At CES 2017, LG unveiled 5 new OLED ranges – B7, C7, E7, G7, and W7. 3D is gone but peak brightness is up. The 2017 LG OLEDs are also the only ones to support 4 HDR formats. FlatpanelsHD had a chance to experience the new TVs. Here are our first impressions plus lots of technical information.
”W is for wallpaper, W is for window”
To briefly sum up 2017 this is the “tock” in LG’s “tick-tock” development plan for OLED. 2017 OLED is an evolution of 2016 OLED. There are five models that should deliver more or less identical picture quality. Unlike last year, C7 is flat, 3D has been abandoned, and all five use the same next-generation LG-designed chipset (last year, B6 used a MediaTek SoC).
That may sound like a relatively minor upgrade but under the surface there are several picture improvements to be excited about. Before we get to that, let us take a moment to talk about design because W7 not only delivered one of the best pictures that we saw at CES 2017, it also looked stunning.
W7 is 2.57 mm thick, which is pretty incredible if think about it. Still, we could not help notice that at 2.57mm it is roughly 2.5x thicker than the 1mm prototype LG.Display demonstrated to us in 2015. So we asked why.
Well, if you strip of everything the panel is still just 1mm in thickness but despite the OLED panel being bendable, electronic circuits are not flexible to more than a few degrees. Imagine shelling out $8000 dollars (which is the price for the 65”) only to see it break the first time you want to boast. At 2.57 mm the TV should be stable enough to stand the test of time, said LG.
At the launch event, LG said that ‘W’ is for “wallpaper” or “window”. That is how the company perceives the product. Like an open window to the world, flat on a wall. I could say a lot of things about how W7 connects via one cable, how it is made from quality materials, and how the roof-firing speaker units rise elegantly when you turn on the soundbar, but for now I just want to say that it feels like the manifestation of the ongoing design trend to reduce displays to nothing more than simply a picture panel.
Of course, you still need to find space for the soundbar because this is where all processing, ports, tuners, and speakers are implemented. While W7 is truly impressive and a TV that only LG could produce in 2017, I cannot help think about how it would look if, say Apple, had designed it. Throw out all tuners, HDMI ports, speakers, everything. Surely Apple could fit in one of their tiny Ax processor to run tvOS plus a WiFi antenna to create a “wallpaper TV” without the external box in… 2019? Speculation…
The rest of LG’s 2017 OLED line-up looks fairly identical to last year’s line-up. You would be hard pressed to tell G7 and G6 apart besides the small Dolby Atmos logo. LG E7 has a new stand in 65” (LG suggested that it will not be there on 55”), and B7 should look like B6 – more or less. C7 is where you see the biggest change. It is now flat instead of curved, meaning that LG has completely abandoned the curve gimmick (also for LCDs). The difference between B7 and C7 is mostly design. C7 has LG’s “Alpine” stand.
Below you see the new E7 (top) and B7 (bottom).
Picture quality – tick-tock
As said, the 2017 OLEDs represent the “tock” in LG’s “tick-tock” development plan. LG has taken the 2016 panels and optimized the hell out of them.
The first result is higher peak brightness “close to 1000 nits”. However, citing just peak brightness does not come even close to telling the full story because LG has made changes to the underlying driver and more importantly to how the TVs react to APL (average picture level).
APL (Average Picture Level)
Top: 10% APL Bottom: 50% APL
As you may know, each pixel in an OLED is self-emissive, meaning that the panel can illuminate just 1 pixel to 1000 nits brightness while all other pixels – even the ones next to the 1000 nits pixel – can show true black. This is also sometimes referred to as pixel-level control. However, if you want all 8 million pixels on the TV to reproduce white (100% APL – full-screen white), peak brightness drops due to several factors. There are limitations in the power supply and the TCON (Timing controller) as well as limitations to electron mobility in the current TFT (thin-film transistor) material that all add up. This applies to all self-emissive displays, including plasma and upcoming microLED and QD LED displays. Companies are constantly working on more efficient driver circuits and you may already know what IGZO TFT is (it is not a LCD panel type as some seem to believe), so think of this as a development line that will benefit current as well as future display technologies.
