OLED is the new kid on the block, taking on LCD and plasma, the now elder statesmen of the TV world. OLED has the hype, LCD has the sales, and plasma as the adoration of most TV reviewers.
So which comes out on top, taking all factors into account? Wait for OLED? Get plasma before it's gone? Pick one of the countless LED LCDs?
This guide should help you decide.
If this format looks familiar, it was taken from the previous version, "LED LCD vs. plasma vs. LCD." That guide will continue to be updated, but since there are basically no CCFL LCDs anymore, and OLED is all new and shiny, a new guide seemed fitting.
OK, let's start with a disclaimer, just like the last time. An article of this type is, by necessity, going to contain a lot of generalizations. In some of the categories below, there might be one or two exceptions to each rule. An exception does not mean the overall rule is wrong.
Next, some terminology.
LCD TVs are available in sizes from a couple of inches, to 90 inches, and everywhere in-between. Every TV company makes LCDs. All "LED TVs" are actually LCD TVs, they just use LEDs as their light source. So when I refer to LCDs, you can take that as "LED" if you want.
OLED, or organic light emitting diode televisions are currently $9,000, curved, and only available with a screen size of 55 inches, and from Samsung and LG. Check out "LG and Samsung OLED HDTVs available now: What you need to know" for more info.
Plasma TVs are made by Samsung and LG (but sadly, Panasonic no longer). They range in size from 42 inches to roughly 65 inches.
Though you've probably heard a lot about Ultra HD "4K," it's important to remember it's just a resolution (like "1080p). Right now only LCDs are available with 4K resolution.
If you're not sure what size TV you should be getting, check out "How big a TV should I buy?" OK, on to the guide.
Light output (brightness)
Winners: LCD, OLED (sort of)
Depending on how you want to calculate it, OLEDs are brighter than LCD, or vice versa. Because LCDs use a backlight (of LEDs), their brightness is determined by how bright the backlight is. With OLED, on the other hand, each pixel creates its own light. So there are limits put on the TV as to how bright the entire TV can be (plasma is the same, just not as bright). So if you want a full white screen, LCD is brighter. If you want a white rectangle in the middle of a black screen, the OLED's "white window" will be brighter than LCD. The white window is more similar to regular TV content. Or to put it another way, in your home, OLED is likely to look brighter with movies and TV shows.
It's worth noting that even though plasmas aren't as bright as the other two, brightness isn't everything. An antiglare or antireflective coating is going to be a big factor in how well you can see the TV in the daytime. Also, consider cutting down on room reflections.
Because OLED TVs can turn their pixels off, their black level is nearly perfect (as in, almost no light comes from the screen). Plasmas can also control their pixels, but are never able to get them to be completely black (they always emit some light). Technically, LCD TVs can turn off their backlights to create an absolute black, but this is a fake, since you wouldn't be able to see the image. Local dimming can help, but in practice, OLED beats it out. This is tied in to contrast ratio, which brings us to...
Contrast ratio is the difference between the darkest part of an image and the brightest. It is easily the most important factor in overall picture quality. A display with a low contrast ratio will seem washed out and flat. Conversely, a high contrast ratio will seem more realistic, with greater "depth." Check out "Contrast ratio (or how every TV manufacturer lies to you)" for more info.
OLED, because it can turn its pixels off, effectively has an infinite contrast ratio. Having now had extensive hands-on time with OLED TVs (as has CNET's TV reviewer, David Katzmaier), I can say it definitely looks better than any TV you've ever seen. Better than any plasma or LCD.
The better local-dimming LCDs can have a decent apparent contrast ratio, though they still don't look as good as the best plasmas.
The departing ZT60 plasma from Panasonic had an excellent native contrast ratio, and was easily one of the best reviewed TVs this year. OLED is still better, but the best plasmas looked excellent. Check out "Why do plasma TVs look washed out in the store?" if this doesn't jibe with your personal experience.
Though the need for Ultra HD "4K" in small TVs is dubious at best, you can't fight the tide. Making the pixels smaller in LCD is easier to do than shrinking the pixels on a plasma. While not impossible, it's unlikely we'll see 4K plasmas. We've already seen 4K OLED, at least in prototype form, from Panasonic/Sony. Right now, though, both OLED models are 1080p.
Loser/Runner-up: LCD and OLED
With LCDs and OLEDs, with all their various processing disabled, objects blur in motion (or if the whole image pans). Higher refresh rates were developed to counter this, and to some degree they're successful, but an artifact known as the "Soap Opera Effect" is a potentially distracting artifact.
Winner: Plasma, OLED, LCD
Trick question! You can't compare plasma refresh rates to LCD/OLED refresh rates. The way they create images is too different. Check out What is 600 Hz? (plasma) and What is refresh rate? for more info.
Almost all LCDs look worse if you're not sitting directly in front of them (or if you're below them). They'll lose contrast ratio, and in some cases, the colors will change. This is the nature of the technology. Plasmas don't technically do this, though some models have special coatings that limit extreme "off axis" viewing. If you have a wide viewing area (a big couch, chairs off to the side, etc.), an LCD won't give the same experience to people sitting off center.
The current generation of OLED TVs are curved. So if you move too far off to the side, you'll get the edge on the close side, and still see the image on the other side. There is some reduction of picture quality off axis with the LG OLED (likely because of the color filters), but this isn't as severe as what can happen with LCDs.
Winner: LED LCD
Runner-up: Plasma and OLED
Certain LED LCDs have the lowest energy consumption. However, this is no longer the cut-and-dry comparison it once was. Certain plasma models actually have lower power consumption than LCDs of the same size. At least, out of the box, if you turn down the backlight, LCDs might take over as well. As OLEDs get more efficient, expect to see reductions in power consumption. Check out "What you need to know about TV power consumption" for more info.
Winner: Plasma (LCD depending on size)
There are a lot of LCD TVs. The cheapest TVs are LCDs, as they're also the smallest. For the same size, plasmas are generally cheaper.
OLED TVs, being new, are crazy expensive. For now.
Plasma and LCD TVs have been found to be very reliable. Check out "How long do TVs last?" for more info.OLED as a technology long had issues with longevity, and one of the reasons we're seeing them now is these issues have been (apparently) been resolved. No definitive lifespan numbers have been released (for LED LCDs, either, it's worth noting), other than to say they should last similar number of hours as other TVs. We shall see.
Tie, sort of
It's also worth noting that the worst image retention I've ever seen on a product I've reviewed was this year, and it was an LCD display. The mechanism for an LCD to have burn-in/image retention is different than that on a plasma or OLED, but it's still possible.
How consistently bright is a TV. Is it a uniform brightness with dark and bright images? Most plasmas are, many LCDs are not. Check out "Is LCD and LED LCD HDTV uniformity a problem?" OLED gets a "runner-up" only because it's too soon to tell how it'll perform. So far so good, but each model could be different.
And the winner is...
If we're judging purely on picture quality, it's OLED. But that's not entirely fair, since it's possible a $8,000 55-inch plasma or LCD these days could look pretty stunning. Taking cost into effect, plasmas and LCDs have different strengths and weaknesses. Picture quality, in a dark room, is going to go to plasma. In a bright room, that's less clear. Generally LCD, but with the right coatings, some plasmas may look better than some LCDs.
With Panasonic's departure, plasma is down to two manufacturers, and only one of those has consistently put out quality plasma televisions. Both have said they'll have plasma in 2014, but after that we'll have to see.
So in another year, this article might get a lot shorter, comparing some still-expensive OLEDs against some ever cheaper LCDs. Many will be 4K, though.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like HDMI cables, Active vs Passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you which TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.