A prototype of one of Sharp's ultra-thin LCD screens.
Innovations abound in the flat-panel television industry even as prices plummet
October 23, 2007
By Chad Sapieha, CBC News
LCD and plasma have been fighting a bitter war on the retail front — and so far, both TV technologies are winning, depending on your point of view. But the biggest winner by far is the consumer, who has seen prices plummet even as the technology and selection have increased. With an ever-expanding selection of large, inexpensive, high-resolution sets, LCD is now firmly entrenched as the most popular type of flat-panel television. Market research firm NPD Group reports that sales of the backlit sets increased 405 per cent in Canada this year and now account for 61 per cent of all 37-inch-plus televisions sold.
Meanwhile, plasma seems to have settled into a comfortable second place. While its share of the big-screen market has shrunk to just over a third that of LCD, the total number of plasma panels sold in Canada last year jumped by nearly 70 per cent.
NPD Group's Mark Haar attributes the sales success of both technologies to simple but ever-increasing demand for larger flat screen televisions.
"The flat panel TV market [has seen] growth of 114 per cent," he said. "But the real hot spot for consumers right now is with large-screen flat panel TVs. Screen sizes of 37 inches and higher have experienced dynamic growth of 184 per cent."
And it seems unlikely that this growth will slow anytime soon. Thanks to prices that continue to plummet — the average price of 40-inch-plus sets has dropped by more than 25 per cent since the same time last year — and continuing technological advancements in both plasma and LCD, consumers are being tempted by better quality big screen televisions for less money with each passing season.
Heading into the holiday shopping season, the big news on the plasma scene is the introduction of affordable sets with full support for 1080p, the highest image-resolution standard in the industry.
Panasonic's 1080p, 42-inch TH42PZ700, which gadget-review site CNET reports has "the best picture quality in its size class," sells for $2,499. Previously, consumers looking for plasma sets either had to settle for a lower resolution of 720p/1080i, or spend upwards of $10,000 on a massive 50-inch plus model to get 1080p.
"When considering picture quality and price, I am confident that we will be very competitive with LCD products of similar size, with demonstrably better picture quality," Barry Murray, director of Panasonic Canada's audio-visual display group, said of his company's fall television lineup.
Meanwhile, LCD manufacturers — who have long since overcome the 1080p barrier — are busy introducing subtler improvements to picture quality. The most noteworthy is a significant reduction in motion blur in fast-moving scenes, the persistent Achilles heel of LCD screens.
Patrick Lapointe, LCD television marketing manager with Sony Canada, said that standard television signals are broadcast at 60 fields per second, or 60 Hz (two "fields" exist for each frame in standard 30-frames-per-second video). Sony's 120 Hz Bravia sets have technology that dynamically creates and inserts an additional field between each original field of the video feed, bringing the frequency up to 120 Hz. "Our sets use a complex algorithm to interpolate an image that would be halfway between the image before and the image after," Lapointe said. "The result is movement that is more fluid in all directions, both vertically and horizontally."
Sony, along with other LCD manufacturers including Sharp and Samsung, now offers several sets with 120 Hz technology (the specifics of how this performance is achieved is unique to each vendor), though it's still a premium feature typically found in more expensive models.
LCD vendors are also striving to distinguish the appearance of their sets. Sharp recently announced its new D64U series of AQUOS televisions, which the Japanese manufacturer claims have the thinnest LCD panels in the world, measuring just 3.5 inches in depth.
"It makes it look that much cleaner and that much more flush with the wall when the set is mounted," said Sharp Canada's Chris Matto, who added that his company's new sets are more than 20 per cent lighter than previous AQUOS models.
Sharp intends to push the boundaries of slenderness even further in coming years: It recently exhibited working prototype LCD panels that were less than an inch deep. Matto says he expects these sets will be put into production by 2010.
Looking further into the future, plasma and LCD will likely face a new rival in the form of OLED, or organic light-emitting diode displays. OLED is seen as a potential replacement for liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma technologies — it traps a thin layer of organic material between two plates, offering potentially brighter images and wider viewing angles.
