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Interview with TCL: «Mini LED isn’t just on par with OLED – Mini LED is better»

Luca Fontana
Zurich, on 26.04.2021
Revision: Eva Francis

Olivier Semenoux is Head of Product Management for TCL Europe. In this interview, he talks about TCL’s strategy for Europe, why Mini LED is better than OLED, and when we can expect Micro LED to hit the market.

There’s a new player on the European TV market: TCL. The Chinese tech company based in Shenzhen, Guangdong, is not what you’d call a household name in these parts. This is because TCL is still quite young by industry standards.

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TCL was established in Hong Kong in 1981 under the name TTK. Four years later, the company is sued for producing cheap counterfeit cassettes. This results in TTK changing both its core business and name: TCL is born. Meanwhile, TCL is the world’s second largest TV producer in terms of television set sales. The company is also heavily researching new display technologies.

At least that’s what my interview partner, Olivier Semenoux, Head of Product Management at TCL Europe says.

Olivier, you’re the man in charge of TCL TV sales in Europe. How many TV sets do you have at home? Five? Six?
Olivier Semenoux: No, no (laughs). Not that many. There’s a big, 65-inch TV in the apartment and a small one in the bedroom. The small one’s 32 inches.

Both TCL TVs, of course? Both are TCL TVs. Having said that, I’ve got to admit that there’s a third television upstairs. It’s not TCL but Philips.

You’ve got to know what the competition’s up to, right?
Exactly! Actually, Philips was my employer before I joined TCL. Naturally, there are many more TV sets at the office. This lets us keep an eye on the competition – literally.

«I’ve got to admit, I own a TV that isn’t by TCL.»

What exactly does your job entail other than keeping an eye on the competition?
I’m Head of Product Management. I oversee the range and define the TV specifications for Europe. For example, whether a QLED model «X» should be launched with a 50 Hz or 100 Hz image or whether we want to equip a Mini LED model «Y» with an integrated soundbar.

Sounds like a lot of responsibility.
Oh yes. I’m also the go-to market leader. In other words, I’m responsible for how communicate our TVs and said specifications to the market and which channels we use to do that. Online. Offline. TV ads. Online ads. Things like that.

In a nutshell: you need to know what kind of TV Luca wants and need to make sure he knows you have the exact TV set he had in mind. How do you do that?
On the one hand, we do a lot of market research to better understand our customers. On the other hand, we learn from retailers like you. Your orders indirectly reflect what people want. Retailers are definitely very important for us.

How do you mean?
We need retailers to promote our brand in shops. In brick-and-mortar stores. Where people go to ask about products. The main problem there is that sales representatives need to know about TCL before they can recommend the brand.

Isn’t this also the case online? Surely, most people look for well-known brands first?
You’d be forgiven for thinking this. But in fact, our numbers show that more TCL TVs are sold online than TVs by the competition.

Really? I’m suprised.
When people do their own research – which they do online – they don't necessarily prioritise by brand. They filter by specifications first. UHD, HDR, HDMI 2.1 and so on. Next, they filter by price. Maybe the other way around. Only then, as a third step, do customers take a look at brands. And that’s how they come across our TVs.

Obviously the pandemic helped as stores were closed. This leaves people with no other option than to go online and do this kind of research themselves.

«Retailers are definitely very important for us.»

In stores, however, you’re dependent on the «goodwill» of sales staff to mention your brand alongside Samsung and co...
... which brings us back to the point of why retailers and our relationship with them are so important to us. It’s our duty to inform them.

In which sense?
In-store, you probably have about two minutes to get customers to buy a TV. You’ll probably limit yourself to well-known names instead of having to explain both the TV set and the brand. This saves time and leads to a sale more often than with lesser known brands.

So explaining the brand is your job as the go-to market leader?
Correct. We’re fully aware of the fact that we’re not very well known yet in Europe. If you were to ask people in the street if they’re familiar with the TV manufacturer TCL, only about 30 per cent would answer yes. To be successful on the Swiss market in the long term, it’s therefore essential that we increase brand awareness.

And yet, on a global scale, TCL is the world’s second largest TV manufacturer.
This is because we’re up there with the biggest TV brands in China and the United States.

«We’re fully aware of the fact that we’re not very well known yet in Europe.»

That makes sense. If you rule the Chinese market, which is your home market, you basically rule the world. But still, why did you choose to establish yourselves in the US first and not in Europe?
Because the US market isn’t just larger, it’s also easier to join as a new player.

