Buying a television these days is a complex endeavour, if you're trying to get the best viewing experience for your buck.
There are acronyms to decipher, like working out which type of LED (light emitting diode, the little semiconductors used to create the image) technology offers the best picture quality for the money; that's before you start looking into other features like high dynamic range, surround-sound that makes it seem like there's a three-dimensional audio-scape, and high display refresh rates for smooth action.
It is a bit daunting, especially if you're looking at high-end sets that cost several thousand dollars and should, ideally, last quite a few years. In those giddy stratospheres, you'd normally look at Organic LED (OLED) TVs. The LEDs in those can emit light by themselves, and can be turned off fully. Without a backlight that other LED TVs use, you get solid blacks for high contrast and stunning images.
Although the issue of screen burn-in and gradual image degradation over time of OLED panels is hotly debated, there's no denying sets made with the technology are expensive. The panels can't quite match the brightness of other technologies either.
To get OLED image quality without the expense and other drawbacks, manufacturers are taking LEDs for backlighting and shrinking them. Making them really tiny in fact. The affordable iteration is Mini LED: this uses LEDs in the 100-200 micron range. That's at least a fifth smaller than normal LEDs, and the Minis use three, a red, green and blue, to make a pixel.
Along with a quantum dot nanoparticle substrate film and several backlight dimming zones, Mini LED TVs like the TCL C825, a 4K set running Google Android TV, do seem to deliver on image quality without breaking the bank. Well, Mini LED is still Rare Tech and hard to make because three LEDs per pixel means millions of the diodes are required per panel. So, the 55-inch C825 costs $3,499, but you get variable refresh rate up to 120 Hz, and high dynamic range (HDR10+) support if your movies need it.
TCL didn't provide the full nitty-gritty tech details, but the panel appears to be an 8-bit variant with Frame Rate Control (RFC) which gets you the over a billion colours that full 10-bit does (1024 hues for RGB, compared to just 256 for 8-bit) while being cheaper to make. If that's too geeky, having that many colours means much smoother gradations between colours, without the annoying banding that digital displays can be prone to.
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The C825 has nits! A full thousand of them, according to a TCL marketing manager. That makes the set nice and bright which is good for HDR. Too bright in some situations, but there are plenty of image adjustment controls to fix that. The Movies and IMAX modes on the set looked quite good, actually. Not image-related, but the C825 has great audio through the integrated Onkyo branded sound bar, and the design of the TV is subdued and nice.
Even though Mini LEDs seem really super-tiny, the next iteration of the tech will be Micro LED. That's 50 micron or thereabouts LEDs.
Micro LEDs are meant to provide all the advantages of OLEDs, that is the darkest of darkness, while at the same time being capable of high brightness. This will apparently be done with small parabolic mirrors behind each LED, to reflect the light produced towards viewers.
Also, Micro LEDs will be power misers, which is important for smartphones and laptops especially, but also for big screens, to reduce heat.
Apple, Sony and Samsung are reportedly working on Micro LED panels but the technology sounds like it's extremely hard to manufacture. Micro LEDs will no doubt go into very expensive premium products at first.
Seeing is believing and Mini LEDs show the power of making tech incredibly small. Watch this space for more dreadful tech columnist puns as fine display technology shrinks even further.