Direct-Lit vs Full Array TVs: An Expert‘s Guide to LED Backlighting Performance

Wondering how to pick between LED TVs using direct-lit vs full array backlighting? As you shop for a new television, you‘ll see these terms used a lot to describe how LEDs are arranged behind the LCD screen.

But what do they actually mean and what difference do they make for the viewing experience – for movies, gaming, even just watching the news? As a home theater technology specialist, let me "shed some light" on how these innovative backlight designs impact picture quality across different settings.

How is an LED LCD TV backlit in the first place?

Today‘s ultra-slim LED televisions use advanced liquid crystal display (LCD) panels to create the image you see. The panel itself doesn‘t emit light on its own. For that, tiny LEDs are arranged behind the screen to shine through and illuminate the colors.

Over just the past decade, fierce competition between manufacturers drove rapid innovation in the backlights that make this all possible. Where old-school LCD TVs used fluorescent lighting, improved LEDs enabled thinner profiles. And how those LEDs are configured directly affects important visual factors like contrast, viewing angle and black levels.

The two most advanced designs placing LEDs right behind the LCD panel are:

Direct-lit – LEDs evenly distributed across the whole backlight panel

Full array – LEDs arranged in zones with local dimming

But you can‘t just prop these TVs next to each other at the store and instantly spot differences with the naked eye. Their exact impact on picture quality depends on your room lighting, viewing position and what type of content you watch most. Let‘s break down how these methods compare.

Direct-lit LED TVs – Bright, vibrant and affordable

Just a few years back, evenly lighting up large LCD panels using LEDs seemed hugely innovative. That‘s exactly what direct-lit backlights accomplished by placing LED light sources evenly from edge to edge behind the entire screen area.

Diagram of direct-lit backlight panel

This uniform arrangement disperses light consistently to every corner of the display. Compared to older edge-lit designs concentrating LEDs just along the rim, direct-lit enables far better brightness uniformity and wider viewing angles. Vivid imagery clearly shines with robust brightness and rich color from anywhere you might sit in the room.

Beyond great looking pictures for most content, direct-lit televisions also tend to be the most affordable LED options for given screen sizes. By lighting everything evenly with LEDs in straightforward rows, they avoid the extra complexity of zone manipulations necessary for more advanced setups (much more on this in a moment!).

There’s also an environmental benefit here – direct-lit‘s simple backlights require less raw materials than pricier designs packing in specialized dimming components.

Of course, there is a tradeoff – without the ability to control distinct zones, direct-lit displays struggle to achieve true inky black levels in dark scenes. Shadow details can disappear into grayish blacks, an effect called "elevated black levels".

Let’s explore how full array backlighting aims to provide the best of both worlds!

Full array with local dimming – Unleashing LCD’s full potential

What if LED backlights could light the LCD panel evenly for vibrant color, but also be modulated in sections to better illuminate crucial details in shadows and highlights? That’s the principle behind full array local dimming (FALD).

Diagram showing zones of full array local dimming backlight

Instead of uniform rows, full array LEDs are arranged in zones enabling independent control across different screen areas. Bright zones sustain color pop and detail while dark zones dim down for far richer black levels. This zone-targeted flexibility translates to a phenomenon called “local dimming”.

The result? Extraordinary contrast revealing subtle visual nuances lost on conventional displays. Images enjoy both enhanced clarity AND expanded range between the brightest whites and inkiest blacks. Content feels more immersive with added depth and dimension.

Over the years, television makers have steadily been perfecting local dimming – expanding the number of LED zones for finer manipulations, speeding up processing, and sharpening algorithms to minimize artifacts.

Full array local dimming clearly represents the state-of-art in LED LCD picture quality. But is it right for you?

Comparing picture performance

Below I’ve summarized some key technical differences between these two major LED backlighting approaches as they relate to real world performance for movies, sports, gaming and varied viewing scenarios.

Viewing angles

  • Both direct-lit and full array backlights ensure colors and brightness stay vivid even viewing moderately off-center from the left, right or even standing. But image accuracy still diminishes past around 30 degrees off axis.

Color and clarity

  • Direct-lit renders lively colors clearly across the entire screen. But full array builds on that foundation with even deeper color saturation and sharper detail thanks to zone-based contrast boosting.

Contrast and black levels

  • This is where full array local dimming clearly pulls ahead. Far superior black levels and contrast translates into more realistic, nuanced, visually stunning imagery.

Refresh rates

  • For gaming and sports, 120Hz or higher refresh rates can be beneficial to smooth out fast motion. Both backlight types support higher gaming-centric refresh rates.

Brightness (nits)

  • While ample for most rooms, direct-lit often measures slightly higher in nits of brightness compared to equivalent full array models. But local dimming enhances perceived differences between dark and bright.

Screen burn-in

  • Long term static image retention is possible on either but risks drop significantly thanks to full array’s ability to modulate zones to reduce concentrated light exposure.


  • As you might expect, the electronics underlying zone-based local dimming does bump up costs substantially. Expect to spend 30-50% more compared to direct-lit TVs of the same screen size.

Below I‘ve summarized some key specifications between a 65" direct-lit television and a premium Samsung 65" full array model with over 100 local dimming zones. This gives a sense for real-world differences on paper.

SpecificationDirect-lit ModelFull array premium model
Screen size65 inches65 inches
Backlight technologyDirect-lit LEDFull array LED w/local dimming
Number of local dimming zonesNone~128 zones
ActualContrast ratio3800:124,000:1
Max brightness (nits)500 nits410 nits
Refresh rate60Hz native(120Hz effective)120Hz native

Bottom line – what‘s the better choice?

For shoppers prioritizing value, DIRECT-LIT LEDs still render quite gorgeous, vibrant imagery at the most affordable prices for a given screen size. Perfectly suitable for bright rooms and casual viewing!

Those wanting that extra visual splash for movies in a dedicated home theater should seriously consider splurging on FULL ARRAY LOCAL DIMMING. Deep inky blacks help images feel more 3-dimensional while popped colors and details make content crackle with clarity and nuance. Things like planetarium shows, candle-lit period pieces and space operas shine best on FALD.

Of course everyone‘s budget, room lighting and needs differ – but across the board, I always recommend buyers stretch to models making some kind of quantum leap in display technology generations. The jump from direct-lit to heavy duty full array dimming zones unlocks LCD’s highest possible picture quality upside and brings it reasonably achievable.

And with smart software continually expanding these TVs‘ capabilities, your full array local dimming television can likely stay vibrant and satisfying for years to come! Let me know if any other display questions come up.

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