When it comes to TVs, it's interesting to look beyond what's available to see which technologies may be on the horizon. OLED TVs are state-of-the-art in display hardware—and they top our TV Ratings in several larger screen size categories. But reports out of Korea suggest that Samsung may be leapfrogging those TVs in favor of an emerging technology called QLED, which relies on self-illuminating quantum dots. (More on those in a moment.)

Even if QLED technology proves successful, you won't be shopping for QLED sets before 2020 or so. But the technology should intrigue anyone who laments the demise of beautiful plasma TVs while resisting the high prices of OLED TVs—which cost thousands more than comparably sized LCDs.

LG is the only brand making OLED TVs. There was some speculation earlier this year that Samsung was investing in a version of that technology, but newer reports in the Korean press suggest that Samsung may be shifting away from it toward QLEDs, or quantum dot LED TVs. These televisions would have many of the same advantages as OLED TVs—rich deep blacks, accurate colors, and nearly unlimited viewing angles.

However, proponents of QLED TVs say they'll be easier to manufacture than OLEDs and will therefore be priced more like LCDs. LG's least expensive 65-inch 4K OLED costs $4,000, while the cheapest 65-inch 4K LED TV is just a little over $1,000.

Samsung wouldn't comment on its OLED plans, but confirmed that it is working on QLED TVs.

"We are carrying on with our research and are open to all TV panel technology possibilities," a company spokesman says. As for QLED TV production, "considerable time will be required for its commercialization."

One analyst, Dr. Guillaume Chansin of technology market research firm IDTechEx Research, suggests that Samsung could pursue both tracks simultaneously.

"QLED will be the next evolution of OLED, and it would make sense for Samsung to invest heavily in this new technology," he says. But, "I don't think Samsung should skip OLED entirely because QLED will take several years to be ready for commercialization. I think the best strategy [would be] to develop OLED products first and then evolve the technology to QLED."

Another analyst, Susie Eustis, of WinterGreen Research, has a slightly different take, saying that Samsung's pivot to QLED "is a smart move by the TV industry leader in recognizing the failure of the OLED technology." Though she calls OLED's promise attractive, "production on a large scale, and shelf life stability, severely limit commercial adoption of this technology. "

QLED TVs are Real LED TVs

Quantum dots have been a television buzzword for the past couple of years, and some LCD TVs already use them. But the current sets aren't QLED TVs. Today's televisions use a blue LED backlight to illuminate quantum dots, which are extremely tiny nanocrystals embedded in a film that gets sandwiched between the other layers of the LCD panel.

When these tiny crystals are hit with the blue light from the backlight, they glow, emitting highly saturated primary colors. Each quantum dot gives off a single color, which can be controlled very precisely during the manufacturing process. 

What Samsung is considering with QLEDs is a very different application of quantum dot technology. The most important innovation is that QLED TVs don't need a separate backlight—the dots emit their own light. That's the way that plasma and OLED works, and it brings a huge advantage to a television screen.

In any of these technologies, individual pixels can be turned on and off. And that means you can get nearly perfect black levels and high contrast—in a night sky, a white star can be set into an utterly black backdrop with no light bleeding around the edges. That's something no backlit TV screen can achieve.

It's not clear how far along Samsung, or any other company, is in developing QLED technology. But based on industry reports, it's unlikely we'll see any of the TVs within the next three years. Until then, even the most finicky consumers will probably continue to buy LED LCD televisions—while hoping that OLED TV prices come down.

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