Sony and Panasonic: New Entrants in OLED TV Race

This story has me scratching my head a bit; Sony and Panasonic will partner in developing OLED TVs. According to the press release, the two companies will pool their “core and printing technologies” to develop a “printing method-based next-generation OLED technology.” Perhaps the most puzzling part is that they “aim to establish mass-production technology during 2013.”

Wow! This strikes me as two drowning swimmers throwing each other cement life rings. Both companies have gone through very public financial difficulties. Sony has failed to catch any of the recent technology waves, and is awash in red ink. They have lost their traditional dominance in the television and personal media markets, and their PlayStation platform may get wiped out by Microsoft’s Xbox.

Panasonic is in no better shape. The company doubled down on plasma technology when flat panels started to take off, and consumers responded by choosing to pay a premium for brighter LCD models. It is losing billions of dollars annually, as the plasma TV market share continues to dwindle.

In general, these two Japanese electronic giants have spent the last decade watching the Korean and Chinese companies (both mainland and Taiwan) steadily eat their lunch (and their breakfast and their dinner for that matter).

Yes, Panasonic has some enormous production capacity that it is not using. Yes, Sony was out early with an OLED television (that was not high-definition and terrifyingly expensive and didn’t sell many units at all, but who’s counting?) Both companies do have a history of developing innovative technologies, however, and it’s possible that they could come up with a winner. If they can produce successful OLED TVs using printing methods instead of the less efficient and slower vacuum deposition batch methods currently in use, it could be that they could lower production costs enough to steal a march on LG and Samsung, and compete on cost sooner with the incumbent LCD models.

But can they accomplish this by next year? That seems to be a very tall order, given the early stages of development for metal oxide backplanes and OLED materials (especially the problematic blue emitters). It’s hard to see just how they might manage to pull this off.

Sharp Ships 90″ LCD HDTV

Imagine a television that is more than six and a half feet wide. Imagine that you could have one in your living room now if you want it. It’s not a pipedream; it’s the Sharp LC-90LE745U 90″ LCD HDTV, and the company announced yesterday that it is available now from select retailers in the U.S.

The mammoth screen has a 90″ diagonal measurement, and relies on a full matrix of white LEDs for its backlight to enable selective dimming for increased dynamic contrast. It tips the scales at a hefty 141 pounds (150 with the stand) so plan on getting some help when you go to mount it. It supports 3DTV, and comes with a pair of active glasses. It also is a Smart TV, but it is interesting to note that the screen does not use Sharp’s four-color-pixel Quattron technology. You might expect it to be a power hog, but it’s rated at just 138 watts when operating, which is less than many 52″  models that are about one-quarter the size.

This is a dramatic demonstration of Sharp’s new strategy, in which it will focus only on LCD TVs 60″ and larger. The idea is that it will leave the lower end of the market to its competitors, where they can slug it out among themselves. This makes sense in that Sharp is the only one with a Gen 10 LCD panel fab, which should mean that they can make these larger sizes more efficiently. The question is whether the worldwide market for these giant screens is large enough to make the play work.

The announced price for the LC-90LE745U is $10,999, but is expect to sell for closer to $10,000. This creates an interesting dilemna for those with five figures of disposable income to spend on a single television; do you get one of the new 55″ OLEDs from LG or Samsung, or do you go for a screen nearly four times that size with the LCD from Sharp? It’s not a decision that I expect to have to make, but it does make for an interesting “what if” question.

Alfred Poor on Video about HDTV

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of discussing HDTV and related topics with David Gewirtz of ZDNet, which he captured on video. We covered a wide range of topics, including OLED HDTVs, 3DTV, screen sizes, Smart TVs, and “direct LED” TVs. The video runs almost a full hour and was made during a Skype video call. (David has invested a lot of time and effort to develop a pretty sophisticated “Skype Studio” for recording interviews like this, and he gets some impressive results.)

So here’s the video if you want to hear more about my latest thoughts about buying HDTVs. If you or someone you know are thinking about getting a new set, you’ll probably find some helpful information here.

If you have any questions, you can email me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com or send a Twitter message to @AlfredPoor.

OLED HDTVs Are Really Coming… Maybe

[Revised 6/12/12 after feedback from Ray Soneira] 

Okay, I have to start by waving the white flag of surrender. As many of you may have noticed, I went “dark” for an extended period last fall while I was working on some major projects. For the past month or so, I’ve been behind but I was struggling to catch up by back-dating my entries. Well, I was in Boston all last week for the Society for Information Display’s annual DisplayWeek conference. Not only did I not manage to catch up on my backlog of entries, I didn’t even post once about the show while I was there.

