The television industry is changing. With high-quality flat panels at nearly impulse-buy prices — a brand-name 37-inch 1080p display, the highest-resolution screen standard, can now be had for as little as $600 — the ongoing price war is losing significance. That’s led manufacturers to compete on new fronts, including energy efficiency, web media- and PC-connectivity, and game-changing technological advancements, such as LED backlighting and OLED displays.
All the buzzwords and specs can get pretty confusing, so we’ve broken out the living room display landscape into three technologies — LCD, plasma and OLED — and highlighted some of the recent innovations and differentiators in each category.
Suffice it to say that shopping for a television is no longer as simple as comparing prices and making sure there are enough of the right kinds of ports.
LCD still leading the way
The biggest news in the world of liquid crystal displays has to do with the impressive strides that manufacturers have made in “greening up” their products and processes to make them more environmentally friendly.
Many current LCD panels from recognizable manufacturers are now almost free of toxic substances, such as lead and mercury. Plus, vendors such as Sharp have streamlined their manufacturing processes to cut down on the carbon footprint generated by supplier shipments. Packing materials have also been drastically reduced, allowing more TVs to be hauled around the world for much less.
But as far as consumers are concerned, LCD technology’s most obvious environmental advancement comes in the form of significantly reduced power consumption. The 2009 models from most major manufacturers — including Samsung, Sony, Sharp, LG, and Panasonic — meet Energy Star 3.0 criteria, with some models exceeding the environmental standard’s efficiency requirements by 30 per cent or more.
Samsung’s Marco Nalli says his company’s 2009 LCDs “are 25 to 30 per cent more efficient than last year’s models,” which results in significant savings in total cost of ownership, especially as energy prices continue to rise.
And as power consumption drops, picture quality continues to improve. Over the past year most manufacturers have begun offering panels running at 240 Hz (hertz being the number of times a frame refreshes in one second). A piece of video typically enters a display at 60 Hz, so a panel running at 240 Hz has to insert three additional frames between each source frame. The best such televisions have processors that predict the action between frames, creating entirely new images to fill the gap between original frames, which can drastically reduce unwanted motion artefacts in, say, sports programming and video games.
Also relatively new to the market are light-emitting diode (LED) panels. These displays employ a novel form of backlighting that makes possible localized dimming, or a decrease in light in specific sections of the screen. This results in, among other visual improvements, enhanced detail in dark scenes.
LED sets have also led to thinner form factors. Some LED panels are only about a centimetre thick, making them thinner than the frames of many paintings and photographs people hang on the walls of their homes.
Beyond tweaks in power consumption, performance, and design, LCD manufacturers are offering more models that have the capacity to connect to a home network. Users can now stream video, music, and pictures from the web or their home computer and set up on-screen widgets that provide immediate access to news, stocks, sports, and weather. They can also download on-demand content.
Think of it as the sort of features traditionally obtained via a television connected to a computer or a special set-top box, but now without that extra box. So far, most manufacturers are offering these features only their higher-tier models, but they’re bound to spread to midrange models before too long.
While LCD has clearly won its war against plasma (research firm DisplaySearch reported last year that LCD panels were outselling plasma displays eight-to-one), plasma technology is far from dead. It simply plays a lesser role in the market.
Major manufacturers such as LG, Samsung, and Panasonic are still producing and profiting from plasma panels – primarily large screen models with high-end feature sets. And indeed, many cinephiles still tout plasma as the technology preferred by enthusiasts, thanks to its continued strong performance in the rendering of deep blacks and smooth motion (though it’s worth noting that modern LCD technology has made impressive strides towards eliminating these advantages).
Recent innovations in plasma have been less extreme than those in LCD, but are nonetheless noticeable to discerning eyes. Manufacturers continue to tweak the gases that create plasma display pictures to improve their colour reproduction. Panasonic, for example, has been working with Hollywood colourists to enhance the accuracy of its displays, earning THX certification for its premium models.
Panasonic has also introduced 600 Hz technology, which means that its panels refresh each original frame 10 times, resulting, the company’s engineers claim, in unmatched smoothness of motion.
And, once decried as energy hogs, many plasma panels are now surprisingly efficient. Panasonic’s Barry Murray says that one of his company’s current 50-inch sets can cost as little as 1.2 cents per hour to operate given current energy prices in Ontario – though this assumes that the video being displayed is composes mostly of very dark scenes. The Dark Knight, for example, would cost significantly less to watch than Horton Hears a Who.
Aside from tweaks to picture quality and a reduction in power consumption, plasma makers are developing extra features, including the same sort of web connectivity seen in higher-end LCD panels, and, in the case of Panasonic’s new top-of-the line sets, the ability to wirelessly stream 1080p HD content from a transmitter to antennas built into the display itself.
These sorts of perks drive up the price of top-tier plasma sets considerably, but enthusiast television buyers have done nothing over the past decade if not prove that they’re willing to pay a premium for latest, greatest display technology.
A future called OLED
On the horizon for living room displays is a new technology called OLED that many analysts and manufacturers believe will become the de facto standard for home displays inside a decade.
The electroluminescent layer of an OLED display is composed of organic light-emitting diodes, or tiny bits of organic material stored in pixels that can be lit up individually. Consequently, the technology facilitates stunning contrast ratios of one-million-to-one, leading to unmatched detail in both dark and bright scenes.
And since the light source is located within the pixels themselves, the panels have the potential to be remarkably thin – as in just a few millimetres deep. This gives OLED a variety of distinct advantages, from ultra-sleek designs to significantly reduced weight. Indeed, OLED promise a leap forward in video viewing technology as significant as the leap from cathode-ray tubes to flat panels.
“We believe that OLED technology will, over time, one day replace [other flat-panel display technologies],” said Sony’s Patrick Lapointe.
But mass market OLED sets are still years away. Sony unveiled the first consumer OLED screen, the XEL1, last fall. Its display measures just 11 inches diagonally, but it sells for a whopping $2,499.
Experts predict Sony may unveil a living room-sized model later this year, but how much it might cost is anyone’s guess. Still, there’s some hope of affordability within the near future.
“We want to be sure that when we launch larger OLEDs the product will be viable for the market,” Lapointe said.
Representatives from several other television manufacturers have confirmed they’re working on their own OLED displays, but that slow-to-conquer production barriers will keep the technology from becoming affordable any time soon.
Sharp’s Andrew Thompson said that he sees OLED technology going mainstream “in perhaps four to five years.”
Until then, consumers will just need to make do with state-of-the-art LCD and plasma technology.