What is LCD? Liquid crystal displays explained

Looking to buy a new TV, smartphone, monitor or pretty much any piece of tech with a screen? You’ve probably come across the term LCD. 

Read on to learn what a liquid crystal display is and how it compares to other screen types, including LED and OLED

What is LCD? 

LCD is a display type commonly featured in TV, monitor, tablet and phone screens. LCD stands for ‘liquid crystal display’, which refers to the liquid crystal used in the display to strategically block out light. 

How does it work?

An LCD display consists of liquid crystal sandwiched between two pieces of polarised glass (or substrate) and a backlight. 

The backlight passes through the first layer of glass as, at the same time, electrical currents direct the liquid crystal molecules to move and align. This causes the polarised light to rotate, allowing only specific levels of light to reach the second substrate. 

This light becomes the light source for the hundreds or thousands of RGB (Red, Green, Blue) pixels packed into the display, a combination of which creates the final image you see on-screen. 

However, the quality of the image depends on more factors than just whether or not the display uses LCD technology. 

You also need to consider how many pixels the display has (Full HD, 2K, 4K, etc.), along with what type of LCD the screen uses (for example, IPS LCD displays offer better contrast ratios and viewing angles than TN LCD displays). 

Is LCD better than LED? 

Comparing LCD displays to LED (light-emitting diode) ones isn’t as straight-forward a comparison as you might think. 

Like LCD displays, LED ones use liquid crystal technology to control where light can and cannot go. 

The distinction between the two was originally made because LCD screens used CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamps) as their light source, which were larger and less efficient than those found in LED TVs. 

However, these days both display types commonly use LED backlights as their light source, making them virtually the same. 

How does it compare to OLED? 

Over the last few years, LCD displays have found themselves gradually replaced by OLED ones everywhere from TVs to flagship phones (like the Galaxy S22 and iPhone 13) to the Nintendo Switch OLED.

Unlike LCD screens, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays don’t require any backlight. 

Rather OLED screens work by switching on individual pixels, allowing for deeper blacks and more intense contrast, along with slimmer designs and reduced power consumption, when compared with the older display type. 

However, OLED displays generally cost much more to produce and can suffer from issues like image retention and burn-in if the screen is left displaying a static image for too long.

You can find out more about how OLED displays compare to LCD ones in our guide to OLED vs LED LCD.

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