use a backlight (or edge lighting) that can bloom or "halo" around the darkest areas on the screen.
For example, consider a movie or TV show's depiction of a starry night: While TVs using a standard LED backlight need to flood the entire night sky with at least some dim lighting in order to share that light between each twinkling dot, an OLED panel renders each star individually with pinpoints of bright, concentrated light consisting of a few self-illuminated pixels.
The surrounding night sky, therefore, is free to be as inky-black as the content's creator originally intended. It all comes down to contrast—the cornerstone of a display's overall performance. And OLED TVs produce the best contrast of any easily obtainable display tech on the market right now.
There is a catch, however: OLED TVs don't get quite as bright as some of their high-end competitors. The self-emitting nature of OLED pixels makes each of them an individual heat source, which imposes fundamental limitations as more of those pixels light up. This means that while tiny pinpoints like stars may look brilliantly bright, a tundra scene or hockey game will almost always be dimmer than it would be on a comparable, LED-backlit TV.
Other OLED advantages
Contrast also isn't the only thing these TVs do better than LED/LCD TVs. OLED TVs provide highly saturated colors (compared to LCD models) without the need for additional technology like color phosphors or quantum dots. Because OLED TVs don't use (or need) a backlight, they also don't need a variety of transistor/stabilizing layers within the panel, making them incredibly thin (the most common form of comparison is "the width of stack of four credit cards").
The thin profile of OLED TVs doesn't just look futuristic, though. Because there are fewer layers between the light source and the very front of the screen, the light waves have more lateral and diagonal movement in all directions, meaning that the image is preserved at much wider off-angles, both vertically and horizontally.
There are other pros and cons to OLED TV technology, but the key things you should know are that you should expect unbeatable contrast performance; vivid, naturally occurring colors; wide viewing angles; and, generally, higher price tags. Currently, LG is the most prolific producer of OLED TVs, but there are plenty of great OLED TVs out there, including options from Vizio and Sony.
What is QLED?
The "O" in "OLED" stands for "organic," and the "Q" in "QLED" stands for "quantum"—quantum dots, to be precise. QLED essentially refers to an LED TV that's equipped with quantum dots (a quantum dot-equipped OLED TV may be possible, but no one has tried it yet).
What are quantum dots? In a nutshell, they're microscopic nanocrystals that react to a specific color of (blue) light by emitting red and green light, depending on their size in nanometers. Quantum dots are usually applied as a film that covers the entire screen space (inside the TV), but are also sometimes applied in tubes along the screen's perimeters (if the TV is edge-lit, for example).
The end result is TVs that can produce much more richly saturated colors, especially colors that rely on combinations of red and green, than those using the same backlighting technology without quantum dots.
Although the term "QLED" was originally popularized by Samsung to market its high-end quantum dot TVs, both Hisense and TCL have flirted with the moniker in the past, and Sony was actually the first TV manufacturer to wield quantum dots in its displays. Today, conducting a Google search for "QLED" produces mostly Samsung-related results, but for our purposes here, the term is a catch-all for displays that feature quantum dots.
Emmissive vs transmissive displays
Here's an important distinction: Unlike OLED displays, which use emissive panel technology, quantum dot displays are a souped-up version of transmissive backlit TVs (LED/LCD models). This means that, while you'll almost assuredly bask in bright, beautiful colors when viewing a quantum dot TV, the TV in question will still rely on a backlight—you won't see black levels that plunge as deep as those on an OLED, nor will you get the same untarnished viewing angles.
That said, the benefit of quantum dots is unmistakable. TVs use a digital light color production process called "additive color," where grayscale hues (blacks, grays, and whites) are produced by combining the three primary colors in digital light: red, green, and blue (RGB). Quantum dots greatly enhance the color saturation of red and green, allowing LED/LCD TVs to catch up and even surpass OLED TVs in terms of color saturation. It could even be argued that quantum dots are the primary reason LED/LCD technology has remained relevant in the age of HDR.
The additive color method also relies on higher volumes of light to further saturate colors. That's the reason you can expect most TVs equipped with quantum dots to be brighter than average screens: the extent of an LED TV's color saturation is positively correlated with its backlight brightness. To that end, QLED TVs are some of the brightest we've ever seen, sometimes twice or even three times as bright as OLED TVs.
It's important to remember that, while QLED TVs are quantum dot TVs, not every quantum dot TV is called a "QLED" TV. But for the most part it doesn't matter—if you're dead-set on buying a TV with "QLED" in the name, what you probably mean is that you're dead-set on getting quantum dots.
What is QNED?