So I’m resetting the clock again. I’m accepting the gap in entries for the past month, and will strive to keep up going forward. It’s not that there’s not enough material to write about, it’s just that I’ve got a lot of demands on my time these days. So bear with me as I try my best to keep up.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: OLED TV. Samsung and LG both showed 55″ monsters at CES, but since I didn’t attend, I didn’t see them. I did get to see them last week, up close and personal. And I was certainly impressed. After discussing them with my friend and colleague Ray Soneira of Displaymate, I went back and looked at them even harder. Ray said that they had OLEDs in general have terrible color shift with off-axis viewing. I have great respect for Ray’s ability to see and identify quality issues in displays, but try as I might, I could not see any hint of color shift on either OLED TV. (As it turns out, neither could he.) Now, if I had been able to throw some good test images on the screens (like you get with Displaymate), I might have been able to spot some differences. But from what I saw, they looked awesome.

Okay, so much for the good news.

Right off the bat, I am slapping LG’s wrist for claiming “infinite contrast” on their OLED TV sets. Yes, the screen probably puts out no light when displaying an all-black image, but that’s a pointless way to measure contrast. If you have a dark area next to a light area, I guarantee that some of that light will leak from the light area to the dark area. I’ll grant that these OLED screens will look terrific and have great contrast under these conditions, but the contrast ratio will definitely be something less than infinite. The bottom line is that “contrast ratio” as a meaningful specification for flat panel televisions is officially dead and LG holds the smoking gun. So from now on, ignore contrast ratio specifications and just trust your eyes.

And as good as the sets appeared, don’t start moving your LCD to the guest room just yet. Both LG and Samsung seem to be on track to ship an OLED TV model this year, but it may depend on your definition of “ship.” It is not clear that either company will be able to produce the OLED panels in large quantity this year. LG is relying on new and relatively untested “metal oxide” semiconductor technology to take the place of amorphous silicon. Even the OLED Association’s own forecasts show large panel production capacity to be just over 500 square meters per year for this year (but nearly tripling by next year). At a bit less than a square meter per 55″ OLED panel, that means that there’s only capacity to make 600,000 panels. And that’s IF they started in January, which they didn’t, and IF they were running around the clock, which they aren’t, and IF they are getting 100% yield, which would be a miracle. The consensus seems to be that the manufacturers will be lucky to build 100,000 OLED TV panels this year. Just putting one demo unit in every store that will want to carry them will eat up most of that production.

But you’ll probably want to wait in any case. The initial price projections are at about $7,500 to $8,500 per set. That’s a hefty premium over LCD. In his SID keynote speech, Dr. James Lee from LG projected that the price will drop to 1.5 times the LCD price by 2015, and will reach price parity by 2017. The way that LCD prices continue to tumble, however, those are aggressive forecasts and I will be amazed if the company can hit those goals.

So let’s sum up: gorgeous image, crazy expensive, unproven technologies, aggressive manufacturing expansion, and possibly overly optimistic about future pricing. As much as I’d love to have an OLED screen in my living room, I’m accepting the fact that it will probably be on a cell phone or tablet, and not on my television.

Alone Together: Is Split Screen TV a Good Idea?

Conventional wisdom has it that television remains a group activity. We are rapidly being assimilated by our personal mobile devices, and I often see two people together who are both busy texting or Facebooking or whatever on their smartphones. Then I read a blog entry by some DisplaySearch analysts that describe a new “smart dual view” technology from Samsung.

All this does is take a standard stereoscopic 3DTV, and set the shutter glasses so that both eyes see one frame at a time. This lets you have two people in the same room watching two different programs at the same time. The article doesn’t mention that each person would also need to be wearing headphones so that they only hear the soundtrack for their program.

This isn’t all that new. It’s really just a variation of the scheme that let video gamers see their player’s view in a full screen, without being able to “peek” at what their opponent is seeing. But I’m concerned about the idea of using it to “duplex” video content in the living room. Why bother with the big screen at all? For less money, you can each buy your own screen and then retire to your own personal corner or cave to watch whatever you want. No more fighting over the remote. No more negotiating about how we’ll watch one of “your” shows and then watch one of “my” shows. And no more having to talk to each other while you skip over the commercials.

I get it. Samsung is grasping at straws to find new ways to market the 3DTV technology until we get enough 3D content to make consumers want it for its original purpose. But I really don’t think that isolating people even more is the right solution.

What do you think? Send me an email at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com or a tweet to @AlfredPoor, and let me know if this is a good idea.

What Is a “Direct LED” TV?

