Walking through your local electronics store, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that the television section is getting a little overwhelming, to say the least. So many different brands, so many different sizes, and — most confusing of all — so many different types. QLED, LCD, Plasma, LED, OLED, but what does it all mean? Cutting through all the different sizes and brands, what are the best TV backlight types overall? Is there a clear winner? And how can you tell the difference? Let’s break down the full list of TV backlight types below in order to determine which one is ultimately the best for you.
LCD TV Backlight Technology Explained
When you see the word “backlight” in reference to a television, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the TV is an LCD. This stands for liquid crystal display, and it has been the standard in television display technology since the phasing out of the CRT (or cathode ray tube) television and plasma screen television tech of yesteryear. LCDs were first discovered by Austrian chemist and botanist Friedrich Reinitzer back in 1888 — long before television was even a thing, let alone a thing in everyone’s house. By observing the nature of the cholesterol extracted from carrots, he was able to discern a certain liquid crystalline formation.
From there, Reinitzer published his scientific findings, and then nothing for another 16 years. In 1904, German physicist Otto Lehmann furthered Reinitzer’s research by fathering what he called “liquid crystals.” It wasn’t until 1911, when French crystallographer and mineralogist Charles Mauguin placed liquid crystals between thin, transparent plates, that modern-day LCD technology was foreshadowed. About 50 years later, American engineer George H. Heilmeier took what was known about liquid crystals and their behavior between transparent plates and did the unthinkable: added electricity.
This remarkable concept effectively birthed the modern-day LCD display. Various institutions and laboratories continued to experiment with Heilmeier’s invention for the next several decades. The 1970s saw the panels being patented, many of which are still used in LCD TVs today. By the late 2000s, LCD TVs had officially outnumbered existing CRT TVs in worldwide sales. Today, LCDs continue to be the most popular form of television technology — more than 130 years after Friedrich Reinitzer’s first discovery in 1888. However, behind every LCD panel is something just as important: a backlight.
TV Backlight Types
These days, these are the primary TV backlight types you’re likely to encounter in the wild. We’ll dive deeper into each one down below, but for now, here are the primary types and their variants.
- Edge Lit
- Dual LED
- Direct Lit
- Full Array
Other Backlight Types
Whether they be rare, expensive, or just plain outdated, these are some other TV backlight types we won’t spend much time on, simply because of their relative obscurity from today’s perspective.
- Electroluminescent panels (ELP)
- Cold and hot cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs, HCFLs)
- External electrode fluorescent lamps (EEFLs)
- Incandescent lightbulbs
Best TV Backlight Types
Now that we have a better idea of the history of LCD TV technology, let’s look beyond the display panel to get at the heart of the issue: What’s the best way to light up one of these panels in the first place? LCD TVs wouldn’t be able to display a thing if not for the backlight lighting up the screen behind them. So, what are the best TV backlight types? Let’s take a look at the full list of backlights used today and decide which is the best from there.
With an edge-lit LCD, you’re going to have a backlight that consists of rows of LEDs around the top and bottom or left and right sides of the television. Some edge-lit LCDs put LEDs around the entire perimeter of the LCD. However, these are less common, and more expensive, than the ones that only put them on two of the four sides. Edge-lit LCDs rely on diffusers made of semi-transparent plastic to project the light across the entire length of the LCD display. (Sort of like a magnifying glass, in a way.) All in all, this is one of the cheapest TV backlight types.
Some television manufacturers provide their own little spin on edge-lit LCDs with something dubbed dual LED. First created by Samsung, dual LED backlights use alternating blue and yellow LEDs in their edge lighting. This differs from your standard edge-lit LCDs, which rely on one single color LED. (Typically white.) This Dual LED LCD technology creates cooler darks and warmer brights, resulting in a little bit more lifelike colors than plain white LEDs can provide. At the end of the day, the two are more or less the same backlight type. The Samsung QLED 4K UHD Q70A Series Dual LED Quantum HDR Smart TV has dual LED backlights.
