​Is OLED slowly burning down?

LG may be winning the battles, but Samsung is winning the war in the global premium TV market as OLED's burn-in problems persist, making the upcoming CES and the next year ever more important.

LG's OLED TV has the best black among competing TV technologies despite the United States' National Advertising Division (NAD) recently browbeating the company to stop advertising them as "perfect black" and "infinite contrast". Any genuine TV reviewer in a dark room will tell you so.

But it's not the picture quality that is the issue here, which, no matter what TV manufacturers such as Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, and Philips claim, is pretty level in the premium sector, especially in the eyes of consumers. This OLED versus QLED -- fundamentally an LCD TV with a quantum dot film layer -- is in many ways reminiscent of PDP versus LCD a decade ago.

However, OLED technology may have a more serious, fundamental flaw that doesn't really make it the best display tech for TVs at all: The burn-in.

THE SLOW BURN

Burn-in has been reported consistently, and multiple times publicly. In 2015, in its home country of South Korea, LG's OLEDs installed at N Seoul Tower showed signs of burn-in, though it was considered an isolated incident at the time. Earlier this year, the firm's OLED TVs displayed at Incheon International Airport suffered clear signs of burn-in and forced the company to change them back to LCD. A newly bought LG OLED TV on display at a prestigious industry tradeshow also showed signs of burn-in.

The company rebuts that in normal viewing settings they last longer, but Rtings showcased a months-old test where the firm's OLED TV suffered burn-in after 4,000 hours, much faster than it advertised.

It is highly likely that more such reports will surface, either in LG Electronics' own OLED TVs, or at companies such as Sony, Panasonic, and Philips that get OLED display panels from LG Display. The wider reports of burn-in coincide directly with wider distribution of OLED: LG Display shipped 200,000 large-size OLED panels in 2013, but shipped 1.7 million last year.

If this is a problem that can be overcome in time, that would be all fine and good, but LG's consistent firmware updates seem to strongly indicate that it cannot resolve this in the fundamental, manufacturing level. Its latest firmware update is reported to more aggressively alter the screen's light output when switching between bright and dark content. Sony, which gets its OLED panels from LG, also rolled out similar firmware that dims static images intentionally.

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OLED TV burn-in at Incheon International Airport

(Image: Cho Mu-Hyu)

MARKET SHARE

Did LG's blitzkrieg against the LCD status quo help it gain shares? After all, the market speaks the loudest, and data seems to indicate otherwise.

According to NPD, for flat-panel TVs in the US, arguably the most important TV market, top dog Samsung controlled 36 percent, while runner-up LG secured 15.2 percent based on revenue. Vizio was third, with 13.4 percent, and Sony was fourth, with 11.5 percent. This year up to August, Samsung controlled 34.3 percent, LG 15.2 percent, Vizio 11.4 percent, and Sony 10.8 percent. It's more or less a plateau.

But things get interesting if you're just looking at the premium sector. Last year for TVs that cost over $2,500, Samsung had a 34.3 percent market share, Sony had 33.3 percent, and LG 30.3 percent. But this year as of August, Samsung controlled 43.6 percent, while Sony had 32.9 percent and LG 22.9 percent. LG's market share is headed in the wrong direction.

In the third week of September, Samsung went as far as to control 55.9 percent, while Sony secured 23.1 percent and LG 20.5 percent. LG's third-quarter results, where its home entertainment division saw profit drops, reflect this decline.

This difference is even wider in TVs over 75 inches, the crème de la crème of TVs where manufacturers today secure their much-needed high margins. Last year, Samsung controlled 50 percent, while Sony had 35.6 percent and LG 8.4 percent.

As of August, Samsung had 57 percent, while Sony had 25 percent and LG 9 percent. In the third week of September, Samsung garnered 68.7 percent, Sony 16.7 percent, and LG 9.6 percent. It seems Samsung is taking strong advantage of LCD panels' price drop and moving units more aggressively, backed by the switch to QLED hitting its third year and the brand stabilising.

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Samsung's modular MicroLED TV, the Wall

(Image: Samsung)

BLACK VERSUS BRIGHTNESS

Another interesting thing of note is the dichotomy of LG and Samsung's different marketing focuses. LG explicitly markets the deep blacks of OLED, while Samsung highlights the brightness of QLED, and the contrast ratio battle of words goes on. I am more in the camp of black being more important for contrast ratio, but Samsung's strategy to focus on peak luminescence (2,000 nits) might be working for consumers.

Brightness comes into play in real-life viewing scenarios; people don't watch TV in the dark. For shoppers, the first time they look at a TV is in a brightly lit mall, not a dark room, and more likely even brighter than their homes. Samsung has consistently stressed that dark room tests don't reflect real life, and there may be a point to this. This is especially true when taking into account consumer purchasing patterns.

All in all, beginning with CES next year, it will be crucial for LG to show whether it can deliver OLED massively and answer the persistent burn-in problem. For Samsung, the likely continued drop in LCD prices will give it a market advantage, and its oft-promised MicroLED TV, which doesn't use organic materials, will keep the marketing battle with its arch-rival manageable and reassert its place at the top.

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