April 11, 2021
Samsung's Neo QLED TVs are packed with futuristic-sounding tech

Mini-LED TV: What makes Samsung Neo QLED, LG QNED and TCL OD Zero so special?


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TCL’s 8-Series was the first with Mini-LED, but in 2021 more major names are joining the fray.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Between run-of-the-mill LED LCD TV and high-end OLED TV lies mini-LED. It’s the latest evolution in television tech that uses thousands of tiny light emitting diodes to improve picture quality. Not just a marketing exercise, this is a real advancement in display technology. TCL was the first to launch a mini-LED TV in the US but at CES 2021 two major names joined the fray: Samsung, which calls its version Neo QLED, and LG, which went with QNED for some reason.

Read more: Samsung Neo QLED TVs available for preorder starting at $1,600

We’ll untangle the mismash of acronyms in a moment but let’s start with what makes mini-LED special. By using more, smaller LEDs, a TV can have finer control over its highlights and shadows, for potentially better contrast and image quality overall especially with HDR shows, movies and games. Mini-LED’s advantage over OLED, the best TV tech on the market, is that can be more affordable. It’s an evolutionary technology, not a revolutionary one, and draws on existing LCD TV technology. In the two mini-LED TVs we’ve tested so far, TCL’s 8-Series and 6-Series, the picture quality improvements are the real deal, although neither are good enough to beat OLED.

Now that TCL has been joined by Samsung and LG, you’re bound to hear a lot more about mini-LED TV in 2021. Here’s how it works, and why it’s so cool.


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Mini-LED is not MicroLED

Before we get started, know that mini-LED and MicroLED are not the same thing. MicroLED is a cool future tech that’s reserved for huge screens and rich people today — the latest version is a 110-inch Samsung for the cool price of $156,000. Mini-LED is currently available in TVs as small as 55 inches and as affordable as $700

MicroLED displays, like Sony’s Crystal LED and Samsung’s The Wall, use millions of LEDs, one for each pixel. Essentially, you’re looking directly at the LEDs that are creating the picture. And while each individual MicroLED is tiny, the modular nature of MicroLED means it can get truly gigantic. The biggest example we’ve seen of Samsung’s The Wall hit 292 inches diagonal, although the 2021 version isn’t modular and ranges from a relatively modest 88- to 110-inches.

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MicroLED is seen here in a massive 219-inch size Samsung calls The Wall.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Mini-LEDs are found inside normal-size TVs but the LEDs themselves are much larger than MicroLEDs. Just like the standard LEDs found in current TVs, they’re used to power the backlight of the television. A liquid crystal layer, the LCD itself, modulates that light to create the image. MicroLED isn’t LCD at all, it’s a whole new TV technology that also happens to use LEDs.

Here’s how the two stack up against one another as well as standard LED, QLED and OLED.

Light-emitting diode TV technologies compared

Standard LED QLED OLED Mini-LED MicroLED
Size range 15-inch and up 32-inch and up 42-inch and up 55-inch and up 88-inch and up
Typical 65-inch price $800 $900 $2,000 $1,000 N/A
US TV brands All Samsung, TCL LG, Sony LG, Samsung, TCL Samsung
Based on LCD tech Yes Yes No Yes No

Bright lights, big TV, better local dimming

To understand mini-LED, you need to understand standard LED, at least as far as your TV is concerned. Inside all modern LCD TVs (i.e. every TV that’s not an OLED), there’s anywhere between a few, to a few hundred light emitting diodes. These tiny devices emit light when you give them electricity and are being used everywhere in the modern world, from the flashlight on your phone to the taillights on your car. They range in size — commonly they’re around 1 millimeter, but can be smaller than 0.2 millimeter. In your TV these LEDs are collectively referred to as the “backlight.”

In some TVs the LEDs are on the edges, pointing inward. On others, the LEDs are behind the screen, pointing toward you. For improved image quality, particularly to appreciate high dynamic range (HDR), you need local dimming. This is where the TV dims the LEDs behind dark sections of the image to create a better contrast ratio between the bright parts of the image and the dark. For more on this, check out LED local dimming explained.

Ideally, you’d be able to dim each pixel enough to create a visually impressive contrast ratio. This is, for example, how OLED works. With LCD, though, it’s much harder to do. The liquid crystal panel that creates the image only blocks the light created by the backlight. Not all the light can be blocked, so the image is grayer and has less “punch” than with OLED. 

Local dimming improves this issue, but it’s not 1:1. There isn’t one LED for each of the 8 million-plus pixels in a 4K TV. Instead there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pixels for every LED (or more accurately, groups of LEDs called “zones”). There’s a limit to how many LEDs you can squeeze onto the back panel of a TV before energy drain, heat production and cost become severely limiting factors. Enter mini-LED.

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On the left, the image as you’d see it on a TV with full-array local dimming. On the right, an exaggerated illustration of the backlight array as you’d see it if you could remove the LCD layer. Arranged across the back of the TV, each LED covers a large-ish section of the screen (i.e. creating the light for many thousands of pixels). Pinpoint, or per-pixel lighting is impossible.


Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

osaka-with-miniled

Here’s the same image (left) illuminated by another exaggerated illustration, this time of a mini LED TV array backlight (right). Note how much more you can make out compared to the standard-size LEDs in the first image above. With far more LEDs, the backlight has a greater “resolution,” so there can be finer distinctions between light and dark. The ideal, like OLED and micro LED, would be per-pixel illumination, but mini LED is a step closer to that without the cost of the other two technologies. 


Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Going big with little LEDs

Although there’s no accepted threshold, LEDs smaller than 0.2-millimeter tend to be called mini-LEDs. They’re often 0.1-millimeter or less. Not too small though: At around 0.01-millimeter, they’re called MicroLEDs.

Generally speaking, when you make an LED smaller, it becomes dimmer. There’s less material to create the light. You can offset this a bit by giving them more electricity (“driving” them harder), but there’s a limit here, too, constrained by energy consumption, heat, longevity and practicality. No one is going to hook their TV up to a high-amp, home appliance-style outlet. 

As LED technology improves, they get more efficient. New tech, new manufacturing methods and other factors mean that the same amount of light is created using less energy, or more light using the same energy. New tech also allows for smaller LEDs.

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TCL’s comparison of LED backlight types using the 8-Series with mini-LED as the “Best” example.


TCL

One of the first mini-LED TVs available was TCL’s 8-Series. It had over 25,000 mini-LEDs arrayed across the back of the TV. These were grouped into around 1,000 zones. Both of these numbers are significantly higher than what you’d find in a traditional LED TV. The 75-inch 2019 Vizio Quantum X for example, had 485 local dimming zones. No TV maker aside from TCL officially lists the number of LEDs in its TVs, but it’s safe to assume none have as many as 25,000 (yet).

Don’t expect every mini-LED TV to have that many LEDs, of course. Lower-end models will have far fewer, but likely still more than regular LED TVs. For instance TCL’s 6-Series from 2019 had 1,000 mini-LEDs and 240 zones — more than many models at its price but clearly not at the same level as the 8-Series.

If you were to take the LCD layer of the TV off, the mini-LEDs would create an image that would look like a low-resolution black-and-white internet video version of the show you were watching (see the pairs of image comparisons above). By being able to dim parts of the screen far more precisely, the overall apparent contrast ratio goes up. It’s still not quite as good as being able to dim each pixel individually (like OLED and MicroLED), but it’s far closer to that ideal than even the most elaborate full-array LED LCDs now. 

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LG

Having more zones is a big factor here, as it means improving two other aspects of the image. The most obvious is reducing the “blooming” typical of many local-dimming LCDs. Blooming is created because the local-dimming backlight is too coarse, creating light behind a part of the image that should be dark. 

Imagine a streetlight on an otherwise dark road. A local-dimming TV doesn’t have the resolution in its backlight to only light up the pixels creating the street light, so it has to light up some of the surrounding night as well. Many LCDs TVs have gotten pretty good at this, but not as good as something that can dim each pixel like OLED. With mini-LED, you might not be able to light up individual stars in a night scene, but the moon probably won’t have a halo.

Because there’s less of a chance of blooming, the LEDs can be driven harder without fear of artifacts. So there can be a greater on-screen contrast ratio in a wider variety of scenes. The bright parts of the image can be truly bright, the dark parts of the image can be at or near totally dark.

Samsung Neo QLED, LG QNED and TCL OD Zero: What’s in a name?

The overall name for the technology is mini-LED. That’s what TCL calls it, but LG and Samsung, true to form, prefer to use their own names. 

Samsung’s is Neo QLED, building on the company’s years of marketing QLED with quantum dots. LG’s QNED, based on its Neo-LED technology, is a brand-new addition to the bewildering world of TV acronyms.

There are bound to be differences between how these companies implement mini-LED, most notably how many LEDs are on each size of TV. On top of that, how well these LEDs are addressed and other factors will determine how good they look compared to each other and to other TV technologies.

Meanwhile TCL will introduce its third-gen mini-LED televisions this year as well, called OD Zero. Compared to current Mini-LED TVs such as the 6-Series, TCL says OD Zero TVs will be much thinner thanks to a reduction in the distance between the backlight layer and the LCD display layer.

So far other major TV makers like Sony, Vizio and Hisense have not introduced mini-LED TVs in the US, but that could change soon.

The dark night returns

Deep blacks and bright whites are the Holy Grail (Grails?) of TV image quality. Add in the color possible with quantum dots and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic-looking television. With LG still the only company able to make OLED work affordably in TV sizes, other manufacturers need ways to create competing technology. LCD is still the only cost-effective alternative, and while it has come a long way, it’s an aging technology. Mini-LED is the latest band-aid keeping it in the game.

As far as band-aids go, however, this is a pretty good one. The fact that two of the heaviest hitters in the TV arena, LG and Samsung, have both announced new mini-LED TVs should tell you a lot about their enthusiasm for the technology. It should be interesting to see how it plays out against OLED in the near-term and, eventually, micro LED and future technologies like OLED with quantum dots and direct view QD.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and YouTube, and on his travel blog, BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel.





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