- Quantum Processor 4K upscales content to 4K with AI
- Motion Xcelerator Turbo+ makes motion look smooth up to 4K@120Hz
- Dual LED backlights adjust contrast in real-time
- Quantum dot technology delivers over a billion colors
- Enjoy a wider color spectrum with Quantum HDR
Direct Lit LED
If edge-lit LCDs and dual LED LCDs are merely the outline, then direct lit LED backlights are the full picture. Instead of restricting the strip of LEDs to a portion (or all) of the perimeter, direct lit backlights utilize strip after strip of LEDs to cover the entire surface behind the panel. This delivers complete and total coverage on the back of the television, resulting in much brighter, much more thorough, much less shadowy backlighting. It’s brighter, undoubtedly, but brighter is not always better. For darker scenes, this can elevate black levels to nearly gray. It also hinders true high dynamic range (HDR).
When you think about it, direct lit LCDs walked so full array LCDs could run. Instead of using row after row of white LEDs to light the LCD, full array backlights split the back of the television into sections or zones. Each zone can be brightened or darkened, free and independent from the other zones. There are still rows upon rows of LEDs behind the LCD panel, but there’s significantly more control over the brightness or darkness of said LEDs with a full array backlight. As a result, full array LED backlights are superior to direct lit ones. Proof enough? These TV backlight types deliver superior HDR over direct lit. The Sony 4K Ultra HD TV X90K Series: BRAVIA XR Full Array LED TV has full array LED backlights.
- Enhanced by XR Contrast Booster 10
- Cognitive Processor XR understands how humans see
- Exclusive features for the PlayStation 5
- High-performance gaming with HDMI 2.1 features
Hopefully you’re not tired of hearing about direct lit TV backlight types, because we have one more for you: Mini-LED LCD TVs. No, that’s not a bunch of gibberish: it’s the best full array type in the industry today. Think about the LED-covered backlight of a full array display. Now shrink those LEDs until they’re 1/5th their original size. This is what a mini-LED backlight brings to the table: more LEDs per square inch, and, as a result, more sections or zones to fit on the backlight. The increased number of zones means an increased high dynamic color range and superior brightness and dimming. One example of a TV with mini-LED backlights is the LG 65QNED99UPA QNED MiniLED 99 Series 8K UHD NanoCell TV
- Advanced LED technology
- Exceptional 8K performance
- Outstanding picture and audio quality
- Ultimate gaming experience
Even with a mini-LED LCD TV, you’re still going to encounter some of the same problems as all the other LED TV backlight types. Why? Because some flaws are simply inherent to LED LCD technology as a whole. It has nothing to do with certain backlight types and everything to do with backlights in general. Sure, a mini-LED backlight will look much better than an edge lit LED backlight. However, all will pale in comparison to the superior picture quality of an OLED screen. The reason? OLED TVs have no backlight whatsoever. That’s right: An LED TV without the need for a backlight.
OLED — or organic LED — is the abbreviation used to describe the phenomenon of electrically charged, electro-luminescent compounds placed between two electrodes. When put in contact with electricity between the two electrodes — one of which is usually the transparent layer — the OLEDs light up without the need for a backlight. Whether they be tiny molecules or minuscule polymers, OLED TV displays can light up individual pixels while leaving others completely dark. Who needs a backlight and its inherent problems with shadows, blacks, and brights when you can have a backlight-free OLED display?
Though the technology has been around for decades, it’s just now beginning to see implementation across the field of consumer electronics. (This, of course, includes televisions.) OLED guarantees superior performance in low light, much higher contrast ratios, and far more realistic colors than your traditional LED-backlit LCD. Best of all? OLED displays are still the same basic type of display as an LCD — they just don’t need the backlight. You can spend all day comparing and contrasting TV backlight types, but OLED is always going to be the best of the bunch.
Best TV Backlight Types: Who Wins?
So, now that we’ve gone over all the best TV backlight types and discussed the ones you’re most likely to encounter at the electronics store, which type is ultimately the best? Excluding OLED, of course, which we already know is best. However, we also admit it might not actually qualify as one of the TV backlight types. When all is said and done, the award goes to mini-LED backlights. When coupled with an LCD display, mini-LED backlights bring the best colors, the best HDR, and the best overall performance of the bunch. If you have to go with a backlit television, go with mini-LED every time.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©iStock.com/Robert Daly.