Transmissive display technologies like LCD struggle with the opposite effect. A good framework to think about this is to imagine a full-array local dimming LCD with 512 zones (like in Panasonic DX900). These 512 zones are spread across more than 8 million pixels, meaning that each zone covers exactly 16200 pixels (in 4K resolution). Edge-lit LCD sets can typically control light only in 1-20 zones. So if a given movie or TV show includes any picture element that is intended be reproduced as a bright object is an area corresponding to less than 16200 pixels – a glowing star, text in subtitles etc. – the TV has to increase the backlight. However, it cannot necessarily reach the >1000 nits in these smaller segments of the image as each segment is smaller than the dedicated zone. Or in other words, APL affects LCD inversely (after a certain point, assuming that the zone system is fine-tuned to not to bloom).
The best approach depends on what you are trying to achieve. Sports and PC work usually equal high APL pictures, whereas movies and TV series typically hover at around 15-30% APL on average. It all depends on the type of content and genre. Simply saying, “OLED has lower peak brightness” or “LCD has higher peak brightness” does not capture the whole picture.
Yeah yeah, so what does that have to do with LG’s 2017 OLEDs? Neil Robinson, Director, Technology Partnerships at LG Electronics, told us that in 2017 LG has managed to improve peak brightness to 1000 nits by designing a more efficient TCON (Timing controller) component as well as by optimizing the OLED panel itself.
Neil also explained to us that the ABL (Automatic Brightness Limiter) system, which is a sum of many components, has been redesigned. 2017 OLEDs are capable of reaching “close to 1000 nits” on a 5% APL pattern (or less) in Vivid mode, and 700 nits on 10% APL. They are up to 40% brighter in some instances but LG is saying “25% brighter overall”. The Cinema picture mode has been calibrated to be around 10% brighter than last year’s TVs. All of the above relates to HDR picture quality.
LG has also made changes that will improve SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) picture quality, meaning everything that is not in HDR. If you calibrate the TVs for SDR to 150 nits, the TVs should now never drop below 150 nits (last year the curve was flat to 25%, after which brightness dropped) even when reproducing full-screen white - the curve is flatter. Interestingly, solving this hurdle may actually bring OLED closer to being useable in PC monitors (not something LG commented on).
This illustration may help to put things in perspective for you. It is not a final implementation – the OLEDs go closer to 1000 nits, we were told – but it gives you an idea of how LG has improved luminance control over 2016. Y axis represents luminance in nits and the X axis represents APL in percentage.
Neil also let us in on a secret. As you may know, there is an anti-reflective filter on OLED displays. If you remove that, peak brightness goes up considerably. In 2016, LG actually voted about whether to remove the filter but ultimately more engineers were in favor of keeping it as it improves black reproduction in bright environments drastically – or to be precise; reduces reflections to make black look pure at any ambient light level.
Tick-tock. 2017 is the tock year with optimized OLED panels. 2018 is the tick year with re-engineered OLED panels
Later that day we also spoke on record with Nandhu Nandhakumar, Senior Vice President of LG Technology Center of America, and again with Neil Robinson. We were told that LG has also made other improvements to HDR. The tone-mapping algorithm should have been improved, resulting in less “clipping” at high brightness levels. HDR now includes both 2-point and 20-point calibration menus, and the ‘brightness’ setting option has more granular controls, meaning that even though the steps closest to ‘50’ are still named 48, 49 as well as 51 and 52 – and so on – they actually represent 0.5 increments compared to last year’s “brightness” setting option. A new “Active HDR” system can analyze incoming HDR signals and apply dynamic metadata to the picture on a frame-by-frame basis, thus optimizing HDR picture quality, says LG. Of course, this does not apply to Dolby Vision, which already has dynamic metadata embedded in the video signal as well as a composer chip that knows the exact characteristics of the TV (maximum brightness, color space etc.)
There are no major changes in how wide a portion of the DCI-P3 color gamut the TVs can reproduce. We were told that through 2016 LG has optimized the OLED panels to more consistently hit 99% DCI-P3. That will benefit 2017 OLED panels. We also briefly discussed shadow detail reproduction and Neil told us that through 2016 LG has improved things on an ongoing basis but that it will likely always favor true black over raised blacks when designing TVs.
