The paper compares the achievements of quantum well infrared photodetector (QWIP) technology with those of competitive technologies, with the emphasis on the material properties, device structure, and their impact on focal plane array (FPA) performance. Special attention is paid to two competitive technologies, QWIP and HgCdTe, in the long-wavelength IR (LWIR) and very-long-wavelength IR (VLWIR) spectral ranges. Because so far, the dialogue between the QWIP and HgCdTe communities is limited, the paper attempts to settle the main issues of both technologies. Such an approach, however, requires the presentation of fundamental limits to the different types of detectors, which is made at the beginning. To write the paper more clearly for readers, many details are included in the Appendix. In comparative studies both photon and thermal detectors are considered. Emphasis is placed on photon detectors. In this group one may distinguish HgCdTe photodiodes, InSb photodiodes, and doped silicon detectors. The potential performance of different materials as infrared detectors is examined utilizing the α/G ratio, where α is the absorption coefficient and G is the thermal generation rate. It is demonstrated that LWIR QWIP’s cannot compete with HgCdTe photodiodes as single devices, especially at higher operating temperatures (>70 K). This is due to the fundamental limitations associated with intersubband transitions. The advantage of HgCdTe is, however, less distinct at temperatures lower than 50 K due to problems inherent in the HgCdTe material (p-type doping, Shockley–Read recombination, trap-assisted tunneling, surface and interface instabilities). Even though QWIP is a photoconductor, several of its properties, such as high impedance, fast response time, long integration time, and low power consumption, comply well with the requirements imposed on the fabrication of large FPA’s. Due to a high material quality at low temperatures, QWIP has potential advantages over HgCdTe in the area of VLWIR FPA applications in terms of array size, uniformity, yield, and cost of the systems. The performance figures of merit of state-of-the-art QWIP and HgCdTe FPA’s are similar because the main limitations come from the readout circuits. Performance is, however, achieved with very different integration times. The choice of the best technology is therefore driven by the specific needs of a system. In the case of readout-limited detectors a low photoconductive gain increases the signal-to-noise ratio and a QWIP FPA can have a better noise equivalent difference temperature than an HgCdTe FPA with a charge well of similar size. Both HgCdTe photodiodes and QWIP’s offer multicolor capability in the MWIR and LWIR range. Powerful possibilities offered by QWIP technology are associated with VLWIR FPA applications and with multicolor detection. The intrinsic advantage of QWIP’s in this niche is due to the relative ease of growing multicolor structures with a very low defect density. © 2003 American Institute of Physics.