OLED displays are beautiful to look at and expensive, but you might be surprised to learn that they can suffer from “burn-out” or permanent image retention. How prevalent is this problem and should you be concerned about it?
What is OLED burn-in?
OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode. Because the materials used in the construction of these panels are organic, they degrade over time. OLED is a self-emitting technology, which means no backlighting is required. Each pixel generates its own light, which will gradually darken over the life of a product.
OLED burn-in (or permanent image retention) refers to this progressive degradation of pixels. Burn-in is not unique to OLED displays: CRT, LCD, and plasma displays are all sensitive to some degree.
Permanent image retention on OLED screens is caused by the uneven degradation of the pixels that make up the screen. This happens when a particular set of pixels degrade at a different rate than those around them.
Static images or graphics on a screen largely contribute to this problem. This includes logos displayed in the corner when watching certain TV channels, scrolling information banners, or the area the scoreboard appears in when watching sports.
But, to be clear, watching five hours of sport on a Sunday isn’t going to burn your OLED screen. However, the cumulative effect of watching the same sports channel over an extended period could.
The same is true of anything that leaves static elements on the screen for a long time. A video game’s HUD, Windows taskbar, airport arrivals board, etc. could all be culprits.
Vary your surveillance habits
If you’re concerned about burn-in, you might want to avoid buying an OLED display. However, if you just can’t resist (and who would blame you?), There are a few precautions you can take to avoid this problem.
The first thing you can do is vary your viewing habits. This will allow the pixels to wear down more evenly, so you never overload an area of the screen. Of course, this makes OLED displays unsuitable for some people.
For example, if you leave your TV on a 24-hour news channel all day, OLED is a bad choice. The same is true if you want to use one as your computer screen that displays static icons and taskbars all day. If you obsessively play the same video game every day, OLED is also a bad choice.
Conversely, if you watch a range of TV channels or play a variety of video games, an OLED display will do the trick. Likewise, if you don’t leave static images on your computer screen for extended periods of time, an OLED will do the trick as well.
To some people, the idea that you would have to “heal” your TV to avoid developing permanent image retention sounds like a raw deal. The higher price of OLEDs compared to LCD panels doesn’t help either.
For others, however, the inky blacks and (theoretically) infinite contrast ratio are worth it.
There are many other factors that go into deciding whether to buy an OLED or a traditional LED-lit TV. For example, an OLED panel won’t be as bright as the brightest LED sets. However, because of “perfect” blacks, they don’t necessarily need them.
Also, even if you watch a lot of the same content, there is no guarantee that you will be faced with permanent image retention. Even though the pixels are wearing unevenly, you might not notice it during normal viewing.
Test patterns and solid color blocks are helpful in spotting OLED burn-in, but they are not necessarily representative of normal use.
Current OLEDs are less prone to burn-in
LG screen is the only company to manufacture OLED panels. If you see a Sony or Panasonic TV using an OLED panel, it has always been made by LG Display. Over the years, the company has refined the manufacturing process to make stronger displays at lower prices.
Older OLED displays used separate colored pixels. However, manufacturers soon realized that different colored subpixels were aging at different rates, especially blue and red. LG Display decided to use a grid of white LEDs, which age at the same rate. Color filters are then used to create the four separate subpixels of red, green, blue and white.
There are also software solutions to the problem, although they depend on each TV manufacturer rather than the panel manufacturer. On its televisions, LG limits the brightness to certain areas of the screen that display static pixels, such as logos or the HUD in video games.
Then there’s Pixel Shift, which shifts the image slightly to share the load of a static image and avoid overloading certain pixels. There are also “pixel refresh” routines that run every few thousand hours or so. These measure the voltage of each pixel and try to wear down areas that haven’t been used as much. The TV then increases the overall brightness of the screen to compensate.
Every manufacturer that uses OLED panels has their own bag of tricks, although these are largely the same tactics with brand-specific names.
In 2013, LG Electronics stated that the expected life of an OLED display was 36,000 hours. In 2016, however, the company increased this percentage to 100,000 hoursor 30 years old watching 10 hours of television a day. In contrast, LCD panels with LED backlighting have a lifespan of six to 10 years, according to a study.
Break-in tests show the real picture
In January 2018, RTINGS started to lead real-world break-in tests on six LG C7 displays. They used a variety of content to simulate years of use over a short period of time. They also let the televisions run for 20 hours a day, without modifying the content.
You can see the results of their tests after one year in the video above. At the time of production of this video, televisions were running approximately 9,000 hours. This would be the equivalent of about five years of use, for five hours a day. Some sets in the video, like the one set to CNN, have significant burn-in.
Others, like the one displaying Call of Duty: WWII, show no signs of burning even when using test models. RTINGS stated that it does not expect these results to reflect actual results because that is not how people normally use their TVs.
However, under all of the circumstances that TVs are used in this way, the test reaffirmed that OLED is a bad choice:
“Televisions have been running for over 9,000 hours now (about 5 years at 5 hours a day). Uniformity issues have developed on TVs displaying Football and FIFA 18, and are starting to develop on TVs displaying Live NBC. Our position remains the same, we don’t expect most people who watch various content without static areas to experience burn-in issues with an OLED TV. “
On his YouTube channel, HDTVTest, Vincent Teoh performed his own test on an LG E8 screen (see the video below). While the test was aggressive on usage (the TV was on 20 hours a day), it was also pretty representative of how people use their TVs.
Teoh also scoured several TV channels in four-hour blocks over six months.
The screen showed no signs of permanent image retention after nearly 4,000 hours of use. While it’s important not to draw too many conclusions from a single test, this usage pattern is much more representative of how most of us use our TVs.
Why bother with OLED?
When it comes to display technology, OLED looks great. Many reviewers also claim that LG’s latest generation of OLED displays are the best TV money can buy in terms of overall picture quality. As OLEDs are self-emissive, they can achieve perfect black levels, which makes for a truly vibrant picture.
While LED-lit TVs with full local dimming have improved in recent years, they still use relatively large “dimming zones”. This may create a halo effect when displaying scenes with high contrast. Mini LED approaches OLED by increasing the number of dimming zones. However, it will take new technologies, like MicroLED, to really compete with OLED.
Since OLED screens are expensive, they only find their place in flagship models. When you buy an OLED, you’ll likely get a top-notch image processor, 120Hz refresh rate for better motion handling, and HDMI 2.1 for next-gen gaming. You can expect HDR performance to be excellent, even if the screen doesn’t come close to the over 1000 nits of brightness of the best LCD screens.
However, OLED is not for everyone. Price and static image issues aside, they’re just not as bright as their LED counterparts. If you have a particularly bright room, you might want a brighter LED-lit model instead. For a dark room, a cinematic experience, you can’t beat OLED right now.
The burn-in problem does not go away entirely. However, this is also not as big an issue as it used to be, thanks to improvements in manufacturing and software compensation. If you are looking for a new TV in 2020, especially for play the latest games when new generation consoles launch, an OLED might be your best choice.