What's the difference between IPS and VA panels for TVs?
Not all LED TVs use the same hardware
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Right now, buying a new TV means choosing between two major technology types: an LED/LCD TV, or an OLED TV. Because OLED TVs are newer and generally more expensive, the average buyer is looking at LED/LCD TVs right now. And although there are several features and specifications to consider while shopping—the brand name, HDR compatibility, and refresh rate, just to name a few—there’s one important hardware spec that isn’t widely advertised: LCD panel type.
LED/LCD TVs are so called because of the two things that make up their displays: an LED (Light Emitting Diode) backlight and an LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) panel for that backlight to shine through. LED backlights vary between a variety of implementations, but, modern LCD panels generally come in one of two forms: IPS (In-Plane Switching) and VA (Vertical Alignment).
Unlike other hardware specifications (which are usually listed on the side of a TV box or on the manufacturer’s website), information about a TV’s LCD panel type is a bit more inside baseball. But if you’re willing to get into the weeds about it, you’ll discover that panel type has a far greater impact on a TV’s performance than you might expect—it affects contrast, color, and viewing angle as well.
What is an IPS panel?
IPS (In-Plane Switching) panels are a common display type for both computer monitors and TVs. Without getting too far down the rabbit hole, let’s talk a little about how IPS panels distinguish themselves from other types.
Every non-OLED TV on the market today is an LCD TV powered by LED lighting. Individual pixels in an LCD display are made up of liquid crystals activated by voltage—this is what produces color. An IPS panel aligns its crystals horizontally, parallel to the glass substrate.
In short order, I’ll explain how this process impacts picture quality. For now, it’s helpful to note that IPS technology was developed in part to improve the color and viewing angle performance of a display. There's also a range of variations under the IPS umbrella, including S-IPS, H-IPS, e-IPS, P-IPS, and PLS (Plane-to-Line Switching). But, while they all differ marginally from one another in operation, their core functionality (as compared to VA panels) is the same.
What is a VA panel?
VA (Vertical Alignment) panels represent another common display type, used for both computer monitors and TVs, but especially for the latter where they greatly outnumber their IPS counterparts. Most LED/LCD TVs you'll find on the market use a VA panel. While IPS panels align their liquid crystals horizontally, VA panels align them—you guessed it—vertically. They run perpendicular to the glass substrate rather than parallel to it. When met with voltage, the crystals tilt, letting light through and producing color.
This positioning changes how the liquid crystals behave. Without any voltage, the liquid crystals in a VA panel do not tilt, which is a better outcome if your goal is to block light and create image depth. Like with IPS, VA panels also come in a few varieties: PVA, S-PVA, and MVA, though again, their core functionality (as compared to IPS panels) is the same.
What about TN panels?
TN (Twisted Nematic) is an older LCD display type. While they're still relatively common display types for computer monitors, TN panels aren't typically used in TV production anymore.
What's the difference between IPS and VA panels?
Now that we’ve explained the bare essentials of these two technologies, let’s take a look at their relative strengths and weaknesses.
The cornerstone of picture quality, contrast refers to the range between a display’s darkest black levels and brightest highlights. Because VA-style panels excel at producing deep, dark black levels, this is arguably their biggest strength. VA panels almost always feature deeper black levels than their IPS counterparts, and this goes a long way in creating a detail-rich picture. An IPS panel can mitigate this by serving up an exceptionally bright image to offset relatively shallow black levels.
A TV’s total viewing angle describes how much a viewer can move away from an ideal, head-on viewing position before the contrast and color of the picture begins to deteriorate. Due to the positioning of their liquid crystals, IPS panels excel in this department; they typically offer significantly more viewing flexibility than TVs with VA-style panels. In other words, IPS panels are more reliable for group viewings (or any situation where a viewer might need to sit at an off-angle).
While impressive color production is possible on both display types, IPS panels tend to offer wider colors, given the nature of their hardware. While a wider range of colors tends to spell better color accuracy, the advent of additional TV technologies like quantum-dot color have evened the playing field considerably. In other words, you’re far more likely to notice the benefits of an IPS TV’s wider viewing angle than you are to notice its tendency for wider color.
Here’s the final takeaway: IPS panels are significantly better than VA panels when it comes to viewing angle and somewhat better than VA panels when it comes to color. VA panels, however, almost always offer deeper black levels and better overall contrast. And because they block light better, TVs and monitors using VA panels tend to have better backlight uniformity regardless of LED backlight type.
How can I determine a TV’s panel type?
Unfortunately, not only is it rare to find a TV’s panel type listed on a manufacturer’s website, but it’s increasingly rare for a brand to reveal a TV’s panel type at all—even when we contact brands directly for information. Like most information that companies hold close to the chest, the reason for this caginess has everything to do with marketing; it’s better to keep shoppers focused on the bells, whistles, and impressive performance specs of a TV rather than its potential shortcomings.
To add to the confusion, it’s common for different sizes of the same TV series to mix and match display types; you might find that the 55-inch version of a TV features a VA-style display while the 75-inch model uses IPS.
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to determine panel type if you have the proper equipment and you know what to look for. Certain test results and viewing characteristics act as tell-tale signs. This is why my colleagues and I make a point of discussing panel type in just about every TV review we publish, and why you should make a point of reading reviews before making a purchase.
Finally, it’s worth noting that panel type is not the end-all-be-all for LED/LCD TVs. Many other factors, most of them related to the style and intensity of the LED backlight, can have a major impact on factors like contrast, viewing angle, and color intensity. Ultimately, you need to see a TV in person to get the best idea of how its various characteristics come together to create an image. But by knowing the core differences between IPS and VA LCD panels, you can at least make some good guesses before you buy.
Which type of TV panel should I buy?
If you’re buying a large screen and intend to host movie night with friends and family, a TV with an IPS-style panel is far more accommodating thanks to its superior viewing angle. Just be aware of the fact that certain content—particularly dark content—won’t pop as much on account of the panel’s shallower black levels.
On the other hand, if you want the best possible picture overall, we recommend investing in a TV with a VA-style panel. They’re not always ideal candidates for group viewings, but the vast majority of the best TVs you can buy (of the non-OLED models, that is) feature this display type.
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