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a new term creeping into the television industry lexicon: Direct LED TVs. And as is so often the case, the new term has created all sorts of new confusion. Here’s a quick overview of what this means.

First and foremost, this does not refer to a TV where the image is made directly by LEDs (unlike the Sony CrystalLED technology demonstration at CES 2012). It is still an LCD TV. The difference lies in how the backlight is oriented.

LCDs don’t make an image on their own; you need to shine a light through them to be able to see the picture. Originally, LCD panels had compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) behind them to create this light. Then the cost of LEDs came down some, and manufacturers put LEDs behind the panels instead. This saved energy, eliminated the environmentally-hazardous mercury used in CFLs, and improved the color performance. It also let the backlight be dimmed in different areas, which had the effect of increasing the dynamic contrast of the screen. On the other hand, the sets cost more.

Over time, the LEDs got brighter and engineers were able to create highly efficient light guides that could distribute the light from LEDs arranged along the edge of the screen, so that it would shine evenly across the back of the LCD panel. This made it possible to create the impossibly-thin flat panel TVs that you can buy today.

The high brightness LEDs remain expensive, however, and prices continue to fall for the run-of-the-mill LEDs that are used in millions of other devices. So now manufacturers have discovered that they can use more of these cheaper LEDs arranged behind the panel, and eliminate the expensive high brightness LEDs and their sophisticated light guides. The result is a television set that is a bit thicker, but that costs less than an edge-lit LCD TV. I have not seen one yet, but I would not be surprised to learn that the “direct LED” sets are not as bright as the edge-lit models, even though they use more LEDs in the backlight.

NPD DisplaySearch sees a bright future for this design. They expect direct LED models to take more than 10% of the worldwide TV market this year, driven mostly by their cost advantage. Edge-lit models will still dominate, however, with almost 60% of the worldwide market. So if you’re price sensitive, you may want to see what sort of savings you can get — and what compromises you’ll have to accept — when the direct LED models start to appear.

(By the way, while I’m quoting NPD Displaysearch numbers, let me point out that they expect the worldwide TV market to be about 250 million units this year. Of that, they expect fewer than 50,000 units to be OLED televisions. So if you’re planning on being one of the first to get an OLED TV, be prepared to spend a lot for it, because they will be rare indeed. That’s 0.02% of the worldwide total.)

The Return of Google TV!

According to a Reuters report, LG is going to start shipping televisions based on the Google TV platform before the end of May. Manufacturing of the sets is slated to begin May 17 in Mexico.

This is Round 2 for Google TV which drew a lot of interest before it put on the brakes and asked partners not to show products with it at CES 2011. This next version has a solid set of partners, including Samsung, Sony, and VIZIO in addition to LG. It remains to be seen whether the new interface is enough to make the feature a selling point. The platform should make it easier to search for and discover content across a number of sources, and it will also offer special features for DISH Network subscribers.

Clearly, Smart TVs are appealing to U.S. consumers as the attach rate of television sets to the Internet is climbing steadily. Whether or not Google TV offers enough “special sauce” to make it stand out from all the other connected options remains a question that probably won’t be answered until Google TV sets become available from the other manufacturers.

Look, Ma! No Wires!

You’ve got a beautiful, big flat screen television. It’s so thin that you’ve put it on a wall mount and it just seems to float in space. Maybe it will just float away! Wait a minute; no, that can’t happen because it’s tied solidly to the ground by a mass of cables that should be enough to connect the Space Shuttle to its launch gantry. There should be a better way.

Fortunately, there’s one industry group working to solve this problem. The Wireless Home Digital Interface Group (WHDI) has developed standards that allow high-definition signals to be sent wirelessly to display devices. This means that all you need is a power outlet and a small receiver at your television set; all the other devices in your home entertainment system can use WHDI to send the picture (and sound if necessary) to your television.

We’ve had this level of convenience for a while now with wireless surround sound speakers, but it’s great that this technology is becoming practical for the more-demanding video part of the equation. Solutions like HDMI could help lead to two important developments in our living rooms.

First, it makes it more practical to put the entertainment components next to the seating area where they are easy to reach, instead of across the room next to the television. If you want to watch a DVD, doesn’t it make more sense to have it in an end table next to the sofa, or built into the coffee table?

The other idea is a bit more radical; maybe the time has come for “dumb” TVs. All most people need these days is a big display. They don’t need tuners because they don’t connect their sets to an antenna. They don’t need their televisions to have Internet support because so many other devices already provide that function (or it’s inexpensive to add using a network media player). And the TVs don’t even need to have complex scalers or video processing built in; other devices such as Blu-ray players already have those features, and can take care of the task of converting other signals into a simple 1080p stream that a dumb TV can understand.

