Brighter isn’t better for OLED monitors. An expert told me t…

An OLED gaming monitor showing an HDR demo.
digital trends

“That’s too blurry.”

This is the same feedback I always get when reviewing the OLED gaming monitors that have made a splash this entire year. The criticism belies the otherwise stunning colors and perfect contrast. Brightness measurements certainly seem to confirm that suspicion, showing that they sometimes provide more than half the brightness of traditional LCD displays. But are they really that dim?

To better understand how OLED is different, I talked to Jackie Qiu, vice president and co-founder of OTI Lumionics. OTI doesn’t make panels, but its research of the technology is crucial to how OLED is used by major companies today. And according to Qiu, there’s a good reason why OLEDs are dim – so be careful what you ask for.

apples to oranges

LG G1 OLED evo vs Sony A90J OLED.
Dan Baker/

OTI is a company that knows OLED inside and out. It’s a materials company, or as Qiu puts it, “dealing with anything like the hard science stuff” of OLED technology. Its main claim to fame is the CPM patterning, which opens a “window” in the material to house the sensor beneath the display. Qiu pointed to a camera, an IR emitter, and an IR camera for the implementation of Face ID as examples.

But for our purposes, the company examines the technology of OLED with support from companies like Samsung, LG, and Universal Display Corporation. So, my first question was focused on the feedback I always see around the dimming of OLED panels. Qiu pointed to a fundamental difference between LCD monitors and OLED monitors: “For LCDs, you essentially have a backlight… and you can have them as bright as you want.”

As Qiu points out, LCD and OLED are fundamentally different. This sets up the comparison between LCD brightness and OLED brightness for failure: “You’re comparing something that, you know, is used for lighting or something [that] OLED can be very, very bright for something, i.e. basically each individual cell in your monitor is acting as its own little light emitting diode.

OLED will always be dim because it can’t rely solely on a bright backlight. Qiu pointed to the LED light bulbs installed around your house.

“You can light your room with LED light bulbs, so you can make that light very bright.” LCD monitors with dimming zones then selectively choose where to transmit that bright light on the screen, increasing contrast. Some technologies, such as Mini-LED, include a large number of dimming zones to carefully control contrast.

Universal Display Corporation chemists lighting up developmental phosphorescent blue OLED materials in the R&D laboratory.
Universal Display Corporation

OLED displays don’t work that way. Each pixel has its own self-emitting diode (essentially a tiny channel that can pass electrical current), so you can’t just blast the backlight and get high brightness. There is no backlight.

Without an LCD’s backlight, the next option would be to send more current through diodes to increase brightness, but this is where OLEDs can run into problems.

unintended consequences

Phosphor burn-in ("screen burn") appears on amber monochrome CRT computer monitors.
Wikimedia Commons

The first thing you’ll hear about OLED monitors is that they’re very dim. The other thing you’ll hear is that OLED monitors are prone to burn-in. This is where static elements fade into the screen over time, and you can’t get rid of them. Rtings recently published a burn-in report on OLED gaming monitors and found that some displays can show burn-in in as little as 700 hours. Press Stop!

The risk of OLED burn-in is exaggerated. Qi said burn-in is not a problem in most use cases.

“Most stuff in the field, even from 10 years ago — for example, your PlayStation Vita — burn-in is not a big issue for use,” Qiu said. “Unless you’re primarily using your OLED TV to watch CNN or watch sports, like, 24/7, nonstop, burn-in isn’t that noticeable.” Qiu was careful to clarify that “we work on OLED, always take everything I say with a grain of salt.”

Burn-in is the result of how much degradation has occurred in a single diode. If you have a static element on a set of pixels, they will stop showing that single image faster than the rest of the display, where the content and colors are constantly changing. However, modern OLED monitors have ways to avoid this risk.

