Are OLED TVs Doomed?

Superthin, super-colorful OLED TVs were front and center at the Consumer Electronics Show in in 2013. But they faded into the background at the latest CES, yielding to a new breed of LCDs that accomplish what previously only OLED screens could: they curve.

Organic light-emitting diode technology results in screens that are amazingly thin (as they don't require the backlight that LCDs do) and amazingly colorful due to the saturated hues the chemicals produce when hit with electricity. Small OLEDs have been appearing on smartphones and other mobile devices for years. But the always-dreamed-of OLED devices – giant screen TVs – may never come to pass in a meaningful way, new research shows.

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It's not that the technology doesn't work. Big OLED backers LG and Samsung are already selling – for a fortune - curved 55-inch TVs that deliver the brilliant pictures that OLED has long promised. Prices are six to seven times higher than for comparable LCD TVs because the screens are very difficult and expensive to make.

In fact, a majority of OLED screens coming off the assembly line have to be thrown out because of defects, according to analyst firm DisplaySearch (a division of NPD). Unless production of OLED screens gets much more efficient quickly, they may lose the fight to good old LCD technology, which continues to get not only lower in price but higher in quality.

"The next big premium TV is not going to be an OLED," said Paul Gagnon, director of TV research at DisplaySearch. He expects 4K (aka Ultra HD) sets to take that role instead. And the data in his Quarterly Global TV Shipment and Forecast Report (last published in March) back up that claim. For 2014, Gagnon projects the average global cost of a 55-inch LCD TV with 1080p resolution to be $988. He expects an OLED TV of the same size and resolution to cost $6,600.

Meanwhile, 55-inch 4K TVs (with four times the resolution of HDTV) using LCD tech could average out to just $1,300, though that's partly due to ultra- cheap models being made in China. Still, even 4K TVs sold in the U.S. will be much cheaper than OLEDs. Premium TV maker Samsung's 55-inch 4K models start at $3,000, for example, and that will drop under pressure from Chinese manufacturers. "Prices are going to come crashing down soon enough," Gagnon told Tom's Guide.

Whether or not 4K goes big time, the price difference between OLED and LCD models of HDTVs will make LCD a no-brainer purchase for most consumers. And they may not be giving so much up.

"LCD is a moving target," Gagnon said. "Every time it looks like OLED is ready to be mass produced, LCD moves ahead in price and performance." The jump to 4K is one example, as Gagnon is skeptical that LG and Samsung will be able to mass produce 4K OLEDs anytime soon.

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Another example of LCD moving ahead is curved screens. This has long been the purview of OLED, as seen in the new Samsung Gear Fit smartwatch. And the first OLED TVs, from LG and Samsung, were all slightly curved models. But CES was awash in curved LCDs. And Samsung made a huge show of the tech at a media spectacular in New York City's famously curvaceous Guggenheim Museum. Nearly every TV on show in the rotunda (both 4K and HD) was a curved LCD, and there wasn't an OLED to be found.

"That's … exactly what I mean — that LCD can keep pace with OLED," Gagnon said.

Whether or not a curved LCD is a worthwhile investment for videophiles, it's a lot cheaper than OLED. Samsung's 55-inch curved LCD, in HD resolution, lists for $2,500. Its comparable OLED set sells for $9,000.

Gagnon and DisplaySearch are not ready to proclaim OLED dead just yet, as they are still waiting to see if Samsung and LG can throw enough money at the technology to make it viable. But the prospect of a flop is real, said Gagnon: "Yes, there is a chance that OLED will fail to make it."

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Sean Captain is a freelance technology and science writer, editor and photographer. At Tom's Guide, he has reviewed cameras, including most of Sony's Alpha A6000-series mirrorless cameras, as well as other photography-related content. He has also written for Fast Company, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.