New in 2021, QNED is the moniker that LG has applied to its quantum dot-equipped (Q), NanoCell (N) "emitting diode (ED)" TVs. If you're scratching your head a bit over this one, we don't blame you. But in LG's defense, Samsung kind of did it first with "QLED."
Despite the confusing naming scheme, QNED TVs (which, as of right now, are not yet available to test or buy) seem to offer a winning combination of technologies on paper. These are traditional LED/LCD TVs, albeit they're also kitted out with quantum dots (explained above). In addition, they incorporate LG's proprietary NanoCell tech, which the company describes as particles that absorb unwanted wavelengths of light. Finally, they incorporate mini-LED backlights (more on that below).
One key spec that will likely differentiate LG's QNED models from Samsung's QLED models (in 2021, both have variants that combine quantum dot color enhancement with mini-LED backlights) is that LG's non-OLED TVs tend to use a different panel type. LG's TVs often use IPS-style LCD panels, while Samsung (and most other LED/LCD TV manufacturers) use VA-style LCD panels. Without getting too into the weeds on what that means, the best way to think about them is that IPS panels have wider viewing angles than VA, while VA panels tend to do a better job producing dark shadow tones.
While it all gets more complex the deeper you dive, the key thing to know about "QNED" is that you're getting a quantum dot version of LG's popular NanoCell TVs. If it says "QNED," it's an LG TV.
Other TV terms to know
What is ULED?
To recap: The "O" in "OLED" means "organic" and the "Q" in "QLED" means "quantum," while the "QN" in "QNED" means (roughly) "Quantum Nanocell." But there are also a few other important terms you may want to be aware of when arming yourself to pick your next TV.
The "U" in "ULED," however, refers to "Ultra," and as it turns out, the concept is about as slippery as it sounds. The term was coined by Hisense, and we can only assume its inception was a direct response to the rise in popularity of OLED TVs and/or QLED TVs.
Unlike OLED and QLED, which refer to tangible pieces of hardware, ULED is a proprietary term that refers to a suite of Hisense hardware and Hisense software working in tandem. According to Hisense, ULED is "20 picture patents working together to optimize backlighting, motion, and color data for the best viewing experience."
At one point in time, Hisense may have reserved the ULED designation for its quantum dot TVs. These days, the company is a bit laxer with the term. The Hisense H8F, for instance, carries the ULED designation despite not featuring quantum dots.
Because Hisense specializes in budget-friendly alternatives to premium-priced TVs, there's a good chance the ULED TV you're eyeing isn't on the level of an OLED TV or a QLED TV—especially if the ULED TV in question doesn't feature a quantum-dot panel. Of the terms listed in this article, ULED is objectively the least meaningful, which means you'll have to approach ULED TVs with a more critical eye.
What about mini-LED?
There have been rumblings about new "mini LEDs" for a couple of years, but they've finally come into their own in the current marketplace. The term mini-LED refers to an emerging backlight technology that uses LED backlights that are, as it sounds, much smaller than traditional LED backlighting. This means many more of them can be packed in on a per-inch basis than traditional LED backlights, and thus, they can be more nimble about how they illuminate an LCD display.
Right now, there's a lot of disparity in the mini-LED landscape. Referred to as "mini-LED," "Mini LED," or "Mini-LED" depending upon which manufacturer you're dealing with at the time, we've heard that up to 30,000 mini diodes can fit into a backlight, and that they're as much as 75% smaller than traditional backlight diodes.
However, not all mini-LED TVs are created equal. TCL's 2020 6-series TV uses far fewer mini-LEDs than the company's pricier 8-series. As such, the term mini-LED can be a misnomer when it comes to judging overall picture performance.
While there's no way to predict exactly how the adoption of mini-LED backlights will affect individual TVs, you can expect to find mini-LED TV variants from all of the most popular TV brands, and expect them to (generally) perform better than TVs with traditional backlights. The smaller diodes allow mini-LED TVs to be thinner in profile, and the higher diode count should enable much better control over light flow paths and local dimming functions.
How about Micro LED?
While the names are similar, mini-LED and MicroLED are about as different as TV display technologies can be. Unlike miniLED, which is essentially just a smaller version of traditional LED backlights, MicroLED is a new kind of emissive technolgy designed, at least in part, to take on OLED.
While Mini LED displays can now be purchased by consumers, they are prohitibitvely expensives for almost all buyers, and the technology is closer to its prototype stage. It's currently only available from Samsung [Link to consumer Micro LED here], and is designed to utilize multiple panels strung together to create screens that go from traditional sizes to massive, blazingly bright walls.
Micro LED is still too new to worry about for virtually all buyers, but it is something to be aware of if you're looking down the TV display pike.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.