What is Mini-LED and how it compares against OLED?

Apple has just launched the brand new iPad Pro 12.9″, its first iPad with the breakthrough M1 chip, but there is one other piece of new technology inside that iPad that we want to discuss, a brand new type of display that really sets the bar higher than before: Mini-LED!

Mini-LED is the underlying technology that makes possible the fancy “Liquid Retina XDR” screen on the iPad Pro 12.9″, the XDR part being the same one as on Apple’s insanely expensive, $5,000 professional monitor, and coming with the perks that come with it: 1,600 nits peak brightness, a million to one contrast ratio, great viewing angles, and put simply, just an incredibly vibrant picture.

So what hides behind the “Liquid Retina XDR” magic, what’s the secret sauce? Well, turns out, it’s not one thing: it’s thousands of little things: Mini-LEDs!
  • What is Mini-LED and how is it different than standard LCD screens?
  • Are Mini-LED screens better than OLED displays?
  • And finally, what’s the difference between Mini-LED vs Micro-LED?

These are the questions that we’ll be answering right away.

In summary, Mini-LED is a new type of backlight tech for LCD displays and it matters because it’s a very good improvement over current LCD backlight technology while also not being too expensive.

Traditional LCD screens use tens of LEDs that act as a backlight. Mini-LEDs are much, much tinier… to the tune of about 120X times tinier! This means you can fit a lot more of them: the new iPad uses 10,000 Mini-LEDs vs… just 72 on the previous generation model (and that one already had one of the best screens on the market)! These 10,000 individual Mini-LEDs are then organized in about 2,500 “local dimming zones”, which allow for that super high contrast.

LEDs

But let’s go back to an even more fundamental level, what are LEDs you may ask?

Well, LEDs (light emitting diodes) are pretty much small semiconductor devices which emit light when current passes through them. They were first introduced around the 1960s and have since gained wide-spread usage. We mostly see them in TV remotes (as infrared lights which flash and give commands for what your TV should do), flashlights and camera flashes on smartphones.

Modern displays started by mounting these LEDs on the sides of the screen after replacing old cathode fluorescent lamps and evolved by switching to local dimming arrays which have LEDs positioned fully behind the LCD screen and are controlled by row and column thus providing better light and less light bleed. At some point, there have also been displays which use RGB (red, green and blue) LEDs in order to boost contrast and make colors more vivid but the majority of LCD displays nowadays use standard white LEDs. And so, back to the topic at hand, we reach our question. Mini-LED, what is it and why does it matter?

Mini-LED

As we’ve already established, Mini-LED technology refers to smaller LEDs being used for display backlight. The same backlight that helps you see light on your display. It was first introduced on a TV from TCL back in 2019. The TV is the TCL 8-Series Roku. If you have a look here:

…you’ll notice that colors on the Roku are really vibrant and black sections do look darker on screen. It looks really good given that it’s not OLED. Basically, the idea of Mini-LED technology is to make LEDs smaller so as to make light more tightly controlled on displays. This helps with HDR performance immensely by giving good local dimming zones (good isolation between zones that need light) and also combats light bleed. This all basically means that you’ll be getting deeper black, white and more vivid colors all around with nice crisp lines between objects shown on your screen.

We’re also expecting Apple to incorporate this new backlight technology into all their devices at some point in the near future which should give us a good overall screen for just a slight price bump compared to OLED displays.

Now this is not to be confused with Micro-LED technology which is even smaller and harder to incorporate into a display.

Micro-LED

Micro-LED was first introduced back in the year 2000 but it does share the same principle as Mini-LED, only smaller. If a regular backlight LED is 1mm across then a mini LED is 0.2mm while a micro LED is 0.005mm in size. That’s honestly a pretty massive difference.

We have already seen it done on some TVs and it looks phenomenal given that it’s not OLED. One such TV is the Samsung “The Wall”. Quite the large example but still interesting to see nonetheless. 

As we notice, it does seem to have amazing contrast and good colors. Samsung did do a nice commercial on Micro-LED which illustrates what we can continue to expect from this technology. And honestly this may be the future given that it lasts longer than OLED panels while also being cheaper to produce. One other thing which I do like about this technology is that Micro-LED should be able to do 5000 nits of peak brightness versus the 1000-1500 nits of OLED. And that right there is quite impressive.

Mini-LED vs Micro-LED

If we were to look at regular LEDs vs smaller LEDs, we immediately see a benefit in brightness, colors and sharpness. But what about the difference between Mini-LED and Micro-LED.

Well to start off, the Mini-LED technology, while being small, is not exactly as small as Micro-LED technology.

This has the obvious benefit of costing less but this also means that it’s not as good as Micro-LED tech in terms of local dimming performance and while we may argue that it won’t be that noticeable in larger screens, this would be much more crucial in smaller displays like on smartwatches.

One other thing we as consumers don’t pay much attention to which is still important though is that Micro-LED displays are as of right now very hard to produce since you need a lot of tiny LEDs and they need to perform rather uniformly. The same goes for Mini-LED displays which might be slightly more expensive to produce the first few times until the manufacturing process is fully perfected.

History lesson

That’s about all of our explainer, but here is a quick refresh for those of you wondering about the origins of LCD screens and why do they even need a backlight. For more or less 15 years now, almost all TVs, computers and phones use an LCD display with a backlight.

These so-called Liquid Crystal Displays don’t have a way to emit light on their own. They can for sure show an image but you’d need to put some light behind the screen in order to see it so this is where backlight comes to the rescue.

Backlight, as of recent times, has been made by dozens of LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) incorporated into displays, thus providing good lighting. At some point we even figured out a way to light up our displays organically (OLED) without needing a backlight but that proves too costly and most of all, has a shorter lifetime than traditional LED backlit displays. After all, everything organic, does eventually degrade. These are probably also good reasons as to why we still haven’t ditched the use of standard LCD LED displays.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, Mini-LEDs are awesome! They seem way cheaper than OLED screens and they may just about match them in quality, plus they improve a tried and true technology like LCDs that have been around for an eternity in tech years!

So far, the only mainstream mobile product with a Mini-LED screen is the iPad Pro 12.9″ 2021 edition, and that device is priced at $1,100, expensive but not exorbitantly priced, and we guess many more will be coming soon.


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