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It’s Official: I No Longer Care About OLED

Those of you who were following my more custom-focused CES posts at Residential Systems may have noticed an odd admission from me: I went into this year’s Consumer Electronics Show more excited OLED than about any other display technology, but cautiously so, given recent rumblings that LG and Samsung were softening on the tech. Honestly, for the most part, I think 4K is a waste of pixels for most consumer applications. And glasses-free 3D is still 3D, which excites me about as much as late night programming on CSPAN.

But OLED! Now there was something I was still hyped up about. Perfect blacks. LED-level brightness without the edge-lit inconsistencies. Contrasts that practically push the colors off the screen. Any morsel of a hint that OLED displays were finally coming to store shelves in any significant quantities would have been the highlight of my show — until, that is, I saw the new plasmas from Panasonic’s ZT60 line and Samsung’s 8 Series.

The new top-of-the-line models from both companies sport blacks that are pretty much exactly black, not to mention brightness levels that approach LED-strengths, thanks to a bit of technological trickery. The contrasts are incredible. In terms of picture quality, both sport pretty much exactly everything I’ve been so excited about with OLED. And any slight image inferiority compared to the mythical new video format are more than made up for by the fact that you can buy both of them at retail, like this year, for not a lot of money.By the time I climbed on the plane headed home, I found myself no longer caring if OLED becomes an actual thing this year.

But as you may have noticed from my headline, after a few weeks’ reflection, I’m sticking a proviso on the end of the pronouncement. For now, I’m not really interested in whether or not OLED makes it to the market anytime soon, because making it to the market very soon are a pair of TV lines that are very nearly just as good for a whole lot less money. I have a feeling my fascination with OLED will crank up again as soon as it becomes a viable technology for mass consumption (which may take a while longer yet, as manufactures juggle the conflicting priorities of longevity, performance, and price). But at least, with TV technology, I am not at this moment in the position I found myself in a year ago, struggling with whether or not to hop on a Sandy Bridge motherboard and processor or wait for the incrementally better Ivy Bridge tech from Intel. It was a decision so crippling that, a year later, I’m still kicking around with my old Q9300, waiting to see what’s next.

The thing is, OLED isn’t “next” enough to scare me off of this year’s plasmas anymore. They’re fantastic. They’re here. They’re now. They rock.

But looking forward, I still hold a faint hope for OLED, if only — ironically enough — because of another video tech I care little about right now. The most exciting OLEDs on display at CES were actually 4K prototypes. And yes, I know, I’ve been really meh about 4K. But meh or not, it’s coming, and soon enough it’ll be affordable, and the thing is, 4K plasmas at any screen size that anyone will actually buy are just not gonna happen. Probably ever. Try to make a 60-ish inch plasma 4K and the technology will start experiencing the same brightness struggles it suffered from in the shift from 480p to 1080p — a fight that it has only won in the last few years. OLED in 4K, though, looks positively smashing at any size — never mind the fact that you have to sit way closer to appreciate that extra resolution than anyone but gamers will ever sit.

But seriously, that’s what it’s going to take to get me excited about OLED again: a compelling reason to upgrade to 4K. Maybe Gran Turismo 6 — who knows?

Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the newness factor when it comes to OLED vs. plasma, ignoring all of the other performance gaps that plasma has finally just about spanned. When friends come to me asking what kind of TV to buy, they’re often stuck on LED for stupid reasons. Valid reasons would be, “I keep all my curtains open and watch a lot of TV during the day,” or “I’m really concerned about the energy efficiency of my display.”

Those are never the reasons I hear, though. It’s always more along the lines of “Well, LED is the newer technology, and I want the newest technology.” Those same people will inevitably buy OLED for all the wrong reasons. And there’s nothing I can do about them. They’ll just happen to luck into the best looking picture.

If you’re an actual video enthusiast, though, buying an actual TV, actually this year, and if you’re more concerned about picture quality parameters that matter than anything else – like contrast, black levels, etc. — this year’s crop of high end plasmas means there’s no real reason to hold out for OLED any longer, even if the manufacturers really, actually, by some stroke of luck get them to market this year. (Wink.)

Unless, that is, you’re really fascinated by the concept of curved TV screens.

And don’t even get me started on that.

( Updated: 2014-2-24 )
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