LED TV: Fact or Fiction?

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LED TV: Fact or Fiction?

Mmmm January. Cold weather, snow, people taking up space in the gym with no intention of staying longer than a week, and oh yeah, playoffs! I love it, or at least I did until my Eagles went belly up to the Cowboys on Saturday (1/9/10)… utterly shameful. Anyway, this is also the time of year when people go out and purchase a brand new HDTV, and I hate to see people suckered into marketing scams involved in electronics. Have you ever paid over twenty bucks for HDMI cords? If yes, you’re in the suckered camp. Sorry.

The latest blip on my scammadar (you know, like scam radar) is this idea of LED TVs. Yes, Sony has an LED TV that has possibly the best picture in the world (I can’t say I’ve actually seen it), but it’s different from the LEDs you’ll find now at the local big box retailer (The fact that an 11″ TV costs $2,500 should be a clue). All of these so called LED televisions are really just LCDs. Up until now, LCDs have used fluorescent bulbs as the backlighting source that shines light through the liquid crystal. Manufacturers now use an array of LEDs to shine through the liquid crystal.

So it’s still an LCD but with LED backlighting. Does it produce a better picture? Absolutely, but it’s basically equivalent to what we’ve seen from plasma’s for years. It’s all about higher contrast ratios. Contrast ratios essentially tell you how black the black on the screen is (except that contrast ratios are a huge scam. Google it or leave a comment for more info).  I’ll let you measure the pros on cons of the whole Plasma vs. LCD debate; just don’t confuse these improved LCDs with the real LEDs coming in the future.

LED TV: Fact or Fiction? (Soapbox Edition)

I’m a gadget guy. Mostly, I love big TVs, big speakers, and huge subwoofers. Unfortunately, I’m still in school and can’t afford any of those toys. This is why it pains me to see the general populace be misinformed and duped by clever marketing schemes. If you’re confused by all the terms at your local big box store, pay attention to the following.

CES 2010, the grand daddy of new-gadget tradeshows, was just held this past week. For gadget geeks such as myself, it’s a weeklong state of euphoria as new product after new product is announced. It also means we get a preview of all the new buzzwords we’ll see plastered in stores for the next year. Get ready for LED HDTVs (If you haven’t already seen them).

Okay, lets backup for a history lesson. At CES 2009 (maybe earlier, I can’t remember), Sony unveiled their newest TV technology, organic light emitting diode televisions or OLED TVs. Apparently, (I wasn’t there) the screen quality and color accuracy were really impressive almost true to life. It also boasted contrast ratios of, well infinity. I know I know, infinity doesn’t sound like a ratio, but let me explain. I’ll try not to make it too technical.

The contrast ratio is basically the difference between the darkest dark and the brightest bright onscreen. Usually you’ll see numbers of 1,000:1, 5,000:1, or more recently1,000,000:1. The big number (5,000) is the measure of the brightest bright, and the 1 sets the base level of the darkest dark. If we think about it, changing the darkness by a little will have a much greater effect on the ratio than changing the brightness a little. The contrast ratio is used to demonstrate how dark a screen can be. A higher ratio means you’re approaching “true black” and not “true bright” where you’d need to put your welding goggles on.

Can we assume the simple process of comparing model A to model B will allow us to find the “darkest” TV? Negative lieutenant. Unfortunately, there is no standardized method for measuring contrast ratios. Company A might say they have a 2,000:1 ratio, but Company B’s TV actually looks darker even though it only claims a 1,500:1 ratio. Glad we got that straight. I hope you’ve learned enough now to know you now know nothing. Back to LEDs.

So Sony releases its OLED TV and it’s gorgeous. Everyone agrees OLED is the future of television. Think of OLEDs as tiny multicolored bulbs. Every HDTV is made up of pixels. Think of those pixels as tiny dots that are placed really close to each other. So OLEDs work by placing many tiny multicolored bulbs really close to each other and turning them on and off, which makes the black part of an OLED really black. It’s the total absence of light since the bulb is off. Now you understand why I said it has an “infinite” contrast ratio. There is no light at all!It’s awesome! The problem is all those tiny LEDs cost money and that explains why Sony’s eleven inch OLED television (seriously eleven Sony… who makes an eleven inch TV?) costs an astonishing $2500. We’ll have to wait a while to get our own OLED TV.

Meanwhile, LCD manufacturers are beginning to see the writing on the wall. They dominate the market now, but eight-tracks were once the staple of the musical empire too. Plasma canprobably compete in the future since it offers very good contrast ratios and is getting better all the time. The LCD guys on the other hand are forced to evolve the technology. LCDs work by using an array of lights that shine through the liquid crystals (the pixels, think like windows). Instead of using the traditional fluorescent bulbs (similar to the ones you’ll find in office buildings), they installed LEDs as the “backlighting” source. In order to keep costs down, they don’t backlight each pixel with one LED (you might as well have an LED tv then) they divide the screen up into zones and backlight hundreds and thousands of pixels with a single LED. This attempts to provide the benefits of LED TVs (total darkness when off even if not as precisely and minutely as a real LED TV) while lowering the price tag.

So why do I share all of this with you? I look at plasma technology and I’m frustrated. It is the better technology currently (and has been for a while), but LCD continues to outsell it significantly. It violates my adolescent sense of justice and fairness. Here now is my petition.

Do not be fooled by this new propaganda that promotes LED as the next greatest thing in television technology. Plasma television is still, in most cases, the preferred choice when purchasing a television larger than 40 inches. Why? Plasma used to hold an edge to LCDs just based upon picture quality, but LCD makers have been band aiding its shortcoming with new LED backlighting, faster refresh rates, and 120Hz processing to eliminate motion blur. It is now left to simple economics. When comparing the price for televisions over 40 inches, plasma’s are still less expensive. It’s that simple.

I don’t claim to be an expert. I’d love to get my hands on these products, but all this information is just from hours of investigation online motivated by my own curiosity. If you’ve heard differently than this, I would tell you not to believe everything you read… unless I wrote it.

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