TV Jargon Explained: Separating Buzzwords From Practical Features
Back in the day, everyone owned a CRT TV and life was easy. The only television upgrade you could think of was a bigger size. Fast forward to today, and here we are drowned in a sea of buzzwords such as LED, QLED, HDR, Dolby Vision, High Refresh Rate, Motion Smoothening, Real Tone, smart platform, and whatnot! But, how much of this really matters to a consumer? Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff as we highlight things to consider when choosing a TV.
Here comes the most important thing to look for when buying a television set. While most manufacturers don’t talk much about the panel type, we are going to explain it all in detail. We are going to try not to make it too boring while at it.
Unlike LCDs that rely on the backlight, OLED (Organic LED) screens are self-illuminated. To put it simply, they are pretty much like fireflies that glow in the dark. In these insects, bioluminescence is powered by chemical reactions within the organism’s body. When it comes to the OLED panels, the luminance is achieved by exciting the organic materials with an electric current.
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Since each pixel in OLED can produce its own light, these panels can selectively turn off pixels to accurately render blacks. OLED screens also produce more vibrant colours compared to LCDs. Thanks to its superior picture quality, OLED panels are used on popular mobiles such as the latest iPhones, flagship Galaxy devices, and high-end OnePlus handsets to name a few. While OLED screens are quite mainstream on smartphones, they are confined to the premium segment when it comes to TVs and laptops. The OLED tech shines in terms of picture quality, but it also has its share of issues. For instance, OLED TVs generally aren’t as bright as their LCD counterparts. Moreover, they are more likely to be affected by screen burn-in (image retention). The biggest barrier in the adoption of OLED TVs is exorbitant pricing.
The TV at your house is most likely an LCD panel unless you have recently splurged over a lakh rupees. LCD is the most affordable screen type with prices as low as ₹12,000 for a 32-inch TV. LCD assembly mainly comprises a light source, colour filters, polarisers, and liquid crystals. The last one, as its name suggests, is an exotic state of matter that shows characteristics of fluids and crystals. Sandwiched between a horizontal and vertical polariser, these liquid crystals bend, twist, and block the light to form an image. While it gets the work done, these liquid crystals fail to fully block the backlight. Because of this, LCD screens suffer from light bleeding and also fail to render proper blacks. For instance, the images of interstellar space will look dark grey instead of inky black. The arrangement of liquid crystals also affects the viewing angles.
To improve its picture quality, brands have been refining the backlight system in LCD panels. Based on the type of backlighting, LCD screens are categorised as LED, QLED, and Mini LED.
Earlier LCD screens featured CCFL (Cold-Cathode Fluorescent Lamps) backlight. It is the same underlying technology as these lamps. By the mid-2000s, the industry moved onto LED backlights. These allowed for slimmer profiles and better energy efficiency. Since these lights are tiny, you get more granular control over brightness. The arrangement and concentration of these LEDs have a direct impact on the LCD panel’s contrast and colour gamut. Let’s take a look at the various types of LED configurations.
This is the ideal LED backlight implementation for LCD TVs. However, most brands shy away from it due to the increased manufacturing cost. A full-array backlight panel generally features hundreds of LEDs clustered in dozens of individually controlled dimming zones. Such TVs are better equipped to handle scenes that feature dark and bright areas in a single frame. A full-array LED TV can dim the backlights corresponding to the dark areas whereas the LEDs pertaining to the brighter spots can glow brightly. Overall, full-array LED arrangement alleviates many issues related to the LCD tech. However, it also introduces an undesired “halo” effect, which is a result of bright area bleeding into surrounding dimmed zones.
To keep the prices in check, TV manufacturers use the Edge-LED arrangement. This setup comprises only a few dozen LEDs instead of hundreds in full-array LED TVs. Accommodated inside the bezels, these LEDs heavily rely on the light-diffusing material to even out the brightness. However, you still get to see a darker patch in the middle of larger screens. To make their specs sheets look impressive on paper, companies add the local dimming feature to Edge LED panels. But, given the extremely limited number of dimming zones, this feature barely works. On the bright side, Edge LED TVs are thinner and lighter than the competition. More importantly, brands love it due to its affordability.
While QLED sounds a lot like OLED, these two don’t have much in common. The Quantum Dot LED (QLED) tech improves the existing LED backlight technology. To grasp its benefits, we first need to understand that a pure white light source is essential in LCD TVs. In most television sets, blue LEDs are used owing to their ability to produce higher luminance. This light is then run through a layer of phosphor to achieve white light. Your TVs colour range, as well as vibrancy, is based on the accuracy of this method. QLED panels offer a different approach to this process. These TVs deploy a thin film that contains quantum dots that emit a specific shade of red and green. When the blue LED light passes through this film, it generates pure white light. This superior white light when passed through LCD panel’s colour filters, produces richer colours compared to conventional LCD TVs. So, how good are the results? Well, in short, “QLED TVs” have better picture quality compared to your regular LCD panels with LED backlight. Just don’t expect them to replace OLED screens anytime soon. LG has a similar screen technology, which it prefers to market as NanoCell.
