Can you buy the latest and greatest TV tech in the bargain bin? As OLED TVs become more popular, customers are looking for the best possible deals they can find. Unfortunately, a cheap OLED TV may not give you the best viewing experience, and it’s certainly not a cost-effective option.
Warning: As of November 2022, a “budget” OLED TV costs $900 or less. But OLED TV prices will occasionally drop during the holiday shopping season and may slowly drop throughout 2023. Keep that in mind as you read this article.
First, what’s the point in OLED?
You’re probably familiar with LCD TVs, which use a solid backlight to illuminate a grid of pixels. Unfortunately, the problem with this technology is that the backlight can’t choose which pixels to illuminate. When on-screen content is supposed to look black, it’s still lit, so it’s more gray.
Modern OLED TVs eliminate this problem by removing the backlight. Instead, they use self-illuminating organic LEDs, which can be turned off when screen content is supposed to be black. The result is an “infinite contrast ratio,” which produces inky blacks and increased color accuracy.
Furthermore, OLED technology benefits from a fast response time. Each pixel can quickly alter its color or intensity, so on-screen content appears a bit softer, especially when gaming.
But the benefits of OLED are hampered by some limitations. Burn-in is a fairly common issue with OLED displays, as non-moving on-screen content (such as a channel logo or video game HUD) can slowly degrade organic LEDs.
Not to mention, OLED screens are incredibly dim compared to their LCD cousins. And because OLED is so expensive to make, OLED TVs with modern bells and whistles (like 4K resolution or a 120Hz refresh rate) tend to cost a lot of money. (It doesn’t help that some LCD TVs have “local dimming zones,” which mimic the contrast ratio of OLED for a much lower price.)
These issues are easy to miss when watching movies in a dark room – OLED looks amazing. But OLED’s higher contrast ratio is hard to notice in a well-lit room, especially if you buy an OLED TV with a dim screen.
The question, of course, is whether a cheap OLED TV is significantly worse than a mid-range or high-end option. Does OLED’s infinite contrast ratio suddenly disappear when you shop at the deal bin?
To reach a low price, manufacturers take shortcuts
Building an OLED TV display panel is a difficult and expensive task. To produce these panels at a reasonable price, companies must manufacture them at scale: the financial strain of overhead, labor, and raw materials is reduced when running a production line at full speed.
Only one company, called LG Display, currently makes OLED TV display panels at scale. So almost all TV brands (including VIZIO and Samsung) buy their OLED panels from LG Display. It is simply the most affordable option.
Why is this important to you, the customer? Well, it’s really hard to find an OLED TV that looks bad! Even if you buy a bargain OLED TV for $600, you’re probably using the same LG screen panel as a $900 TV.
Now, as we mentioned earlier, cheap OLED panels aren’t very bright. But if you’re okay with this limitation, a super-cheap OLED TV might seem like a smart investment. After all, it uses the same display panel as the more expensive models!
But a television is more than just a display panel. You must be wondering how a cheap OLED TV managed to undercut the competition: where is the manufacturer cutting costs?
Obviously, a cheap OLED TV will contain lower quality components than a more expensive model. It may also go through a lax quality control process. These factors can reduce the lifespan of your TV, a problem that is usually fixed with annoying and aggressive low power and sleep modes.
Cheap OLED TVs also tend to feel sluggish and laggy right out of the box, as they use outrageously underpowered SOCs. Yes, you can buy a streaming stick to bypass your smart TV’s sluggish interface, but the SOC is also responsible for features like HDR and motion smoothing; Bad SOC can lead to lower quality images!
The port selection and speaker quality of a budget OLED TV may also disappoint you. On the other hand, most people only need two HDMI ports and you can buy a decent sound bar for less than $100.
Cheap OLED TVs are meant for movies, not games
If you’re a hardcore gamer, you should probably avoid buying an OLED TV or monitor. This may sound counterintuitive: OLED TVs look amazing and have a very fast response time. But only the most expensive OLED displays are equipped for gaming.
Cheap OLED TVs tend to lack support for FreeSync or G-Sync, two variable refresh rate technologies that reduce stuttering and visual artifacts in games. Not to mention, they typically run at 60Hz, which means they can’t take full advantage of the 120Hz output of a modern console. And you’re really missing out on modern gaming if you don’t have a 120Hz panel. (By the way, modern consoles can technically video output at 8K resolution. But most games are capped at 4K.)
You have to spend more than $1,000 to buy an OLED TV that’s properly equipped for gaming. But gamer-ready LCD or QLED TVs are much cheaper, offering 4K 120Hz resolution with FreeSync for as little as $500. And that brings us to our next point; If you’re on a budget, an LCD or QLED TV is usually your best option.
Should you buy a cheap OLED TV?
While an LCD TV may not match the contrast or color accuracy of an OLED TV, it will give you a better bang for your buck. Budget LCDs are packed with all the features you care about: a bright 4K screen, fast refresh rate, modern port selection, and HDR support.
Also, some LCD TVs use “local dimming zones” to mimic the effect of an OLED screen. And you can boost an LCD TV’s contrast even further with some simple bias lighting: when there’s a light behind your TV, it tricks your weak mammalian eyes into seeing more contrast.
If you’re stuck with the idea of an OLED TV, you can always try QLED instead. Quantum dot technology combines the best of LCD and OLED, giving you a higher contrast ratio without sacrificing brightness. And since QLED is cheaper to manufacture than OLED, it’s a more cost-effective option!
Now, if you only plan on watching TV in a small, dark room, a cheap OLED TV might be a solid choice. You will notice and appreciate the infinite contrast ratio. But in a well-lit room, you won’t really notice the contrast boost, which defeats the purpose of buying an OLED TV.
So should you buy a cheap OLED TV? For most people, the answer is a resounding “no.” But if you’re not put off by the information in this article, a cheap OLED TV might be perfect for you.