A burn-in notification on the Alienware 34 QD-OLED.
The Alienware 34 QD-OLED offers burn-in notice. Jacob Roach/

Qiu also explained how modern OLED displays deal with the risk of burn-in. The first is that, when you’re viewing content, pixels will be shifted onto stationary elements, attempting to degrade pixels evenly so that burn-in is not noticeable. Then, about once a day, the monitor will adjust the voltage ranges across the diodes so that they become uniform. And finally, after about every 1,000 hours of use, the panel will go through each diode and refresh them for uniformity on the screen. Stuff is still going bad, there’s no way to avoid it. But these features ensure that the degradation is uniform so you never see any bad burn-in.

All this effort is meant to delay the inevitable death of the organic material that makes up OLEDs. It will degrade over time, but as long as the degradation is uniform, you shouldn’t notice burn-in.

The brighter the display, the greater the risk of burning.

How does it affect brightness? You can’t avoid degradation, but that process is accelerated by delivering more current to the diodes and increasing their brightness. “You basically choose to either become brighter or live a longer life,” Qiu says. “It’s usually a compromise.”

As an example, Qiu pointed to theoretically increasing the brightness by 20%. “The end consumer wants it to be 20% brighter, right? So it could be, instead of needing to be 20% brighter, it could have a lifespan of 1.5 times longer.

Then the risk of burning becomes much more real. Instead of looking at a life span of six years, you may be looking at only a few years of life. OLED manufacturers need to balance brightness with longevity.

This is not a new problem either. I was talking to ‘ resident TV expert Caleb Dennison, who told me that LCD panels have similar problems when increasing the brightness of the backlight. This is not a burn-in face of the LCD, but a degradation of image quality as brightness increases. LCD and OLED are fundamentally different in their approach to brightness, but they both have to deal with balancing brightness against other factors.

perception vs reality

Alan Wake 2 running on Samsung Odyssey OELD G9.
Jacob Roach/

OLED monitors will always be dimmer than LCD, but you don’t need to suffer burn-in to have an enjoyable experience. The actual brightness displayed by OLED is lower, but that is not what your eyes see.

Qiu pointed out something he himself admitted he is not an expert in. But there is a lot of truth in this. “If you use OLED, basically, because it’s a self-emissive, you can have sharper contrast which can give you the effect of a higher perception of brightness.”

Brightness requires reference, and reference is thrown out the window when comparing two numbers drawn from a luminance meter. OLED is dim, but does it really look dim? In most cases, this does not happen.

First, the contradiction. OLED has theoretically infinite contrast, and your eye can only take in so much light at once. A bright, sunny day is much brighter than your 2,000-nit LCD TV, but your TV will probably look much brighter in a dark room. Contraindications are more localized in one area. The same is true with OLED. Since dark areas are much darker, brighter areas appear brighter in comparison.

Alienware 34 QD-OLED Monitor | 7 myths busted

Many other factors are also associated with perceived brightness. One is how close the source of light is to your eyes. For example, Caleb brought up the issue of a single light bulb burning in a large room. Go right next to it, and you’ll probably damage your eyes. Move a foot away, and you’ll be able to read a book. Go to the other side of the room, and you might not be able to see enough to even tie your shoelaces.

The same is true for your monitor. It’s never more than a few feet away from your face, so light perception is huge. I asked Caleb how much viewing distance affects brightness, and he didn’t mince words. “It’s huge, I’d say.”

With a gaming monitor, you probably won’t be sitting more than two feet away.

Another factor here is how big the light source is. I recently reviewed the Samsung Odyssey OLED G9, and I heard a lot of feedback that it was underwhelming considering the price. It’s a huge monitor, so it never looks dim because the physical light source is so big. In fact, despite what the brightness meter said, it felt extremely bright.

The actual brightness you see depends on several factors: viewing distance, contrast of the screen, color purity, and ambient light. It’s only in that last area where OLED runs into trouble.

There is a level in which the OLED may not be bright enough to overcome the ambient light in your room, but this is only one of many factors that affect how bright the monitor actually looks. And in the context of a gaming monitor, where you probably won’t be sitting more than 2 feet away without direct sunlight, it’s nothing to worry about.

I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? You need to draw a shade?

Leave a Comment