Manufacturers including Canon, Samsung and Sony have been developing this technology over the past several years. Boasting a purported one-million-to-one contrast ratio (most high-end LCD and plasma sets max out at 10,000-to-one), lower energy consumption, and even thinner panels — allegedly as shallow as nine millimetres on big-screen models — OLED could eventually make plasma and LCD seem as archaic as cathode ray tube sets.
Sony appears to be the furthest along in OLED development. The electronics giant showcased several 27-inch sets made with the new technology last January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Sony announced Oct. 1 that the first production model, the XEL-1, will go on sale on Dec. 1. It has a display thickness of just three millimetres, but getting OLED to work on the large display sizes found in big-screen televisions has been a challenge, and the XEL-1 is relatively small for a television by today's big-screen standards; it has an 11-inch display screen. It is also expensive, with a price tag of about $1,700.
Sony said the company's television lineup is still centred on its BRAVIA line of LCD TVs, but that XEL-1 represents the first step toward developing its OLED TV business.
"It's bound to become a leading technology," Sony's Lapointe said.
But it will take quite a while for OLED to become a practical alternative. Television industry experts are predicting that it will take as long as five or six years for OLED sets in the 40-inch range to come down to mainstream affordability.
In the meantime, consumers will just have to settle for inexpensive, high resolution, big screen LCD and plasma televisions with ever improving picture quality. Here are some models for the fall season with notable new features.
Sony Bravia KDL46XBR4
Sony's Bravia KDL46XBR4.
In independent tests by a number of electronics magazines, Sony's premium XBR4 Bravia LCD televisions consistently come out on top in terms of colour authenticity, black levels and image stability. The $3,599 KDL46XBR4, a 46-inch display that employs the 120 Hz technology mentioned earlier, delivers some of the smoothest video seen to date on an LCD television, and has a gorgeous glass-trimmed frame to boot.
Panasonic Viera TH42PZ700
Panasonic's Viera TH42PZ700.
Panasonic's $2,499 TH42PZ700 Viera brings the pinnacle of plasma — a 1080p image resolution — to the masses. And while the company has gone on record acknowledging the continually shrinking market share of plasma in the television industry, it believes that serious home theatre enthusiasts who crave the best possible home theatre experience will continue to choose plasma for its distinctive benefits, the foremost of which is deep, cinematic blacks.
Sharp AQUOS LC52D64U
Sharp's AQUOS LC52D64U.
Thin is in, as they say, and no one in the TV industry understands that quite like Sharp. The Japanese TV giant unveiled the world's thinnest large-screen LCD televisions this fall in the form of the AQUOS D64U series, a collection of stunningly svelte sets that appear downright anorexic compared to the company's previous models. And, according to Sharp, thinner also means bigger. Thanks to an ultra-skinny bezel and close contour speakers, users can cram bigger televisions — like the 52-inch, $3,299 LC52D64U — into smaller spaces.
This premium $3,499 40-inch LCD employs an LED backlighting system that Samsung claims creates an amazing 500,000-to-one dynamic contrast ratio for unparalleled LCD blacks. In other words, you'll see details in the shadows of a darkened scene, rather than just a splotch of black. It also comes with all the goodies now associated with premium LCD televisions, including a 120 Hz frame rate, an ambient light sensor that automatically controls brightness, and three HDMI inputs to eliminate the need for HD switchboxes.
HP MediaSmart SL4778N
Hewlett-Packard's HP MediaSmart SL4778N.
At 47-inches, this $3,399 1080p LCD is a smidge bigger than competing models in its category, but that's not the story here. HP MediaSmart sets have a unique feature that allows them to connect directly to the internet to access online radio services and download movies (though the latter feature is currently limited in Canada because of regional licensing issues). It also lets users wirelessly access music, pictures and video stored on PCs in their homes. It's like Windows Media Center simplified for the non-techie public.
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