I’m not sure I follow.
The thing is, there are three, maybe four big retailers calling the shots in the US. Amazon and Walmart, to name two. If you have good deals with them, your growth is practically a done deal.

And what about Europe?
In Europe, things are a bit trickier. Firstly, there are different countries, which all have their own small markets with their very own rules. Norway behaves nothing like Germany. Germany nothing like Italy, and Italy nothing like Switzerland. Secondly, each country has different laws and different retailers that rule the market. In Switzerland alone, there are more systemically relevant retailers than in the whole of the US. Put in simpler terms, three or four good deals are simply not enough to dominate entire countries – let alone the whole of Europe.

And thirdly?
Thirdly, there are many different technology standards in Europe. In Switzerland, for example, the Internet is much better. This makes streaming much more important than, let’s say, in Greece, where almost everything is broadcast terrestrially. In the US, on the other hand, virtually everything runs on cable. There, you also have the same laws, labels and standards wherever you are. This means developing the range is much easier.

«In Switzerland, there are more systemically relevant retailers than in the whole of the US. Three or four good deals are simply not enough to dominate entire countries.»

So you have your work cut out for you if you want to become as strong as your competitors in Europe.
That’s right. In any case, loyalty is key. If you buy a TV from a certain brand, you’ll probably also buy a soundbar from that brand. Later on, you might even get a refrigerator or a vacuum cleaner, when you're faced with a choice in a store.

You’re planning on selling refrigerators and vacuum cleaners?
The truth is, we’ve been around in Europe for a while now. We’ve been selling selected TCL products for years, just not under the TCL brand. In France, for example, under the name Thomson. In Italy, it’s De’Longhi. The problem is that nobody would associate Thomson with De’Longhi. This means you’re not creating any kind of brand recognition. Let alone loyalty.

So you changed your strategy and now prefer to manage Europe under a single brand.
Not just in the TV sector. We’re offering an entire tech ecosystem. Washing machines. Air conditioning. Smartphones. Once we’ve gained the trust of customers in one area, this has a positive effect on other areas. This way, we’re killing two birds with one stone by creating brand awareness and encouraging loyalty.

You first popped up on my radar when you launched the first TV with Mini LED technology. Great technology, I must say.
That was the X10. We launched it around Christmas 2019. Mini LED means that there are small LEDs on the back of the TV which work like a projector to shine through the LCD pixels and generate the image on the glass that you see at the front. OLED TVs, on the other hand, consist of pixels that produce their own light, so they don't need any additional LED backlighting.

Backlighting with LEDs
Backlighting with LEDs
Graphic: Sven Mathis

But Mini LED technology is still in its early stages.
That's right. Early on, tubes created the backlighting. Later, there were between 20 and 40 small LEDs, either around the edge or right behind the glass. The latter is also called full array local dimming (FALD). Now, these LEDs have just got even smaller. Rather than 40 LEDs, there are thousands. Hence the «mini» in «Mini LED».

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That's the essence of OLED. You've explained that every OLED pixel produces its own light. So, on a UHD TV, that would mean over eight million pixels switching themselves on and off.
Correct. In comparison, the best TV with FALD backlighting has around 500 LEDs. Back when FALD technology was new, it was the first good – although inadequate – answer to OLED. But Mini LED isn’t just on par with OLED – it's better.

But you have to say that. After all, TCL don't sell any OLED TVs.
Look, OLED is wonderful technology that has two advantages over the original FALD: no blooming and better black levels.

Whereas Mini LED has thousands of LEDs, but nowhere near eight million...
... that's true, but there are still far more than FALD and more than enough to ensure no visible blooming with Mini LED backlighting. So let's call it a draw as far as blooming is concerned.

So why is Mini LED still better than OLED?
Because of the contrast. This is the difference between the brightest and darkest pixels.

OLEDs are especially good in this area because black really is black.
Exactly. But OLEDs don't shine as brightly as the LEDs that form the backlighting of LCD TVs. Put into numbers: our Mini LEDs boast 1500 nit brightness. In contrast, the top-range OLEDs only have around 1000 nit. Mini LED TVs show the largest difference between bright and dark, meaning the best contrast values. This has an impact on the entire image, along with the colour volume and HDR effect.

«Mini LED isn’t just on par with OLED – it's better.»

