Why is this dinky little TV so important? Its screen is roughly the size of the box that Lebowski comes in, and it costs hundreds more than the 50" plasma overshadowing it in the picture. Why so important? Because this little TV is LCD's Grim Reaper. The days of the LCD are numbered—the time of OLED is at hand. And if the performance of Sony's XEL-1 is any indication, nobody is going to miss LCD—or plasma—in the least.
I single out LCD because the folks taking the lead on OLED are Sony, Samsung and others firmly entrenched in the LCD business, and because LCD still suffers from image demons that plasma overcomes more easily, and OLED smashes with a hammer, even at infancy.
Also, although everyone is demoing thinner and thinner sets in both LCD and plasma, most of the weight loss is currently on the plasma side. LCD seems to have hit some firm threshhold that, again, OLED and even plasma seem able to conquer. But at 11 inches, Sony's first production OLED is laughably small. What the hell, Sony? Way to taunt a guy. Seriously, there are major amounts of taunting happening here:
When you put an LCD next to a plasma, you almost always notice the contrast issues. Fiddle with the settings all you want, and you generally still can't make the blacks black enough on that LCD. When I first set up the OLED next to this Panasonic, a 50" 1080p 50PZ700U, I thought for a moment that maybe OLEDs had a contrast problem, too. But then I realized that whoever had the thing before me had been jerking the controls around too much. I reverted the picture settings to "standard" and suddenly the contrast was deeper than the plasma, with brighter highlights. OLEDs are self illuminating, so the very same thing that makes them super thin also gives them awesome contrast.
Obviously another big challenge for LCDs is the motion blur problem, which is mostly solved in higher-end LCDs using 120Hz systems and other similar techniques, but leaves cheaper sets hanging. It's most noticeable when you put an LCD side-by-side with a plasma showing the same movie. Fortunately, here again, the OLED did as well or better than the plasma at motion in the side-by-side test.
In the end, you're essentially staring into what could very well be the perfect TV. Only you're not a hobbit, and this isn't Bag End.
So why the dinkiness? OLED production is tricky, as you might recall from
this video of Benny the Intern and me at an OLED factory. Methods are best suited for small sheets of "substrate," not big screens of the stuff. Sony couldn't produce anything bigger now and still guarantee this kind of quality.
OLED makers also have to deal with panel half-life issues similar to those that used to afflict plasma in the days of yore. The XEL-1 is rated for 30,000 hours, or roughly 10 years of use; today's plasmas, including the above Panasonic, get something around 60,000 hours. In other words, long enough.
In the end, it's not a thing you go out and buy. It's a message in a slender frame. Sony never had massive R&D investment in LCD like Sharp or in plasma like Panasonic, and it's clear that this is Sony's way of saying, "Screw all of those, cuz OLED is what will matter, and oh yeah, Sony will drive OLED." Am I putting too many words in your mouth, Sony? I hope not, because this time next year, I'd like to be staring at a 50-inch version of this junior wonder. OK, 32 inches will be fine. 25 inches? 20????? [Sony XEL-1]