In the middle of all the soup of TV terms such as OLED, QLED, HDMI, ARC and HDR, now you can add another to the list: Mini-LED. Although, it is not yet a familiar term, we are sure that it will significantly change the television landscape by offering improved brightness and contrast and without the need for expensive and exotic viewing technologies (such as MicroLED).
If this sounds like something too similar to QLED technology to you, you've definitely been doing your homework. QLED and mini-LEDs are actually complementary to each other, and together they can finally prove that OLED is not the only way to get the best image quality in the world. Here is the full story of Mini-LED and QLED.
LED: size does matter
There are two main types of TV screens at this time: self-emitting screens such as OLED and MicroLED, in which each pxel individually emits its own brightness and color, and backlit screens such as LED and QLED televisions, which require a backlight separated to provide its light source, while an LCD matrix and color filters handle color and control the amount of brightness.
LED and QLED TVs (which are essentially a subset of LED TVs), use an LED lighting source. But all televisions that use this technology are not the same. Low-cost LED TVs can use only a few LEDs arranged around the edges, this is why the name of televisions with edge lighting, while more expensive TVs use hundreds of LEDs arranged in a grid pattern behind the grid. LCD matrix The general rule here is that the more LEDs you can include in a backlight, the brighter it will become and the more control you will have over that brightness in very specific areas of the TV picture.
In a perfect world, a TV will have one LED for each pxel on an LCD matrix, but at the moment, that is impossible. There is a physical limit to the amount of normal LEDs in a given space, which is determined by the size of the LEDs. The bigger they are, the less you can use.
Mini-LED: a great leap to become small
This restriction on the number of LED emitters, based on the physical size of each LED, is what makes Mini-LED technology so exciting. Mini-Led breaks the barrier of the previous size by introducing LEDs that are much smaller than any of those that have been used so far. We are talking about being able to install thousands of LEDs in a space that before could only admit hundreds.
A 4K TV has just over eight million pixels, so the mini-LEDs are still significantly larger than an individual pxel, but that's fine: the mini-LEDs are much smaller than the standard LEDs, you can still see a big difference.
It's about light (and darkness)
As we said earlier, more LEDs lead to better brightness, beneficial for HDR, as well as to make the image visible in bright rooms, but it also leads to better darkness.
To achieve a deep and dark black in a specific part of the screen on a backlit TV, the type you expect when you watch space scenes, you must turn off the backlight in that part completely. If you have hundreds of LEDs working, you can control which areas of the screen are dark. This is called local complete matrix attenuation (FALD). But even with local attenuation, if there is a big difference between the brightest and the darkest part of the screen, this can lead to flowering, an effect that makes it appear that light seeps from the bright part towards the darkest part.
With Mini-LEDs, local attenuation becomes much more effective because it increases the number of dimmable zones while decreasing their size, which facilitates the isolation of dark areas from light ones. Not only does this make the darker parts of the screen darker, but the contrast created makes the lighter parts appear brighter.
So far, we have not seen a Mini-LED TV that turns as black (and not blooming) as OLED, but that gap between backlit TVs and broadcasting screens like OLED TVs is smaller than ever.
Where does QLED fit into all this?
QLED, or quantum dot LED, uses nanoparticles that have a special property: when the light shines on them, they emit their own light. When these quantum dots are strategically placed between the backlight and the LCD matrix, the brightness and color improves. First-line QLED TVs can offer image quality very similar to OLED. Their brightness and vivid colors may be bolder than OLED, but they still cannot match the perfect blacks of OLED.
If you turn on a QLED TV with Mini-LED backlight, you can retain all the brightness and power of a traditional QLED screen, but you also get highly granular control over local dimming areas. In theory, it is the ingredient that QLED has lacked in its competition with OLED.
Are there other benefits for Mini-LED?
Mini-LED TVs are, in all other respects, the same as standard QLED TVs, so the same benefits apply to both: screen sizes may be larger and prices may be lower than TVs OLED (for now, anyway). As the technology matures, we can expect to see the Mini-LED play an important role in improving image quality and reducing the price of LED and QLED TVs. There may also be gains in energy efficiency, since a large group of smaller LEDs can achieve the same brightness as larger LEDs, however, they need less energy to do so.
Who is manufacturing Mini-LED TVs?
At the moment, only TCL manufactures Mini-LED TVs and made its first release, the 8-series TV with Roku TV in 2019. We were impressed, but we were not convinced that it was an OLED killer. Your next Mini-LED TV is the 2020 Series 6. The 2019 Series 6 already has our vote for the best value on a 4K TV and we are excited to see how it improves once again with Mini-LED.
These TCL Mini-LED models can successfully launch the company. TCL announced its latest version of Mini-LED at CES 2020, which it calls Vidrian Mini-LED. Although we have not yet reviewed a television that uses it, TCL states that Vidrian Mini-LED displays will produce "unmatched levels of contrast, high brightness and long-lasting performance that is highly stable."
Is it a hipball or is it a real issue? We cannot say it for sure, but we know that Sony, LG and Samsung are also working on Mini-LEDs, so we hope it will not take much longer before it becomes the main way that LED TVs are backlit.