My five hours with Sony's amazing XEL-1 OLED television.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
May 16 2008 7:06 AM

A Little Piece of Heaven

My five hours with the most amazing television in the universe.

Earlier this month, the New York Times'David Pogue raved that Sony's XEL-1 OLED digital television is "drool-worthy." One-eighth of an inch thick, with hallucinogenic color reproduction and a 1,000,000-to-1 contrast ratio, the $2,500 OLED is the ne plus ultra in television picture quality. "It's like looking out the window. With the glass missing," said Pogue. A really small window, that is—Sony's OLED is only 11 inches diagonally.

As a man who loves both television and very small things, I had to see it for myself. Earlier this week, I picked up a drink and some Rice Krispie Treats and headed over to Manhattan's Sony store to check it out. I planned to stay for however long enough it took to get a feel for the thing. I ended up sitting in front of the tiny TV for five straight hours, moving only to transfer seltzer from a bottle to my mouth and to go to buy a sticky bun.

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The basement of the Sony store is configured to resemble a living room, albeit the sort of living room inhabited by Robocop. The OLED sits on a small wooden pedestal in the middle of the room, the altar of this extremely secular church. When I arrive around 1 in the afternoon, the store is empty except for several friendly employees and a woman who might be homeless but might be Whoopi Goldberg. I commandeer a chair and settle in for the afternoon, about 18 inches away from the screen.

This is a television made for airplane seat backs or the wall space above a urinal. The image keeps its fidelity as you move away from the screen, but the screen is so small to begin with that if you stand more than four feet away, it's like you're watching a movie through an electron microscope. That said, the OLED is the Pocket Hercules of televisions. Like some awesome hybrid of a plasma screen, an LCD, and a Holodeck, the picture on the OLED (it stands for organic light-emitting diode, which means, I think, that the TV is alive) is demonstrably clearer than anything I've seen before. The movie Hairspray is playing when I arrive, and its crisp luminosity makes me forget that Hairspray is absolutely terrible. A colonoscopy video would be compelling on OLED.

There are about 20 big-screen televisions lining the walls of the room, high-definition LCDs and plasmas and whatnot. Compared with the OLED, they all look like they're covered in thin layers of gauze. If I were an eccentric millionaire, I would buy 10 or 20 of these things and link them together into one gigantic super display. That's the only way you're going to get this sort of image clarity from a big screen. It's also the only way you're going to get a big-screen OLED—at least for a while.

My fellow customers react to the OLED in a discernible pattern. First, they stare at the screen. Second, they stare at the $2,500 price tag, which provokes a different sort of stunned silence. Third, they walk behind the pedestal to verify that the TV is, indeed, extremely thin. They might walk around it one more time before standing in silent admiration. Then they ask whether there are any bigger models available. There are not.

Personally, I don't mind the OLED's smallness. My eyes don't tire after five hours' worth of minuscule viewing—I'm ready to sit here for five more. I watch a lot of movies and television shows on my laptop. This is just like watching video on your computer, except without all those pesky computer functionalities.

Besides, sitting so close to the screen makes the viewing experience all the more intimate and impressive. You can see actors' freckles and pockmarks. You can see the veins in Milla Jovovich's face. (The veins are gorgeous.) As one well-wisher (there were many throughout the day) told me, "The picture can get so crisp that you can tell the kind of fabric in their shirts." In the case of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, you can tell that the Thing's rocky skin is probably made from plastic. The plastic looks great.

I would imagine, though, that most people with $2,500 to burn on consumer electronics don't want their purchase to be tethered to a desk or a nightstand. If I owned a $2,500 television, I would probably want to invite my friends over to watch it. And while the OLED certainly stimulates group conversation (talking to strangers while sitting in the store, I had some of the most fulfilling conversations I've had in months), I can't imagine it being very good for group viewing, unless you have convened a group of hamsters.

A salesman estimated that the store had sold about 100 sets since January. That makes sense. Most people don't know what to do with an 11-inch television, even if the picture is extremely clear. I overhear a lot of customers talking about installing it in a bathroom or a kitchen. One man seems very enthusiastic about putting the OLED to use as a monitor for his home security cameras. "I have to say, that would be a first," says the salesman.

For now, the television is more of a "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" statement of purpose than a viable product, a tangible piece of Sony braggadocio. Get close enough to the TV, and you can almost hear them crowing over in Tokyo: "We are the best at manipulating organic pixels and the light those pixels emit! We've got unique 'Super Top Emission' technology—that means that '105 percent of the NTSC color space can be achieved.' Yes, we can produce colors that don't even exist. Take that, Magnavox!"

The electronics giant apparently plans to unveil a larger OLED television in about a year. For now, as David Pogue said, it is something of a concept car, attracting the same sort of pudgy, enthusiastic acolytes who turn up at auto shows. People make pilgrimages to the store just to look at the OLED. It turns heads and draws wolf whistles like a pretty girl in a 1950s B-movie.

People can't help touching it and can't help drawing comparisons between the OLED and other extremely slim things. "I came in just to see it," says one man, who, having seen it, goes home three minutes later. Another man, in tortoise-shell glasses, stands behind me for a few seconds, shaking his head and swearing repeatedly in glee. "Sold!" he says. "Why would you want to watch anything else?"

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.