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TCL OLED TVs are coming — and they're about to get a lot cheaper

TCL 5-Series Roku TV (S535) review
(Image credit: TCL)

It seems like everyone wants a piece of the OLED TV business. Rumors initially suggested that Samsung was moving into OLED TVs, and now it looks like TCL is working on OLED sets of its own.

A recent tidbit from a European press conference with TCL Europe has set off speculation that not only is TV manufacturer TCL working on its own OLED technology, but that we might see the first TCL OLED TVs as early as 2023.

The rumor comes from a seemingly offhand comment made during a TCL Europe press conference, as reported by What Hi-Fi and Tech Radar. While this roughly tracks with other public statements from the company and open information about investments by the Chinese consumer-electronics maker, it's the first time we've heard anyone putting a date on when we might begin to see the first TCL OLED models.

To find out more about TCL's plans regarding OLED TVs, we spoke to Aaron Dew, director of product development at TCL North America.

Is TCL preparing to make its own OLED TVs?

From the start, Dew was not comfortable making any firm statements about when we might see an OLED TV from TCL. However, he was more than willing to help us learn more about the present state of TCL's OLED development.

"As you saw in the news, the comments from Europe this week," said Dew, "we definitely are investing in self-emissive technologies [like OLED] and we do see a future opportunity for that technology." 

This is largely in reference to sizable investments by TCL in Japanese company JOLED, which is developing a new ink-jet printing process that promises to be cheaper than LG's white OLED (WOLED) technology and make OLED TVs easier to manufacture. 

According to a JOLED press release last year, TCL bought a 10% stake in the company. Other reports indicate that TCL has invested 20 billion yen ($187 million) into the OLED maker to jointly develop the new OLED technology.

All of this conversation is complicated by the fact that TCL's panel manufacturer, subsidiary China Star Optoelectronics Technology — often referred to as simply TCL CSOT — is in a separate part of the larger TCL corporate family than TCL North America or TCL Europe. 

As a result, details about technical developments and upcoming manufacturing capabilities might not be well-known elsewhere in the company. Yet there was no denying that TCL is looking at adding OLED sets to its roster of TVs and is working hard to develop OLED manufacturing capability.

"We are evaluating future display technologies," said Dew. "We are investing in those future display technologies, and so we think there will be a time for that."

Where does OLED fit into TCL's plans?

But an OLED model joining TCL's other smart TVs would be a big shift for the manufacturer, which has largely focused on creating high-quality yet value-priced TVs. OLED technology may be the top dog in terms of picture quality and contrast, but it's also (for now) a premium product, and makes up a minority of sets in the TV world.

"If you just take a big step back," said Dew, "there's two kinds of TVs in the world today: There's self-emissive OLED TVs and there's LED LCD TVs. And the way the market looks, it's over 97% LED LCD TVs and less than 3% self-emissive white OLED in the world today."

Any OLED development will run parallel to the existing technologies that TCL is already using and working to improve. Aaron Dew specifically cited mini-LED backlight as the main focus for current TCL TVs, which makes a lot of sense.

TCL introduced the smaller-backlight technology back in 2019. Only in 2021 did competitors begin to adopt similar mini-LED tech in their own TVs, such as the Samsung Neo QLED line and the LG QNED with Mini-LED, in an attempt to catch up with excellent models like the TCL 6-Series Roku TV (R635).

"That's our focus," said Dew, "in terms of any sort of new TV technology," speaking of that balance between value and performance. 

"We were the first to introduce mini LED back in 2019," he added. "We're continuing to roll that out and you'll see that on more of our TVs, and we'll have more to talk about later on this year."

When will we see the first TCL OLED sets?

But what about the bigger question of when those OLED TVs will arrive? TCL Europe has said that OLED models could show up as early as 2023, but Dew isn't ready to give any firm dates. 

"I'm not ready to talk about when we'll productize that," he said in response to our questions.

That said, he was more than happy to point out that this sort of investment into R&D was a big part of TCL's success in the last few years.

"That's what helped to get us to a top-two position here in the U.S. in terms of TV market share," said Dew. "Largely, we produce everything in-house that we distribute and sell to customers. That gives us great power in terms of bringing new technology faster."

"And we continue to invest and you see those new investments around things like ink-jet printing of OLED materials, which is a little ways off, but you see that continued investment."

Given some recent rumors about Samsung buying OLED panels from rival Korean manufacturer LG, I also asked if we might ever see a TCL OLED TV that used a panel made by another company.

"No," Dew said flatly. "We certainly don't have any plans to do anything like that, and we don't do that today."

Whatever the future holds for OLED TVs coming from TCL, we can be pretty sure that TCL will continue to maintain control over its manufacturing and won't be turning to outside sources to provide parts.