LG and Sony certainly wouldn’t agree.
Of course. They wouldn't be doing their job if they believed anything else. Having said that, LG is actually building Mini LED TVs now. I'm sure they see the advantages of the technology exactly as we do.

But you have the upper hand.
Yes, I think so. We're definitely about two years ahead of our competition. We've been working on Mini LED since 2017. And we produce our Mini LED screens in our own factories.

Building in your own factories makes you independent. What about the competition? Do they also make their own Mini LED panels?
I can't say (laughing).

What if I ask nicely?
Lets just say that all TV manufacturers have the opportunity to buy the panel – the screen – somewhere else and then combine it with their remaining own-brand hardware. Their own processor or speaker, for example. There are currently only three manufacturers selling Mini LED TVs: Samsung, LG and us.

Every year we produce around 23 million TVs in total, but around 40 million panels. I'll let you do the maths (laughing).

«We're definitely about two years ahead of our competition.»

So you build more panels than TVs. And these panels aren't just left lying around; you sell them. But you haven't told me how many of these 17 million excess panels are actually Mini LED panels.
And I'm not going to. I don't actually have a detailed insight into which display technology is sold in which model at what price and in which markets.

But you do have a certain degree of power, that much is clear. Like LG and its OLED TV panels.
That's true. We can sell the panels ourselves at a low price, which is then reflected in the in-store price. This means we can control the direction of research and development for future-generation displays.

And which direction would that be?
The X10, our first Mini LED generation, has around 1,600 micrometre-sized Mini LEDs. That's 1.6 millimetres. In the third generation, the OD Zero, we're down to 152 micrometre-sized Mini LEDs, which is about the thickness of two human hairs.

Could Mini LEDs get even smaller in future?
The smaller the Mini LEDs, the more are needed. This further reduces blooming and improves contrast. With our third Mini LED generation, OD Zero, we've also reached a point where there's no gap between the Mini LED backlighting and the front glass.

Why is this important?
Less light means a brighter image. And the thinner the panel, the more flexible it is, which opens up new form factor options.

«We can control the direction of research and development for future-generation displays.»

Does that mean Mini LED could also be interesting for smartphones?
Why not? Most modern flagship smartphones have OLED displays. This is because LCD displays are still too rigid and immobile to use for smartphones with curved displays. We also still have work to do on the panel thickness.

Only recently, a Samsung employee explained that they have dispensed with the dome-like lens that is usually placed over the LEDs. This makes panels thinner, which – as I've learned - is better for total brightness.
Interesting. The lenses are nothing other than mini diffusers, dispersing the LED light evenly over the whole screen. I can't speak for the competition, but what I can say is that, at 152 micrometres, our latest Mini LEDs are the smallest on the market. That means it's not necessary to remove the lenses at all.

The dome-like lens over a group of LEDs.
The dome-like lens over a group of LEDs.
Image: Stephanie Tresch

So you haven't got rid of the lenses like Samsung did?
No. I don't know what trick Samsung has found to make the individual LEDs unrecognisable even without the diffuser. But we don't need it anyway.

Why not?
Our Mini LEDs are much smaller. When I said that our new Mini LEDs are just 152 micrometres in size, I meant including the diffuser lens. Maybe Samsung's LEDs are much bigger than ours, even without the diffuser lenses.

The evolution of background LEDs in pictures
The evolution of background LEDs in pictures

Is that your suspicion? Why not just buy a Neo QLED from Samsung, open it up and measure it?
Because Neo QLEDs aren't available to buy yet.

Right. OK, I'll rephrase the question: will you buy, open up and measure a Neo QLED when they are available?
No comment (laughing). But I don't think there's much we can learn from Samsung about Mini LED. TCL is certainly quite a way ahead. In fact, it's a pioneer in the field. But I'll definitely be buying a Neo QLED to record a benchmark for the competition.

Is that why you are much more open about the number of LEDs and dimming zones than the others?
Well, we develop and build our own Mini LED panels. The others don't. We know the technology very well and have no problems explaining it if that's what people want. Like I said, the others don't. And, above all, if you're not at the top, you don't necessarily want to admit it by publishing your figures.

«But I don't think there's much we could learn from Samsung about Mini LED.»

Right, so how many Mini LEDs and dimming zones does the upcoming OD Zero actually have?
The OD Zero is expected to have around 1,500 to 2,000 dimming zones of 20 Mini LEDs, depending on display size. This results in the best black levels that a Mini LED TV has ever had. But I can't go into more detail than that yet.

