Key TakeawaysMini-LED displays use a grid of tiny backlights that can be switched on or off.They're cheaper to make than OLED screens, but share some benefits. Samsung and Apple are going big on mini-LED in 2021.
Mini-LEDs are coming to a screen near you, making pictures brighter, more contrasty, and almost as good as OLED, all without jacking up the price of our favorite gadgets.
Expect to see lots of Mini-LED screens in 2021, in TVs, laptops, and even iPads. The advantage of this screen tech is that it can give superior images, but without the cost and difficulty of manufacturing large OLED screens. It's going to be (literally) big.
"I believe with smaller pixel elements [mini-LED] improves black levels and overall image quality," tech writer Orestis Bastounis told Ach5 via Twitter. "Black is closer to 'true' black—still not as good as OLED which is a pixel emitting zero light as it's turned off completely, but closer."
What Are Mini-LEDs?
A standard screen found in today's laptops and tablets comprises two parts: a backlight layer, and a layer of colored LCD pixels on top. The backlight shines through the pixels, which add color, and can also become opaque to block the backlight. The problem is that the backlight can still bleed through the pixel layer, causing a halo effect. To counter this, the screen can switch off parts of the backlight, but the backlight sections are relatively large, so they still spill over.
OLED screens are way better. Each pixel is its own light. This lets you vary color and intensity per-pixel, and leads to amazing color and contrast. If a pixel on the screen is supposed to be black, it stays black.
Finally, mini-LEDs work like regular LCD screens, but with much smaller backlights, made from tiny LEDs. This lets you dim smaller regions of the screen, getting closer to the quality of an OLED display.
Why Not Just Use OLED?
If OLED is so good, why not just use it for everything? Because it's expensive to make, especially at large sizes. OLED is perfect for camera viewfinders, or for phones, because the price/size ratio is acceptable. But making them at even iPad sized is currently too expensive. Mini-LEDs are the next best thing. They look better than LCD, and when it comes to portable devices like iPads and MacBooks, they can save power compared to LED screens.
What Products Will Use Mini-LEDs?
The main use for mini-LEDs will be in TVs, which really benefit from the extra contrast, and the lack of halos. Imagine that you're watching a sci-fi movie, with bright spaceships and stars on a deep black background. With mini-LEDs, these ships and stars will be more halo-free.
Samsung's 2021 TV lineup is heavy on the mini-LEDs, although it's calling some of them 'Neo-QLED.'
"Samsung says the LEDs in these TVs are up to 40 times smaller than those in sets with traditional full-array backlighting," writes The Verge's Chris Welch, "where you get a few dozen 'zones' that light up and dim in accordance with what's happening on-screen."
These TVs also have virtually non-existent bezels. The frame around the screen is so thin that it's almost not there.
Apple is also going all-in on mini-LEDs. Consistent rumors point to mini-LED iPads this year, most likely in the iPad Pro, which hasn't seen a major update since 2018. The iPad Pro is still a formidable computer today, but the 2020 iPad Air is almost as good, and better in some ways.
A mini-LED screen would help differentiate the pro machine. Mini-LEDs would also help the iPad to match the display quality of the iPhone 12, all models of which now use OLEDs. iOS devices are pretty much all-screen, with supplementary features to support that screen. It makes sense for Apple to take this seriously.
MacBook Pros are also expected to get mini-LED displays this year, which would fit nicely, timeline-wise, with a possible total redesign when the 14-inch model gets Apple's home-grown M1 chip.
Mini-LED MacBook Airs on the other hand, aren't expected until 2022.
What we can say for sure is that Mini-LEDs are the future for most high-end displays, at least until somebody works out how to make affordable TV-sized OLED panels.