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2021: A Missed Opportunity for OLED TVs
No real progress this year for the most cinematic display tech, 2022 might not be different
As 2021 is slowly drawing to a close - Q4 will fly by in a blink as it always does - it's worth taking a step back to consider what this year meant for one of tech's most important markets: the TV set business. This year's CES in January seemed to make a lot of promises for real progress in picture quality, especially as far as OLED TVs were concerned: arguably the display tech most capable of delivering the kind of cinematic picture that makes every creator's vision justice, OLED remained excellent but also stagnant for the last two or three years. Was there no room for improvement, after all?
"No!", LG, the world's practically only OLED TV screen manufacturer, claimed, "that's not the case". The company not only promised to produce better, brighter "Evo" OLED panels capable of delivering a higher quality picture, but to also offer (for the first time in almost a decade) "more affordable" OLED TVs to all. It was a time of joy, it was a time of hope. For, as capable as LED/LCD TVs were getting - with advanced MiniLED backlighting and impressively effective processing - OLED TVs always held a special place in our hearts. Of course we'd want to have a brighter OLED picture to go along with those perfect blacks, of course we'd like more people to be able to enjoy them.
Fast forward to October 2021 and things... well, they didn't play out like that. LG's Evo OLED panels did arrive, most OLED TV manufacturers used them in at least one of their models, and they can indeed get brighter than "normal" OLED panels. Only... not by much. Certainly not as much as we'd all like them too: TVs with Evo OLED panels getting about 100 nits brighter in SDR and HDR modes than "normal" 2020 OLED panels is a perceivable, but not great, improvement. The overall impression of the most accurate picture modes of almost any OLED TV - Cinema and FilmMaker modes - is not that different.
Sony - using a special cooling solution for the OLED panel in its absolutely amazing A90J TVs, one that allowed the company to drive them harder for longer - managed to add almost 100 more nits to that, reaching just under 850 under certain circumstances. But those early leaked measurements of the A90J showing it hitting 1400 nits, unheard of in OLED territory, proved to be heartbreaking: not only is there no way the TV can sustain that many nits full-screen, not only can it not sustain them for more than a few seconds in a 10% window, but it can only do so in Vivid Mode, which is the most color-inaccurate of them all. People paying for that cinematic quality OLED picture will never use Vivid Mode. Simple as that.
So the Evo OLED panels were a promise not quite fulfilled: a step in the right direction for brighter OLED TVs, but a rather small one. What about those more affordable OLED televisions, then? Well, that did not pan out too, if by "more affordable" LG meant "actually affordable". News had been promising during the spring: contrary to what many thought at first, the A1 line of LG TVs does not use a lesser-quality OLED panel. It's of the same kind found in the more expensive C1 line. LG made compromises in build quality, HDMI ports and image processing to bring the price of the A1 models down, but hey: movie and TV show lovers could live with that, as long as that magnificent OLED picture could be had for considerably less money... at last.
Yet here we are, at the beginning of October 2021 - just three months before LG's next OLED TV series are announced - and the A1 line of TVs are just about €100/$100 less expensive, model per equivalent model in 55 and 65 inches, to the B1 line of TVs and just €300/$300 less expensive than the far better equipped C1 line. The 55-inch A1 can be had for about €1500/$1300 when on sale and even the smallest available model, the 48-inch one, still comes with an RRP of €1300/$1100 (and rarely ever is it on sale in Europe or the US). It is as if LG does not want any of its OLED TVs to cost anything less than €1000/$1000, which is what most people would consider "actually affordable". Yes, picture quality should come at a price, but after ten years of development, any display tech should have become mainstream by now.
So, all in all, 2021 will go down as promising at first, but a rather disappointing year for OLED TVs in the end. If not disappointing, then surely not exciting and definitely a missed opportunity for these TV sets to further distance themselves from the LED/LCD ones that got better this year (again). The fact that Sony's A90J managed to stand out, picture quality-wise, from the crowd based more on its extremely effective "Cognitive Processor" XR than on its brighter OLED panel, is telling. What's more, there's nothing in LG's pipeline at the moment that seems capable of bringing about significant change in 2022 as far as OLED display panels are concerned. Is there something that the Koreans have been secretly working on, capable of making a difference in the OLED TV category next year? Fingers crossed!