What Is MicroLED and When am I Going to Get It?

The television industry invites jargon like few others, an alphabet soup of specs and techs. Some of these convey important information; others emerged, devoid of any useful meaning, from the marketing gloaming. In that spirit, The Wall, Samsung’s new 146-inch stunner, invokes a term as yet unfamiliar the broader TV-buying audience: MicroLED.

Good news first: MicroLED is an actual thing, a type of display technology that represents a significant improvement over the LED televisions that dominate today’s market. Samsung’s implementation is also not pure prototype, or even probable vaporware; the company says that The Wall (that name!) will be purchasable sometime in 2018.

But fully understanding the potential impact of Samsung’s Wall—and why it even exists in the first place—requires a little more context. Your next TV almost certainly won’t be MicroLED, or even the one after that. Someday, though, it could become the industry standard, one that’s bigger, brighter, and more beautiful than almost anything on the market today.

LED, OLED, MicroLED

Let’s get a little technical (but only a little). The type of display technology that currently dominates the market is LED, which stands for light-emitting diode. It’s also a bit of a misnomer; the LEDs in question simply provide a white backlight, while a liquid-crystal display and layers of polarizers, color filters, and glass shape that light into the images on your television.

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LED works just fine, and can produce a pretty darned good picture. But because it requires light blasting in from the rear, it can have a hard time achieving those inky blacks that make your Battlestar Galactica binge so engrossing. The light seeps, which can also futz with contrast ratio, the all-important gap between the brightest and darkest a TV can be. You notice this especially on so-called edge-lit displays, which, as you might guess, push the light in from the side, creating a weird halo effect around your TV’s border.

If you want to confirm for yourself how all this looks in practice, well, turn on your TV. Unless LG or Sony made it, it’s an LED—even if the manufacturer gave it a fancy-sounding name, like Super UHD. Not bad, right? But it could be better.

In fact, it already is. That LG and Sony exception exists because they’re the only company making so-called OLED televisions. OLED requires no backlight; instead, it lights each individual pixel as needed, an electric current sparking an organic substance into action. No backlight, no warm haze oozing where it shouldn’t. Blacks are black, full stop, to infinity. Contrast ratios break the scale. The picture quality is, as Ray Soneira, president of DisplayMate, put it in 2015, “visually indistinguishable from perfect.”

Not too shabby! And exactly the sort of effect that MicroLED hopes not only to accomplish, but improve on.

Like OLED, Micro LED ditches the backlight, favoring instead extremely tiny LEDs, each of which comprises a red, green, and blue sub-pixel that can provide its own light. It also swaps in an inorganic material—gallium nitride, for those keeping score at home—for OLED’s organic offering, a critical difference for a few reasons.

“OLEDs are made of organic materials that age, resulting in a decrease in luminance over time, with the potential for uneven aging,” says Soneira. “LEDs are inorganic, can be made brighter than OLEDs, and aren’t as susceptible to aging.” OLEDs can also suffer “burn-in;” if you leave a static image on for too long, it can linger even when you move on to something else.

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