Modern tech life teems with long-standing dilemmas, questions that never seem to go away. Mac or Windows? Turn off the computer every night or let it sleep? Plasma or LCD?
Fortunately, that last question will soon have an answer. There is a new TV on the block, and its picture is so amazing, it makes plasma and LCD look like cave drawings.
It’s called organic light emitting diode, or OLED. This technology has been happily lighting up the screens of certain cell phone and music-player models for a couple of years now, but Sony is the first company to offer it in a TV screen. It’s called the XEL-1, and it’s available only from SonyStyle stores. Its picture is so incredible, Sony should include a jaw cushion.At a cooperative Best Buy store, I did a little test. I set the XEL-1 up next to state-of-the-art plasmas and LCD sets, all hooked up to the same video signal for easy comparison, and recorded the reactions of shoppers and employees. Their adjectives for this picture included “astonishing,” “astounding,” “incredible” (twice) and “amazing” (five times).
They were right. The XEL-1’s picture is so colorful, vibrant, rich, lifelike and high in contrast, you catch your breath. It’s like looking out a window. With the glass missing.
Name a drawback of plasma or LCD — motion blur, uneven lighting across the panel, blacks that aren’t quite black, whites that aren’t quite white, limited viewing angle, color that isn’t quite true, brightness that washes out in bright rooms, screen-door effect up close — and this TV overcomes it.
Plasma is supposed to offer darker blacks than LCD, but OLED trumps both of them. Next to this TV, even the blacks on the critically adored Pioneer Kuro plasma screen look very dark gray. Blacks on Sony’s OLED TV are jet black. Absolute black. Black-hole black.
To make this thing even more drool-worthy, the XEL-1’s screen is only 3 millimeters thick; that’s shirt-cardboard thick. If they could build a laptop with a screen this thin, it would make the MacBook Air look like a suitcase.
The reason: In an OLED screen, each pixel generates its own light; there is no need for bulky backlights, as there are in, for example, LCD sets. In the labs, they have OLED screens so thin you can roll them up.
Finally, OLED uses less electricity than either plasma or LCD.
So, if this thing is so amazing, why isn’t everyone stampeding to get one?
Because even though the XEL-1 is the biggest OLED television you can buy today, it’s only an 11-inch screen. That’s not a typo; it’s smaller than your laptop screen.
Oh, and it costs $2,500.
Several factors are at work here. First, OLED screens are still very difficult to manufacture, and at this early stage, this size is about all Sony can crank out reliably. Second, of course, there is the early-adopter factor; Sony charges that much because it can. Any well-heeled early adopter who sees this thing winds up desperately wanting one.
If you are tempted to join those early adopters, beware of a few items of fine print. First of all, the XEL-1 is not actually a high-definition TV. It accepts hi-def signals, but it doesn’t display all of that resolution. In fact, it has only 960 by 540 pixels; you would need four of these screens to equal the pixels of one 1080p high-def screen.
Yet here is what’s shocking: Instead of complaining how coarse the picture is, people exclaim how much sharper it is than hi-def plasmas or LCD sets. That’s partly because the pixels are far tinier than they are on a 50-inch behemoth. You can’t see individual pixels even with your nose smashed up against the glass
As a “desktop television” (Sony’s euphemism for this tiny thing), the XEL-1 comes mounted on a flat tabletop base. The screen floats above it, suspended by a chrome arm on the right side. This design is tidy and self-contained, and it allows the screen to tilt 70 degrees forward or back. The screen doesn’t rotate on its vertical axis, however; if you want to show it off to someone next to you, you have to turn the whole base. Or don’t, and just exploit the screen’s nearly 90-degree viewing angle.
Nor does the screen come off of that base so that you can suspend it or mount it — a fantasy that occurs to almost everyone. The base is, after all, where you connect the power cord and the video sources. Its back panel offers a coaxial cable input, two HDMI cables, a headphone/digital-audio output jack and a Memory Stick slot to play photos of the memory card from a Sony camera)
There are no component-video inputs and no analog inputs for such things as VCRs, although if you’re spending $2,500 on an 11-inch TV, chances are pretty good that you have graduated beyond the VCR.
Another concern: Until recently, OLED had a reputation for short life span. Sony, however, says that the XEL-1’s screen will be good for 30,000 hours. That is eight hours of watching each day for 10 years.
There is no way to know for sure how Sony’s claim will hold up. Check back here in 2018 for an update. The user guide does warn that OLED screens can develop plasma-like burn-in if you leave a static image on the screen for a very long time.
The XEL-1 comes with a very flat, nicely laid-out remote, but isn’t illuminated and can’t control any other gear. On the base are volume up/down, input-switching and power buttons. Their labels light up when the TV is on, and disappear into the black surface when it’s off, which is very cool.
The Sony also comes with a comedy booklet titled, “Operating Instructions.” It is filled with hilarious warnings such as “Do not install the TV upside down,” “Do not throw anything at the TV” and “Do not install the TV where insects may enter.”
Some of them are physical impossibilities. “Do not place objects on top of the TV,” for example — what could you possibly balance on a 3-millimeter razor’s edge? Or this one: “Adjust the volume so as not to trouble your neighbors.” Listen, the only way this TV’s tiny speaker could trouble your neighbors is if they tried to swallow it.)
But maybe Sony’s over-protectiveness is understandable; after all, the XEL-1 is the first and only one of its kind.
In the meantime, Sony has demonstrated a prototype of a 27-inch version, and other companies have OLED sets of their own in the works. No, you probably can’t pay, or wouldn’t pay, $2,500 for an 11-inch TV today. But even if you don’t buy the XEL-1, at least it shows you what the end of the plasma-LCD era will look like: gorgeous.
David Pogue writes this column for The New York Times and it appears