LED vs. LCD Screens Explained


Posted on 12, October, 2022

Last Modified on 14, October, 2022

Start shopping around for monitors, TVs, or digital signage and you’ll encounter two very similar acronyms right away — LED and LCD. This can be confusing, as you might see these terms used prominently in marketing or on packaging without any explanation as to what they mean. Not to mention, these acronyms have become shorthand for much more complicated concepts as well, which can make it even harder to know what you’re buying when looking for a display.

In this article, we’ll define these acronyms, talk a little bit about how modern screens work, and hopefully give you a little more knowledge and confidence when it comes to buying a digital display.

What does LCD stand for?

LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display. So, what are liquid crystals? Brace yourself for this, because we’ll need to get a bit into the weeds. Liquid crystals are substances that have the physical properties of both liquids and solid crystals. When it comes to liquid crystal displays (LCDs), there is a layer of this liquid crystal substance inside the screen that makes it possible to show complex images. Don’t worry, that’s about as technical as we’ll need to get. Just remember that it’s the most common type of screen technology for electronics right now.

While the topic of LCD screens has become more popular in recent decades thanks to the rise of affordable LCD televisions and computer monitors, this technology has been around longer than you might think, and you only need to look around your house to find countless everyday examples.

The little display on your microwave, that calculator you still have from math class, even that old-school digital watch — all of these are LCD screens. They’re much simpler, but they work on the same principle as your 4K TV and your computer monitor. Importantly, liquid crystals don’t produce any light on their own, so LCD panels need a separate light source, or backlight, to show images, but we’ll come back to that later.

What does LED stand for?

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. Basically, it’s a very small electrical component that lights up a certain color when you pass electricity through it. LEDs are everywhere — household light bulbs, flashlights, those electric Open/Closed signs in store windows, the string lights on your patio, the small colored indicators on your keyboard (like the one that lights up to tell you that you left the Caps Lock on) — if you see a little colored light on something, it’s probably an LED.

When it comes to digital displays, LEDs are also used as backlights for LCD screens.

Wait, so what’s an LED screen, then?

This is where manufacturers have had to simplify terms to express a pretty complex idea. Unfortunately, this has complicated the topic for consumers who understandably think that the LED TVs they see advertised at electronics stores are totally different from LCD TVs. There are “true LED” displays that are made up exclusively of colored LEDs, but that’s not what you see in consumer electronics most often. We’ll cover those later on.

In general, if you see an LED screen for sale to consumers, it’s actually an LCD screen with an LED backlight. A more appropriate name would be “LED-backlit LCD,” but that’s a mouthful. You can see why manufacturers choose to go with a simpler term. If you recall that liquid crystals don’t produce any light on their own, it makes sense that they would be paired with an LED panel to create the light they need to show an image.

Then why did they used to be called LCD TVs, and now they’re called LED TVs?

LCD panels didn’t always use LEDs as a light source. They used to use CCFLs or Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamps, a type of fluorescent lighting similar to those long white tubes you’d see lighting up hospitals, office buildings, and grocery stores. These were bulkier and less efficient, so they’ve been all but abandoned nowadays in favor of LED backlighting.

Are there LED displays that don’t use LCD panels?

Yes. Direct view LED displays use an array of many, many tiny colored LEDs mounted to a panel to show vivid, bright, full-color images. You’ll see them most often used as signage in very large formats. Electronic billboards, big storefront signs, that giant four-sided scoreboard hanging over the basketball court, and wall-sized screens that show information or advertisements in airports and other public spaces are just a few examples. They need to be viewed from farther away, which is why they don't work well as televisions or phone screens.

If you’re wondering about OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screens, just remember that they are mostly relegated to consumer electronics like televisions and smartphones. While technically “true LED” displays, they are a different technology than those used in large-scale, direct view LED screens.

What should I consider when buying a direct view LED display?

The biggest issue with direct view LED displays is resolution, or how densely packed the individual light elements (or pixels) are. If you find one of these signs in the wild and walk right up close to it, the image will become difficult to see. You’ll be able to notice the individual pixels and the spaces between them, which destroys the illusion of one cohesive image.

That’s why you’ll want to look at pixel pitch, which is the distance between one pixel and the next, measured in millimeters. The closer together they are, the higher the resolution, and the clearer the image from up close. For enormous billboards that are viewed from very far away, a larger pixel pitch works well, commonly about 26mm. Other signs are smaller and meant to be seen much closer. An LED panel sign that measures about 40” x 90” might have a pixel pitch of 3.9mm, which —s passersby to view a crisp, clean image at about 22 feet away.

Of course, a denser pixel pitch means more LEDs, which translates to a higher cost. It’s critical to know how your display will be used and how close you expect viewers to get.

What are the benefits of an LED panel display?

  • Daytime Brightness — An LED panel display is brighter than an LCD panel. For outdoor and semi-outdoor applications, this means that it will be more visible during full daylight.
  • Modularity — You may have seen a video wall made up of multiple screens that allow one image to appear across the entire array, making for an impactful advertisement. If you’ve ever noticed spaces or seams between those panels (called bezels), it may have been distracting or lessened its impact. LED panel displays offer a seamless version of this idea, linking up edge-to-edge with no visible gaps between modules. A display will often be made of many smaller panels. This means that you can link several units together to expand to large sizes.
  • Flexibility — Because a large LED panel display can be made of individual, smaller modules, they can be designed to wrap around curves or edges — think corner billboards atop buildings or partially-enclosed trade show backwalls. Additionally, some models can fold or collapse for easy storage into a flight case, making for effortless transport.

What are the benefits of an LCD panel?

  • Resolution — LCD panels are able to show incredibly detailed, high-resolution images, even up close. Your smartphone is a great example of this. It likely has an LED-backlit LCD screen, and you can hold it less than a foot away from your eyes without any loss in image quality. That makes it great for signage that’s meant to be read and studied up close, such as small-scale advertisements or digital menus.
  • Availability — Because LCD panel technology is so widespread in the consumer world, they’re much easier to get your hands on. If you just need a simple indoor digital sign, a regular LCD TV could fit the bill just fine. Add-to-cart options do exist for LED panel displays, but they’re not nearly as common.
  • Cost — An out-of-the-box LCD panel system requires less upfront investment than its larger LED-based counterpart. This barrier to entry can be the deciding factor for a small business looking to make its first foray into digital signage on a budget.

Key Takeaways

  • LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display, which refers to a layer in the screen that allows high-definition images to appear when lit
  • LED stands for Light Emitting Diode, a small component that lights up when electricity passes through it
  • LED TVs are actually LCD screens with an LED backlight
  • LCD screens used to be lit by fluorescent bulbs, which were replaced by LED lighting
  • Direct view LED displays are made of many colored LEDs mounted to directly a panel
  • LCD panels work best for close viewing, but don’t scale up well
  • Direct view LED panels work best for large formats, but need to be viewed from much farther away
Adding to cart...