Some scenes cannot be properly reproduced on a low-brightness panel. Take for instance a simple image of a flower under direct sunlight. The bright parts of it can peak at 14,700 nits. Your SDR (Standard Definition Range) lacks the capability to render this image in full glory. This is where HDR (High Dynamic Range) standards come to the rescue by setting guidelines for brightness and colour depth.
The most widely accepted HDR standards at the moment are HDR10 and Dolby Vision. HDR10 recommends up to 1,000 nits of brightness along with local dimming and a 10-bit panel. Dolby Vision advocates for even higher standards such as up to 10,000 nits brightness and 12-bit color depth. TV manufacturers can ensure a better viewing experience by attaining these requirements. However, the HDR badge doesn’t always guarantee better quality as many brands find loopholes in this system. For instance, instead of using a 10-bit panel, companies use an 8-bit Frame Rate Control (FRC) panel to achieve more colors. These panels render the colours out of their range by using the dithering method. If you never heard that term, it is basically flashing adjacent colours to achieve the desired hue. While the technique works, it leads to the undesired flicker issue in most TVs. This is why when buying an HDR TV, you shouldn’t blindly trust the HDR sign.
High refresh rate screens have been popular among gamers for a while. However, there has been a sharp spike in its popularity after it made it to smartphones. The idea here is to deliver a sharper picture and smoother motion by taking advantage of additional frames. While all this sounds straightforward, its implementation is a bit complex. For starters, you can’t simply buy a high refresh rate panel and expect better visuals. For this feature to work properly, it needs to be complemented by high frame rates. If a display has 90Hz refresh rate display, your system must feed it with 90 frames per second to take advantage of this feature. If you own a latest generation gaming console such as the Xbox One Series X or PlayStation 5, check out our gaming TV recommendations over here.
If your usage is limited to watching movies, most of which are shot at 24 fps, the screen’s high refresh rate won’t be of any use. To enforce high frame rates in such cases, some brands deploy BFI (Black Frame Insertion) or frame interpolation methods. While BFI is self-explanatory, image interpolation relies on the onboard processor to generate additional frames based on existing data. Both these methods get rid of motion blur to a certain extent, but they also add an unnatural feel to the content generally known as the soap opera effect. So, while you may appreciate this feature while watching sports, you should turn off this feature while enjoying cinema. In fact, TV manufacturers such as Sony, LG, and Samsung now offer a dedicated Movie or Cinema mode that caps refresh rate to 24Hz.
Since OLED screens do not require a backlight and have a compact assembly, these panels aren’t much affected by the off-axis viewing. Even at extreme angles, OLED panels show little change in their colour and brightness. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the LCDs. When viewed from angles, LCD screens lose their brightness and colour accuracy. The extent of this optical degradation, largely depends on the arrangement of liquid crystals. Based on it, LCD panels are divided into three popular types — TN, IPS, and VA.
Let’s start with the TN (Twisted Nematic) LCD panels. In this LCD type, the liquid crystals are sandwiched between vertical and horizontal polarizers. By applying voltage, these liquid crystals can be twisted or untwisted to let the light through and form an image. This arrangement allows for a quick change of state, which is why TN panels offer a faster refresh rate. On the flip side, you get terrible viewing angles. In short, you should consider N panels only when you are looking for a budget gaming display. It is a no-go for watching movies.
Moving onto the IPS (In-Plane Switching) panel, this LCD’s liquid crystal arrangement is quite different compared to TN. Instead of a twist and untwist motion, the liquid crystals in the IPS panel rotate in the same pane. This method isn’t very fast, which is why IPS panels are the worst offenders in terms of refresh rate. On the bright side, it offers wide viewing angles and rich colours compared to TN panels. Overall, IPS panels are ideal for watching movies.
VA (Vertically Aligned) LCD takes a few good qualities of TN and combines them with those of IPS. As its name suggests, VA panels feature vertically aligned liquid crystals that can flip horizontally when current is applied. In terms of picture quality and viewing angles, VA panels are better than TN LCD screens. Moreover, their refresh rate is much better than IPS panels.
This is perhaps the most talked-about aspect of a TV. I have seen people making a purchase decision based on the operating system. That’s natural given how much importance brands give to this single aspect. Xiaomi pushes its Android-based PatchWall, Sony flaunts its Google TV experience, Samsung has its Tizen, and LG offers WebOS. We can explain each one of these in detail, but it is really not worth it. Your smart TV’s OS is likely to handle like a cow on an ice rink in a year or two. After that, you are either going to buy Amazon’s Fire TV Stick or settle for Google Chromecast. In short, a TV’s smart platform is kind of like your car’s music system. It is good to have one, but not all that important. Besides you can always change it later.