Selecting a television these days can sometimes feel like an obstacle course and your main objective is to figure out what all the different TV acronyms mean. It’s easy to feel a bit lost, particularly when it comes to LED TVs, because some of the new tech has similar-sounding names. Take Mini-LED and MicroLED as an example: both are a type of LCD TV backlighting, but MicroLED is a technology we’ll see more of in the future while Mini-LED is available right now on some newer TVs from Samsung, TCL, and others.
Mini-LED technology offers a lot to excited about. TVs with this type of tech can approach the levels of near-black detail of their OLED cousins, while still giving you all the benefits of the mature underlying technology.
How do LCD televisions work?
To understand Mini-LED, it’s important to realize how LCD TVs differ from self-emissive tech like OLED or the older Plasma and CRT (tube) models.
On those other sets, each “pixel” can be either on or off, meaning that a given part of the screen can have pure black right beside another tiny dot of full luminance. A good test for this kind of device is a starfield, where the deep black of space has these fine, pin-prick lights with no glow or blooming around each element.
LCD TV, on the other hand, uses a dimmable backlight that shines through a series of crystals. It uses electrical signals to present a range of colours. Like polarized sunglasses that minimize reflections by only allowing in light from certain angles, these crystals are arranged so that they can be adjusted to craft a myriad of different shades of light by combining the various subpixel colours, based primarily on red, green, and blue crystals, but sometimes with added elements that emit white or yellow.
The crystals themselves act kind of like stained glass windows, where the hue of the image is determined by the window itself, and the brightness of how they look depending on what the sun is doing that day.
With LCD, backlight is the key
The key to making any LCD truly shine is the quality and sophistication of its backlight solution. While OLEDs are limited by how much each of their pixels can generate without deteriorating, the backlighting solution that separates colour reproduction from how bright the set can get means that LCDs are ideal for rooms that aren’t completely darkened, or where the maximum impact of HDR (high dynamic range) films is desired. If OLED is the king of the black light, then even low-cost LCDs easily win the luminance game with their ability to crank a full screen white to levels no other mainstream tech can match.
Zones come into play
All these technical responses have certain advantages and disadvantages. The ability to crank the backlight for the bright parts of the screen results in the darker parts of the screen having raised levels, resulting in a murky grey rather than a pure, deep black. In a brighter room, this is less distracting, and your eyes are particularly excellent at adjusting to the relative contrast between the darkest and the brightest parts of the image. On older and lower-end models there’s a single backlight that fills the whole screen, resulting in an image that lacks any finesse especially for films like The Dark Knight or shows like Game of Thrones, where the entire mood is meant to be dark and brooding.
Many higher-end LCD televisions helped this situation by breaking the backlight into a number of local dimming zones, sometimes referred to as FALD (aka, “full array local dimming”). Think of a series of checkerboards, or even the game Battleship, where a given sector of the screen can have the backlight individually dimmed.
This helps, for example, where part of the screen is super dark, but a neighbouring part is super bright. Previously the entire backlight would have to average things out, but with this zonal solution you could easily have half the screen be a snowscape while the other is some giant black vehicle, with the different parts of the screen being treated to just the right amount of illumination.
Checking that checkerboard
As televisions have increased the number of zones this type of solution has come closer and closer to the goal of having the brightest whites and darkest blacks all in one technology. Unfortunately, even the hundreds of individual zones on most FALD implementations still exhibit the kind of artifacts that’s long plagued LCD sets.
Take a look at any title text against black, especially in a dark room, and you’ll likely spot a bit of glow that makes everything look a bit soft. Some sets have settings to dial this glow down further, but that simply diminishes peak brightness overall, as well as adding unnecessary post-processing to the image that the filmmakers or showrunners intended. It’s hardly an ideal compromise for those chasing the most out of shadow detail.
On large modern sets with hundreds of zones, each sector can still be many millimeters across, making the ability to have closely alternating dark and light areas of the screen impossible to accommodate. If only there was a way to dramatically increase the number of these backlight zones, or to make full array of local dimming zones even more full, you’d dramatically increase the ability to present subtle delineation between dark and light areas of the screen while still being able to take advantage of LCD’s native peak brightness.
Enter the Mini-LED
Every modern LCD uses Light Emitting Diodes, essentially silicon chips that act like flashlights when electricity is applied. They’re a technology that can feel like magic, and this mix of computer chip manufacturing and lightbulb ethos has massively revolutionized displays over the last several decades.
Average-sized LCD arrays, with each “bulb” putting out a certain amount of light, are used on multi-zonal LCDs to dim certain areas and brighten others. Mini-LEDs, with many measuring well below 0.2mm, manage to explode the number of zones, and with the current implementation, they immediately more than double the number of controllable zones. While still not a 1:1 relation like with technologies like OLED where each of the many pixels can be individually controlled, there is still a significant jump in perceived picture quality.
More TV acronyms
As with any new tech there are a number of new names to get used to. LG calls their Mini-LED implementation QNED, Samsung calls their Neo QLED, and TCL is calling theirs OD Zero, all in their own ways further confusing customers already bewildered with this cacophony of similarly named solutions.
There will be differences in implementation, and while the sets will have tens of thousands of new Mini-LED individual lights they’ll still, for now, be controlled in zones. The big shift, however, is that there will be many more zones than even the highest-end of earlier LCD sets, making a welcome improvement indeed.
The future of Mini-LED is bright
While providing an impressive upgrade over previous sets, it’s clear that the ultimate goal is to have the same number of zones of backlight for every LCD pixel, making the best of OLED and LCD married into one glorious hybrid. We’re still some time away from such technology (dubbed QD-OLED), and there remain many obstacles to overcome.
Similarly, while MicroLED sets are available to purchase that share this ideal 1:1 between each pixel and its illumination solution, the tech is still in its infancy. Even the smallest screens are beyond the budget of most, with certain quirks that need to be ironed out before it becomes the model for consumer sets.
And so, for years to come this elegant solution of Mini-LEDs that incorporates tinier chips that allow for a greater number of controllable zones, with the baked-in benefit of LCD brightness and colour reproduction, makes the wide-spread introduction of this technology one of the more exciting improvements to display technology in many years.
You can shop for Mini-LED TVs right now on Best Buy.