As said, 3D has been removed but that decision was not driven by engineering concerns. It has not affected the pixel layout or brightness in any significant way. 3D is just no longer a big selling point, says LG.
2018 will be the “tick” year for LG. This is where we are likely to see redesigned new OLED panels. Perhaps capable of HFR (High Frame Rate)? Maybe, said LG. At IFA in September 2016, LG demonstrated HFR-capable OLED prototypes but these will not arrive until 2018 “at the earliest”, according to LG. If we had to guess, based on our talks with Neil, Nandhu, and several other LG representatives, we would say that HFR in 2018 seems very likely. HDMI 2.1 has laid the groundwork. Motion reproduction in the 2017 TVs is left more or less unchanged.
To sum up; all 2017 OLEDs should have more or less identical picture quality, including B7. And in 2017 that means:
Higher peak brightness (HDR)
A redesigned ABL system
Improved SDR brightness control
More consistently high 99% DCI-P3 coverage
Improved HDR tone-mapping
Improved HDR calibration options
Slightly improved shadow detail reproduction
We usually refrain from commenting on specific picture parameters - such as the ones discussed above - after trade shows. It is often impossible to evaluate picture characteristics based on demonstrations at CES. Since most of the demonstrations are highly biased and misleading, evaluating very specific picture parameters seems like a fool’s errand. One can of course comment on the broad strokes and we think it is appropriate to say that the 2017 OLED TVs looked better than ever - but it is no revolution.
LG believes – of course – that it has created the best TVs available on the market but we were more interested in what one of LG’s partners had to say on the matter. One could argue that Dolby is not impartial either but Dolby has after all signed on new partners for Dolby Vision in 2017, including Sony and TCL, but when asked about which TV offered the best picture quality CES 2017, Dolby’s Pat Griffis, Vice President Technology at Dolby Laboratories, pointed without hesitation at LG W7. He was standing in front of the Sony Z9D that will receive Dolby Vision via a firmware update later this year. However, Pat Griffis also proclaimed that the “nits race is on” and that “color volume” – a term that he claims he himself has coined – is more important than most people realize. Brightness and color volume are related so we will see if OLED eventually gets there.
4 HDR formats and Dolby Atmos
In 2017, LG will support no less than 4 HDR formats, which is the most comprehensive HDR suite available from any TV manufacturer. Most other manufacturers only support 2 formats at most.
These formats are:
HDR10 (the open HDR standard)
HLG (Hybrid Log Gamma)
Advanced HDR by Technicolor
The first 2 were also supported by last year’s TVs and the third will be firmware updated to 2016 models. The fourth is a new entrant with very little traction. You should never say never, but we think it is unlikely to succeed. 3 formats already felt like 1 too many so manufacturers should perhaps focus on, well, focusing.
LG told us that IMAX may use Technicolor’s format and that it is running trials with some other unnamed partners. Still, Dolby Vision should still deliver the best HDR experience in 2017.
As explained in the previous section, LG also spoke about something called “Active HDR”. This is not a format but a picture processing system for HDR that aims to add dynamic metadata and tone-mapping algorithms to HDR videos without dynamic metadata embedded in the signal.
Additionally, LG will include Dolby Atmos in all five OLED TVs. W7 will have the dedicated soundbar that has roof-firing speakers, whereas E7 and G7 will have built-in soundbars like last year’s models. These also have Atmos capabilities but not roof-firing units. Lastly, B7 and C7 use hidden stereo speakers to reproduce Atmos sound. We did not have a chance to listen to it.
We did get a demonstration of G7 and W7’s Atmos speakers, though. W7 can reproduce fairly believable Atmos sound and the soundbar’s up-firing units are implemented in a unique way (see video below), but I was a little disappointed about Atmos in G7. It added some immersion and depth to the overall sound space but not as much as I had hoped. I shared some thoughts on Atmos in LG’s new TVs in this article.
At CES 2017 we met an LG that was more confident than ever. LG is convinced that it has the best TVs around, backed up by sales numbers in many regions. In the company’s best markets, OLED has a 60% share of the premium TV segment, we were told. What exactly delineates “premium” was not clear but there is no doubt that LG is ecstatic about OLED.
You could even say that they have stars in their eyes.