So, we’re doing something a little different today. Black Friday is in a few days and we’re going to geek out on TVs. 

If you’re looking at a new TV purchase, three new technologies are coming down the pipeline that you may want to know about. Two will already be on the shelves this Friday. 

#1 The Completely Wireless TV by Samsung           

Samsung has, at least in my mind, always been at the forefront of aesthetics. It always has one of the slimmest bezel designs.  It recently released TVs with stands that allow one to route the cables through the stands to hide them from view. One of their most expensive TVs has a hub that interfaces your bundle of cables to the TV through a single cable that is more easily hidden in a wall or the TVs stand while the hub can be hidden in a nearby cabinet. And it was even the first, and seemingly only, company to come out with a framed TV–a TV including a custom picture frame along with a picture frame matte, special lighting and reflectivity to make a still image on the screen look like a real photo or painting.  It’s perfect for those times when you’re not watching TV, but don’t want a giant ugly black rectangle disrupting your otherwise harmonious feng shui.

Goodbye Wires

A recently-published Samsung patent application, US20190067996, suggests that Samsung will continue this quest for sleek and unobtrusive TVs with a completely wireless TV. The published design forgoes all HDMI, sound and even power cables. It’s entirely wireless.

And it’s being made possible by improvements to the same inductive power transfer seen in wireless phone chargers and induction stoves.  However, unlike those older versions of power transfer through magnetic fields where direct contact between objects is needed, Samsung has optimized the magnetic field projections so that power and data can be transferred wirelessly over a distance of up to a few feet (i.e., the distance between your TV cabinet and the TV hanging on the wall above the cabinet).   

We won’t be seeing the wireless TV this year, but right now you can get TVs with quantum dots and micro LEDs.

#2 Quantum Dots

Every company seems to be using quantum dots in their higher end TVs. Vizio uses them in their M and P series TVs.  Sony calls it Triluminos. Samsung denotes quantum dot technology with its QLED varieties. 

To understand why quantum dots are the rage, and why they’re the next stage of evolution for TVs, you almost have to break down the entire panel of a TV and understand how that works.

On a TV you’ve got three pixel colors: red, blue and green. Every traditional LED TV also has a backlight, which is typically an array of blue LEDs behind a white phosphorescent layer–the blue light is absorbed by the phosphorescent layer, which emits white light–the backlight.  Each pixel includes a different color phosphor which takes the white light and converts it to red, green or blue, and an LCD layer above this controls the amount of light leaving the TV, or brightness, for each pixel. By mixing the brightness of each of these three colors most 2K TVs can produce around 16 million colors, while 4K HDR TVs can achieve around 1 billion colors. 

The problem is that since we started with blue light, the blue pixels tend to be brighter than the red and green ones, and thus TVs use a complex system of color mixing and filters to even out the baseline for these three colors. However, while the filtering process purifies the colors and evens out pixel brightness, it also means that you filter or lose some of the brightness that you started with.  

It’s an inefficient process. TV performance often comes down to brightness and contrast, and contrast is partly a function of how bright the TV is. In the filtering process we lose brightness, and thus contrast.  But what if the filters could be eliminated?

How Small is Small

Quantum dots eliminate the need for filters and thus produce better contrast and brightness. They are tiny semiconductor compounds, particle size typically around 2-10 nanometers across. For reference, that’s around 200 to 2000 times smaller than the average human hair. And the cool thing about quantum dots is that they emit colored light, not according to their atomic structure, but rather according to their size.  Chemists control the size of quantum dots through the amount of heating, time of heating, and chemicals used to make the quantum dots. Smaller dots emit bluer light and larger dots emit redder light. Thus, Samsung, Sony, and the rest can accurately control the color of light for each pixel by adjusting the size of quantum dots used in each pixel during manufacturing. Since filters are not needed, far more light reaches the viewer than in a traditional LED TV. 

Result?  We don’t lose much of our brightness. All the light that we put in, more or less, we get on the way out.  This brightness enhances contrast, and that’s one of the keys that TV buyers look for.     

Their price point sits right in between top-of-the-line, and pricey, organic LED TVs, and the tried and true filtered LED TVs that we’ve been buying for years. 

Essentially, quantum dots give TVs near-OLED contrast without the steep prices. 

#3 The Micro LED

In a micro-LED TV, every single pixel is an LED. There’s no backlight.  No need to convert blue or white light to red and green using phosphors.  No filters. You have one tiny red, green, and blue LED for each pixel trio–no conversion, no filtering, no loss of brightness. All the light is preserved, and we see brightness and contrast that betters quantum dot TVs and probably even OLED TVs.

It’s not an easy display to manufacture.  Typical LED pixels are around 100 microns across, but the LEDs used in the backlight can be much larger.  Micro LED TVs have to produce very tiny LEDs, the same size as each pixel, and find a way to quickly move thousands of these LEDs from a freshly-printed wafer to a display substrate.  You can imagine that trying to pick up and accurately place objects that are no bigger than a hair’s diameter can be tricky and slow. Each LED of a given color also has to have the same tone of that color and the same brightness–a feat of quality control that evades many fabrication lines today.  Often, an LED fabrication line trying to produce a particular color of blue LED will end up with dozens of different shades of blue that have to be separated, and then only those LEDs in a given separated set can be used together. Obviously, the consistency needed for micro-LED fabrication is difficult to achieve.

But, the result is a stunning display–and a stunning price tag.  Don’t expect to see Black Friday deals on micro-LED displays. In fact, pricing isn’t even available.  Samsung’s ‘The Wall’ can only be seen at two locations in America, and only by appointment. The standard configuration is an array of 16 displays linked together to form a TV that is about 10.5 feet across and 5.9 feet tall.

Betamax vs. VHS Again?

So why bother with Micro LED? Currently, it seems like quantum dot vs micro-LED is a case of Betamax vs VHS. Each system has unique challenges.

Ultimately, the price should come down on Micro-LEDs because the structure is much simpler. There are fewer layers and thus potentially simpler fabrication. 

Fewer layers means thinner displays, whereas with quantum dots, you’re still kind of in that old regime with backlights and many layers forming a somewhat thicker display.  

So, when you’re sitting around the turkey and gravy dreaming about that TV that you may splurge on come Friday morning just after midnight, maybe you can now do so with a greater appreciation for the incredible genius, ingenuity, and dedication of thousands of chemists, physicists, and engineers that worked tirelessly this year to make in-home cinema all the more engrossing.