So with just a power plug and a single HDMI port (or built-in WHDI support), a dumb TV would be ready to do just about everything that the average U.S. viewer would want from it. Let the intelligence and source switching be handled by some other box in the room. What do you think? We have nothing to lose but our wires!

IKEA Television: What Gives?

Have you seen the new IKEA Uppleva television? It apparently is designed to make it easy for consumers to choose a new HDTV that fits in with their Scandinavian decor. The set hasn’t been released in this country yet, so we don’t know what the price will be. Without this detail, it’s hard to assess the value of this new product, but it clearly marks some interesting changes in the market.

First, if you don’t think that the LCD TV has reached the commodity stage, this should convince you. Here’s a television branded not by any consumer electronics giant, but a furniture maker. This also conveys a message that this set will be as easy to install and use as the IKEA furniture (or with any luck, even easier). It bundles everything for you, including a Blu-ray player.

It is also interesting that a furniture maker should decide to market its own TV. I remember when Magnavox made a big deal about the furniture surrounding its massive cathode ray tube console sets, but I can’t remember another case where that was turned around.

And you don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed by a lot of choices. The Uplevva comes in three sizes; that’s it. You don’t have to deal with a lot of the specifications that you might encounter in an electronics store, such as lcd vs. plasma tv, or whether the screen is 120 Hz or not, if it supports 3D TV, or how the contrast ratio compares. Just pick the television that fits your space and you’re good to go.

Is this the start of a trend? Will you be able to buy a television branded by Sterns and Foster that is designed just for your bedroom? Maybe the major supermarket chains will offer their own television brands; buy one at Thanksgiving and get a free turkey. The price of a flat screen tv has fallen to the point where they could be sold by retailers other than the traditional consumer electronics, shopping club, and discount chains. IKEA could be the bellwether for a whole new approach to selling televisions.

You can be sure that the Uppleva experiment will be watched closely to see if it is a strategy worth emulating. Of course, the company may have to endure a little rib-pocking before the new HDTV can be deemed a success, as has already been ably demonstrated by late night television host Conan O’Brien:

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/89taazMC6FE?rel=0” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

2nd Screen Future Is Bright, but Watch Those Shades!

We’re a society that is joined at the hip to our technology: literally. With smartphones in holsters and ebook readers and tablets in our shoulder bags, we now take our digital connections with us wherever we go. But you may be in for a shock when you try to read your indispensable device when you’re out and about, wearing your favorite shades.

I made this discovery years ago, the hard way. Our sailboat has a GPS that doubles as a depth finder, and as we sail on the Chesapeake Bay, knowing how much water separates you from the bottom is essential information. I was making a tricky approach to a creek when I glanced down at the LCD screen to see what the depth was, and I saw a black screen. In a moment of panic, I thought the power had gone off on the device and I whipped off my sunglasses to start troubleshooting the problem. And the image on the screen magically reappeared.

What happened was that the polarization of the display and my sunglasses cancelled each other out. Polarizing films only transmits light waves that are oriented in a specific direction. This helps eliminate glare, and it creates a dimmer image because it blocks the light waves that are not in the correct orientation. You can witness this for yourself; look through two pairs of polarized sunglasses, and then rotate one until it is at right angles to the other. All the light should be blocked and you’ll just see black. (This is also a handy way to check to see if the lenses are really polarized.) You also can demonstrate the same effect using a pair of hair combs. When they are aligned so that their teeth line up, you can see through them. Rotate one to right angles, and your view will be blocked where they overlap.

So much for the science lesson; what does this mean in the real world? As I mentioned already, LCDs rely on polarized light to create their image. So it is possible that the light will not be correctly oriented to view when wearing polarized sunglasses. And that’s exactly what happens.

Take an Apple iPad and look at it in landscape mode while wearing a typical pair of polarized sunglasses, and the image will just look a little dimmer. Take that same table and turn it to portrait mode, however, and it goes black. You might think that OLED displays would not have this problem since they are emissive and do not rely on polarization to create the image, but some models like the Samsung Galaxy S actually go dark when held at a 45-degree angle because it uses a polarizing film to reduce internal reflections.

These observations were made by Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate, who also points out that there is a readily available solution for the manufacturers. They could use a “circular polarizer” — which is what is used in the 3D glasses at your local cinema — that will not block the image. Instead, there is a small color shift. According to Soneira, both the iPhone 4 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 use this technology to eliminate the sunglasses problem.

So if you’re planning to catch up on some Netflix movies or other video on your next picnic, be sure to make a test run while wearing shades. You don’t want everything to go dark when you go outside.