OLED, QLED, ULED: What's the difference?
Let's get to the bottom of all these TV terms
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Shopping for a TV in 2019 can feel a lot like waking up on the day of a big test only to realize that you haven't studied any of the material.
Terms like "4K" and "HDR" are pretty straightforward, but what about "refresh rate," "HDMI 2.1," and "FALD?" There's a long list of TV buzzwords and the list is always evolving.
Today, I'd like to take a look at three similar-sounding (but totally different) display types: OLED, QLED, and ULED. At first, these terms might appear to be interchangeable, but dig a little deeper and you'll find that their differences are stark.
What is OLED?
OLED (short for organic light-emitting diode) is one of the most ballyhooed display technologies for very good reason.
While most traditional LCD/LED panels rely on a backlight to illuminate the picture, each pixel in an OLED panel turns on and off independently of the others— and instead of using a backlight, the pixels emit their own light. This allows for deeper, richer black levels—essentially "true" black levels because the pixels aren't dark, they're turned off entirely. The end result is superb overall contrast.
For example, consider a movie or TV show's depiction of a starry night: While traditional edge-lit panels need to flood the entire night sky with at least some dim lighting in order to produce each twinkling dot, an OLED panel renders each star 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. Essentially, it all comes down to contrast—the cornerstone of a display's overall performance. And OLED TVs do contrast better than anything else on the market today.
There is a catch, however: OLED TVs don't get quite as bright as some of their high-end competitors (more on that later). And although OLED TVs have dropped in price considerably in recent years, they're still priced accordingly for what they are: arguably the best TVs money can buy.
LG and Sony are two of the most vaunted OLED TV manufacturers in the industry today. The LG C9 is not only our choice for best OLED TV, but it's also our current top-rated TV, period.
What is QLED?
The "O" in "OLED" stands for "organic," and the "Q" in "QLED" stands for "quantum"—quantum dots, to be precise.
What are quantum dots? In a nutshell, they're microscopic dots that react to light by emitting color. TVs that feature quantum dots, therefore, are able to produce brighter, more intense colors than those that don't.
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. Today, conducting a Google search for "QLED" produces mostly Samsung-related results, but for our purposes, the term is a catch-all for displays that feature quantum dots.
Here's an important distinction: Unlike OLED displays, which are a completely separate technology from LCD/LED panels, quantum dot displays are a souped-up version of traditional LED panels. 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.
That said, the benefit of quantum dot TVs is unmistakable. As I write this, top-of-the-line quantum dot TVs are capable of getting twice as bright as the brightest OLED we've tested. This year, the Vizio P-Series Quantum X (a quantum dot TV without the QLED namesake) measured a peak brightness of nearly 3,000 nits—something consumer-facing OLED TVs just aren't capable of yet.
Just remember: All QLED TVs are quantum dot TVs, but not every quantum dot TV is a QLED. 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 a Samsung TV with quantum dots.
What is ULED?
To recap: The "O" in "OLED" means "organic" and the "Q" in "QLED" means "quantum."
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 TV manufacturer Hisense, and I can only assume its inception was a direct response to the rise of OLED 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 more lax 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 that the ULED TV you're eyeing isn't quite 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 three 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.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.