Tech Talk with David Pogue

TV Images to Dazzle the Jaded

Modern tech life teems with longstanding quandaries, questions that never seem to go away. Mac or Windows? Turn off the computer every night or let it sleep? Plasma or L.C.D.?

Fortunately, that last question will soon have an answer. There’s a new TV on the block, and its picture is so amazing, it makes plasma and L.C.D. look like cave drawings.

It’s called organic light emitting diode, or O.L.E.D. This technology has been happily lighting up the screens of certain cellphone and music-player models for a couple of years now, but Sony is the first company to offer it in a TV screen. It’s called the XEL-1, and it’s available only from SonyStyle stores. Its picture is so incredible, Sony should include a jaw cushion.

At a cooperative Best Buy store, I did a little test. I set the XEL-1 up next to state-of-the-art plasmas and L.C.D. sets — all hooked up to the same video signal for easy comparison — and recorded the reactions of shoppers and employees. Their adjectives for this picture included “astonishing,” “astounding,” “incredible” (twice) and “amazing” (five times).

They were right. The XEL-1’s picture is so colorful, vibrant, rich, lifelike and high in contrast, you catch your breath. It’s like looking out a window. With the glass missing.

Name a drawback of plasma or L.C.D. — motion blur, uneven lighting across the panel, blacks that aren’t quite black, whites that aren’t quite white, limited viewing angle, color that isn’t quite true, brightness that washes out in bright rooms, screen-door effect up close — and this TV overcomes it.

Plasma is supposed to offer darker blacks than L.C.D., but O.L.E.D. trumps both of them. Next to this TV, even the blacks on the critically adored Pioneer Kuro plasma screen look very dark gray. Blacks on Sony’s O.L.E.D. TV are jet black. Absolute black. Black-hole black — and kuro even means black in Japanese.

(If you’re a TV-technology geek and you’re getting a distinct feeling of déjà vu, congratulations. All of this does sound exactly like the descriptions of S.E.D. television prototypes demonstrated years ago by Toshiba and Canon. Unfortunately, that equally impressive picture technology never made it out of the lab.)

To make this thing even more drool-worthy, the XEL-1’s screen is only three millimeters thick — shirt-cardboard thick. If they could build a laptop with a screen this thin, it would make the MacBook Air look like a suitcase.

The reason: in an O.L.E.D. screen, each pixel generates its own light; there’s no need for bulky backlights, as there are in, for example, L.C.D. sets. (In the labs, they have O.L.E.D. screens so thin you can roll them up.)

Finally, O.L.E.D. uses less electricity than either plasma or L.C.D.

So, if this thing is so amazing, why isn’t everyone stampeding to get one?

Because even though the XEL-1 is the biggest O.L.E.D. television you can buy today, it’s only an 11-inch screen. That’s not a typo; it’s smaller than your laptop screen.

Oh, and it costs $2,500.

Several factors are at work here. First, O.L.E.D. screens are still very difficult to manufacture, and at this early stage, this size is about all Sony can crank out reliably. Second, of course, there’s the early-adopter factor; Sony charges that much because it can. Any well-heeled early adopter who sees this thing winds up desperately wanting one.

Tech Call Web Extra: OLED TV

If you’re tempted, beware of a few items of fine print. First of all, surprisingly enough, the XEL-1 is not actually a high-definition TV. It accepts hi-def signals, but it doesn’t display all of that resolution. In fact, it has only 960 by 540 pixels; you’d need four of these screens to equal the pixels of one 1080p high-def screen.

Yet here’s what’s shocking: instead of complaining how coarse the picture is, people exclaim how much sharper it is than hi-def plasmas or L.C.D. sets. That’s partly because the pixels are far tinier than they are on a 50-inch behemoth. You can’t see individual pixels even with your nose smashed up against the glass.

This example makes you suspect that perhaps pixel count is not the be-all, end-all television measurement that the TV industry would have us believe it is. Just as the number of megapixels has little to do with the quality of the photos from a digital camera, maybe the perceived clarity of a TV image may depend more on other factors.

In any case, nobody will ever complain about the XEL-1’s sharpness or resolution.

As a “desktop television” (Sony’s euphemism for this tiny thing), the XEL-1 comes mounted on a flat tabletop base. The screen floats above it, suspended by a chrome arm on the right side.

Operating instructions?

This design is tidy and self-contained, and it permits the screen to tilt 70 degrees forward or back. The screen doesn’t rotate on its vertical axis, however; if you want to show it off to someone next to you, you have to turn the whole base. Or don’t, and just exploit the screen’s nearly 90-degree viewing angle.

Nor does the screen come off of that base, so that you can suspend it or mount it — a fantasy that occurs to almost everyone. The base is, after all, where you connect the power cord and the video sources. Its back panel offers a coaxial cable input, two H.D.M.I. cables, a headphone/digital-audio output jack and a Memory Stick slot (to play photos of the memory card from a Sony camera).

There are no component-video inputs and no analog inputs for things like VCRs, although if you’re spending $2,500 on an 11-inch TV, chances are pretty good that you’ve graduated beyond the VCR.

Another concern: until recently, O.L.E.D. had a reputation for short life span. Sony, however, says that the XEL-1’s screen will be good for 30,000 hours. That’s 8 hours of watching each day for 10 years, or twice through “The Lord of the Rings” Special Extended Edition DVD boxed set.

There’s no way to know for sure how Sony’s claim will hold up. Check back here in 2018 for an update.

The user guide, meanwhile, does warn that O.L.E.D. screens can develop plasma-like burn-in if you leave a static image on the screen for a very long time.

The XEL-1 comes with a very thin, nicely laid-out remote, but it’s non-illuminated and can’t control any other gear. On the base are volume up/down, input-switching and power buttons. Their labels light up when the TV is on, and disappear into the black surface when it’s off, which is very cool.

The Sony also comes with a comedy booklet entitled, “Operating Instructions.” It’s filled with hilarious warnings, like “Do not install the TV upside down,” “Do not throw anything at the TV” and “Do not install the TV where insects may enter.”

(Some of them are physical impossibilities. “Do not place objects on top of the TV,” for example — what could you possibly balance on a 3-millimeter razor’s edge? Or this one: “Adjust the volume so as not to trouble your neighbors.” Listen, the only way this TV’s tiny speaker could trouble your neighbors is if they tried to swallow it.)

But maybe Sony’s over-protectiveness is understandable; after all, the XEL-1 is the first and only one of its kind.

Clearly, with this big price and small size, the XEL-1 won’t be showing up in sports bars and home theaters anytime soon. Instead, think of the XEL-1 as a concept car that you can actually buy.

In the meantime, Sony has demonstrated a prototype of a 27-inch version, and other companies have O.L.E.D. sets of their own in the works. No, you probably can’t pay, or wouldn’t pay, $2,500 for an 11-inch TV today. But even if you don’t buy the XEL-1, at least it shows you what the end of the plasma-L.C.D. era will look like: gorgeous.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: