Size no longer everything in flat panels

If they didn't know it already, the mostly male audience at the international flat-panel display show in Yokohama, Japan, this week will be discovering what they might have been hearing from their wives and girlfriends for years: size isn't everything.

After several years of strong growth in the flat panel display business, where new products often meant bigger panels or higher resolutions, the frontiers are shifting and competition is increasing.

The changes are coming because the industry has reached a stage where it no longer makes sense to make increasingly larger panels. Already, only the richest consumers can afford the largest flat-panel TVs on the market, so there's little potential right now for selling even bigger screens. And resolution has caught up with the 1,080-line high-definition broadcasts now common in many countries, so here too there is little room for improvement.

Instead, panel makers are trying to push the boundaries of their respective technologies in different directions to increase market share. Nowhere can this be seen better than in the battle between LCD (liquid crystal display) and PDP (plasma display panel) makers.

There has traditionally been a "buffer zone" at around 42-inches where LCD gives way to PDP for building big screens. Now, however, each technology is pushing into the other's territory.

Improvements in manufacturing are helping create LCDs that are both larger and cheaper than has been possible before, while PDPs are getting smaller but retaining high-definition resolution.

This new grab for market share between the technologies will be one of the defining characteristics of the market over the next five years, said Lee Sang Wan, president of Samsung Electronics' LCD business, during a keynote speech at the event.

"Currently those barriers [between technologies] are being eliminated, and in order to survive very tough competition will begin," said Lee.

Much is at stake. Samsung estimates that the flat-panel display market will increase in value to US$115 billion in 2010, from US$66 billion this year.

Competition is also moving in new directions as vendors try to better their rivals. No more are viewing angle, contrast ratio or brightness the only specifications that panel makers are shouting about.

Color gamut, which is a measure of the ability of the screen to reproduce a balanced and wide range of colors, is becoming important. In the CRT (cathode ray tube) era things were simple: CRTs displayed 72 percent of the full National Television System Committee (NTSC) television color gamut. But displays are now coming onto the market that boast all of the NTSC color gamut, and more. This should mean richer colors for viewers, although because broadcasters tailor their images for CRTs, users won't notice a big difference unless they are watching a DVD or digital TV.

Response time, which is basically the amount of time taken for the screen to react to changes in the picture, is also becoming a distinguishing factor among panels. A faster time means the panel will do a better job of keeping up with fast moving scenes, with less visible image artifacts from previous scenes.

Sharp Corp. unveiled on Wednesday a prototype LCD panel with a 4 millisecond response time. Shown alongside a similar panel with 6 millisecond response time, the new panel offered a much smoother image for video that included movement.

Power consumption is also becoming important as consumers begin to calculate the running costs of their monster TV sets. PDP makers are showing power saving panels that consume typically less power than LCDs of the same size.

These new areas are especially on the minds of LCD makers, which see increased competition from OLED (organic light-emitting diode) and PDP, and from newer technologies like Canon and Toshiba's SED (surface-conduction electron-emitter display).

"Response time will become sub-millisecond in the future," said Chen Li Yi, director of the LCD TV business at Taiwanese display maker Chi Mei Optoelectronics.

The intense rivalry between vendors will result in this being achieved in prototype panels in 2007 and in commercial panels in around five years time, he predicted. Backlight technology that can increase the color gamut to 100 percent of NTSC is also becoming an increasingly competitive area, he said.

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