Which brings me to the question: when will Mini LED black become indistinguishable from OLED black?
Good question. The ultimate goal would be to build LEDs so small that you could get eight million of them into OLED TVs. But that would make them Micro LEDs rather than Mini LEDs. Virtually all TV manufacturers are working on this.

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So is Micro LED the future?
Micro LED is a possible scenario for the future. However the technology is currently far too expensive, even for many corporate customers. And then there's the modular design of Micro LED, which is currently only suitable for large-format screens. Advertising billboards, stadium screens or at the cinema, for example.

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When will Micro HD be hitting home cinemas? What would be a realistic estimate?
I think it will take another few years until Micro LED is affordable enough for end consumers. Only then will mass production be worth it.

«Micro LED is a possible scenario for the future. However the technology is currently far too expensive.»

What does affordable mean for you? 10,000 francs per TV? 5,000 francs? More? Less?
In Switzerland, I'd say that an acceptable ceiling price for new technology would be around 100 francs per inch. That's still a lot of money, but it's within the limit of what people here are prepared to pay for innovation.

A kind of pain threshold.
Exactly. It's about 50% to 100% more than the current premium technology. When innovation is only about 20% more expensive, the entire market will switch sides; not just the premium sector.

«I think it will take another few years until Micro LED is affordable enough for end consumers.»

I wonder whether Micro LED is really necessary. The human eye can already hardly distinguish between UHD and 8K resolution on a 65-inch screen. Let me convert that to OLED, Mini LED and Micro LED: could the human eye really tell the difference between 20,000, 50,000 and eight million LEDs?
That's the crux of the matter. We don't have a scientific study that confirms how many LEDs or dimming zones it takes for people to be able to tell between Mini LED black and OLED black.

But you must have an idea?
Even though there's no scientific field research, we work on blind tests that we've carried out with attendees at previous trade shows, and I'd say that we're already at the point where Mini LED and OLD produce practically the same quality black.

Again, you have to say that.
Of course, but I mean it. OLED manufacturers are always trying to get the message out that, theoretically, Mini LED can't beat OLED, at least where black levels are concerned. But what about in practice?

Will you still say that when you're selling OLED TVs one day?
How do you mean?

«We're already at the point where Mini LED and OLD produce practically the same quality black.»

You're working on a new production process that could revolutionise the industry.
You're talking about inkjet printing technology. We would be «printing» quantum dots onto a surface, similar to colour from an inkjet printer. That could be Micro or Mini LEDs.

I see. Until now, I've only ever heard about your new inkjet printing process in relation to OLED.
Correct. Alongside Mini and Micro LED, we're also aiming to develop a third process to combine quantum dot technology with OLED. With OLED, a colour filter colours white light from the OLEDs.

OLED in a nutshell. So what does quantum dot mean?
Quantum dots are tiny nanoparticles. The heavier the particle, the slower it vibrates when light hits it. The vibration determines the colour of the particle. We call TVs with quantum dots QLED TVs.

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And that's what you now want to combine with self-illuminating OLEDs?
Exactly. Instead of standard colour filters, we would use nanoparticles to control which colour the light from the OLEDs changes to. That would give us the best of both worlds: the perfect colours of QLED TVs and the perfect black of OLED TVs.

Which brings me back to my original question: what will happen to Mini LED and Micro LED?
The new production process could be market-ready in one, maybe two years. But it could still be hugely expensive. We're talking about 50,000 francs per TV. It will certainly take another two or three years until the prices are acceptable to the mass market.

So, will Mini LED remain the premium technology for LCD TVs for the next five years or so?
Probably, yes. And even if Micro LED or new quantum dot OLED are around, Mini LED will be recycled in cheaper models. What will then emerge between Micro LED and quantum dot OLED remains to be seen.

Olivier, I think I've asked everything there is to ask. Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?
We've talked a lot about image quality. I'd just like to add that image quality is only one of four cornerstones, even though it's the most important. The others are audio quality, content and design.

Can you give us any examples?
We work with Onkyo to produce better, integrated speakers and soundbars that also support the latest technologies such as Dolby Atmos. We also work closely with Google to offer the best smart TV system with Android TV and very soon Google TV. Finally, we place a great deal of emphasis on appearance, as TVs have become modern design pieces.

Thank you for the interview, Olivier.
Thank you.

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I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.» 

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