- LCD TVs can be grouped into three categories based on the type of LED backlighting system: direct-lit, edge-lit, and full-array.
- LCD TVs with local dimming can produce deep blacks and have a better contrast ratio. Full-Array TVs typically have the best contrast performance among LCD TVs.
- OLED TVs offer pixel-level local dimming, resulting in a near-infinite contrast ratio and considered to have the best picture quality, but they are typically more expensive and can suffer from burn-in.
Modern LCD TVs rely on LED backlighting to produce the visuals you see on the screen. But their picture quality and price can differ based on their backlighting system. So, what are these backlighting systems, and how are they different?
LED Backlighting in LCD TVs
LCD TVs can be grouped into three categories based on the type of LED backlighting system: Direct-lit, edge-lit, and full-array. As the name suggests, direct-lit TVs feature a panel of LEDs placed directly behind the display stack. Full-array TVs have a similar LED placement, but the number of LEDs is significantly more, and these LEDs are divided into different zones. But unlike both direct-lit and full-array TVs, edge-lit TVs have LEDs on the perimeter, and depending on the TV, these LEDs may or may not be grouped into multiple zones.
The LED backlight zones in full array and edge-lit TVs are significant as they enable the manufacturers to implement a feature called local dimming. It allows TVs to control the backlight on a scene-by-scene basis. So the TV can turn off LED backlighting in parts of the screen where it’s supposed to be darker while keeping other parts lit. As a result, LCD TVs with local dimming can produce deep, uniform blacks and have a better contrast ratio than the LCD TVs that don’t have this feature.
Direct lighting is the newest of the three types backlighting in LCD TVs. The first commercial direct-lit LCD TVs emerged around 2012 and are essentially an off-shoot of the full-array TVs.
As direct-lit TVs require fewer LEDs and no backlight control, they are cheaper to produce and thus typically limited to the entry-level and mid-range segments of a TV manufacturer’s portfolio.
But, the lower number of LEDs also means they have to be placed farther away from the screen to offer sufficient light coverage across the panel. As a result, direct-lit TVs are usually thicker than TVs with other backlighting systems.
Additionally, the lack of backlight control limits the contrast ratio of direct-lit LCD TVs to the native contrast ratio of the panel. So if a direct-lit TV uses a VA-type LCD panel, it will have a reasonable contrast ratio, but TVs with IPS-type panels have a poor contrast ratio.
Edge LED backlighting first appeared in TVs in 2008, allowing for a thinner profile than LCD TVs with other backlighting solutions. But as the LEDs are placed on the rim of the screen, edge-lit TVs require a diffuser to light up the entire display adequately. This adds to their cost, making them slightly more expensive than direct-lit TVs. But given that backlighting is just one part of an LCD TV’s cost, you will find both cheap and costly edge-lit TVs on the market.
Some edge-lit TVs also come with local dimming support. But the number of backlight zones is typically far lower than in full-array TVs, and the individual LEDs are responsible for lighting up entire columns of the screen. So edge-lit local dimming is much less precise, and the benefit in terms of contrast ratio is minimal.
Full-array TVs have the best backlight implementation among LCD TVs. Not only do these TVs have a large number of LEDs, but the LEDs are also divided into multiple zones for dynamic backlight control. So, depending on the number of backlight zones and local dimming implementation, full-array TVs can have modest to excellent improvement over the native contrast ratio of the LCD panel. Increasing LED density increases the number of dimming zones, and successive generations of “mini-LED” TVs have marked improvements.
As a result, full-array TVs typically deliver deep blacks and bright highlights and are generally excellent for displaying HDR content.
Unfortunately, LCD TVs with full-array local dimming can also suffer from various screen artifacts, such as blooming and black crush, depending on the number of backlight zones and the overall local dimming implementation.
Edge-Lit Vs. Direct-Lit TV: Which Is Better?
Broadly speaking, edge-lit TVs will provide better visual quality than direct-lit TVs, and you should probably pick an edge-lit display if you’re concerned about visual fidelity. Most of the mid-range television sets you see for sale online and in stores are edge-lit, but you should always confirm that before making a purchase.
There are two main situations where you may want a direct-lit TV instead of an edge-lit TV:
- You want an enormous TV for as little money as possible
- You simply want a cheap TV
Because edge-lit is the more “premium” technology, edge-lit TVs do tend to be somewhat more expensive than a direct-lit TV of the same size. As a result, most of the gigantic, inexpensive (relatively), 4K displays you’ll see for sale are direct-lit, and almost all of the least expensive, smaller TVs you’ll see are too. Ultimately, that is a good thing. Not every situation calls for the slight advantage edge-lit displays provide, and in those cases, why not save a buck?
As we mentioned previously, there are always going to be variations in quality between models and manufacturers that complicate comparisons of this sort. A well designed direct-lit TV will probably look much better than a poorly designed edge-lit display, and there is no definitive way to know in advance if that will be the case.
How to Check the Backlighting System of a TV
If you are shopping for a new TV and curious about its backlighting system, you can consult the TV’s specifications. Manufacturers generally mention whether an LCD TV is direct lit, edge lit, or full array. In the case of full-array TVs, the number of local dimming or backlight control zones is also listed in the TV’s specifications. This number is usually different for different sizes of a particular TV and can impact the amount of contrast ratio gain you can expect.
TV reviews from reputed websites such as Rtings.com also mention these details.
What About OLED TVs?
OLED TVs are self-emissive and don’t need a backlight, unlike LCD TVs. Instead, each pixel of an OLED panel can generate its own light and be switched off to display the perfect black color. So, OLED TVs essentially offer pixel-level local dimming. As a result, they have a near-infinite contrast ratio and are generally considered to have the best picture quality. But they are also typically more expensive than LCD TVs and can suffer from burn-in.
All-in-all, the backlight system of an LCD TV can impact its picture performance. And if you are shopping for a new TV, full-array TVs generally have the best picture quality. But if you are restricted by your budget, direct and edge-lit TVs can also deliver good visual performance. But make sure to read expert reviews to get a better idea about the overall quality of a particular television. If you can, go see a television in person at a store somewhere — after all, it is going to be your television, and no amount of technical analysis or review reading can beat a direct answer to the most important question: Does it look good to me?