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Greater resolutions, but at what cost?

by Doug Drinkwater

November 30 2011

It is no coincidence that the emergence of tablet computing is happening at the same time a slump is hitting the large-format display panel business. Here’s why.

Market research firm DisplaySearch’s recently published PriceWise report states that the price of a typical 40- to 42-inch HD TV screen, known in industry parlance as a panel, fell from $237 to $206 from June 21 to November 20, while that of a 46-inch model dropped from $319 to $283.

This free-fall in the profit margins of TV panels is forcing manufacturers to drop the retail price of flat-panel TVs accordingly, making the TV display market far less attractive from a fiscal perspective, particularly when compared to the higher yield, higher margins, and increased demand for the smaller-sized panels used in tablet devices.

Not surprisingly, LCD panel manufacturers are shifting their attention and energy to developing and manufacturing smaller panels. An added bonus is that in addition to yielding far more lucrative profits, tablet display panels can be manufactured using older and less technologically advanced equipment.

“It’s true that manufacturers are turning away from larger panels,” said DisplaySearch analyst Richard Shim. “We’re seeing more suppliers move towards sixth generation (6G) factories for tablet capacity, while Sharp is in fact using its G8 supply line to produce tablet displays.”

Sharp and Panasonic have been first reactors to this trend, with executives at Sharp confirming that the firm’s eighth-generation (8G) plant in Kamayama, Japan—commonly used to build TV panels up to 72 inches—will now focus on making smaller displays. Panasonic has followed suit and announced similar plans for its facilities in Japan.

Shim believes that LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics are the biggest players for producing these smaller displays, but adds that Sharp, Chimei Innolux and AU Optronics are also prominent manufacturers in this market.

1280 x 800 may be outdated by the end of 2012, thanks to Apple

Since the launch of the first iPad in 2010, tablet panel manufacturing has been fairly consistent. Most low-end 7-inch tabs have used basic, inexpensive twisted nematic (TN) LCD panels with a standard resolution of 800 x 480. (This is a 4:3 aspect ratio.) However, more 7- and 10-inch devices are upgrading to the widescreen resolution of 1280 x 800 (16:10), which is good enough to play HD Ready 720p video. 720p is common in many entry-level 32-inch TVs.

1280 x 800 (known for many years by PC users as WXGA) could be quickly superseded by far more advanced display tech if widely reported rumors about the Apple’s iPad 3 turn out to be true.

Numerous sources have speculated that Apple will adopt the 2560 x 1560 resolution for its third-generation tablet, which is expected to feature the same 9.7-inch form factor. If true, this resolution would dwarf the display on every tablet to date, and would even be far greater than almost every HD TV on the market, which max out at 1920 x 1080 (16:9 aspect ratio).

While 1,560 horizontal-pixel display supersedes contemporary living room display technology, digital content creators and digital cinema fans and experts are already accustomed to display resolution in the 2K range. That’s 2,048 horizontal pixels of resolution. Going beyond this, YouTube even has a playlist of 4K videos.

Back to reality

Despite the excitement over the potential quality of a 2560 x 1560 panel, reports from Taiwanese blog Digitimes suggest that, due to the complexity of manufacturing such an advanced display, some display OEMs are struggling to produce panels at this resolution.

“Display resolution and pixel per inch (PPI) will increase, we’re already seeing that,” said Shim, pointing to Toshiba prepping a 7-inch display with a 1280 x 800 resolution in its Thrive series, and Hitachi doing the same. “However, the market is finding this harder to meet, as manufacturers have to reconfigure lines and get their yield rates up, to make these kind of high-resolution panels viable. “This is not a baby step that Apple is requesting.”

This said, Samsung recently showed a 10.1” panel with 2560 x 1600 resolution (300 pixels per inch). Reportedly at one point, the company offered to manufacture these panels to Apple for a next-generation iPad. However, the ensuing legal battle between Apple and Samsung over the Galaxy line of phones and tablets makes it highly unlikely the companies will collaborate again in the near future - especially now that Apple has just contracted Sharp to provide panels, which are believed to be for the iPad 3.

The Future: TN, IPS and VA panels

Earlier this week, DisplaySearch published its new Quarterly Large-Area TFT LCD Shipment Report, which predicts that the average tablet resolution will reach over 200 pixels per inch in Q2 of 2012. That’s a big leap considering that no tablet to date has breached the 200 PPI mark. (By way of comparison, the iPhone 4S has 326 pixels per inch.) By 2011, the research firm expects to see 10.1-inch 1920 x 1200 and 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 resolution displays.

Also important above and beyond the future of higher resolutions is the increasing move by manufacturers towards Vertical alignment (VA) and In-plane switching (IPS) panels. These more advanced display technologies offer greatly improved viewing angles and far more accurate color reproduction. While entry-level tablet manufacturers have generally settled on basic TN panels and will continue to do so, manufacturers of premium-caliber tablets like Apple and Samsung have already adopted IPS, which is also commonly used for higher-end flat-screen desktop monitors.

“IPS panels are increasingly being adopted for notebooks, which gives you a sign of how much tablets are affecting the notebook industry”, said Shim.

Touch technology

No exploration of advanced display technologies would be complete without touching upon touch technology (ahem), LED-backlighting or OLED.

Touch technology is not new. Single-touch technologies have been used in a variety of circumstances for a number of years, such as digital-out-of-home (DOOH) screens, which have been used in every sector from retail to transportation.

Not surprisingly, the rise of the tablet appears to be driving touchscreen innovation even further. Entry-level tablets have tended to adopt resistive touch panels that only allow for a single touch but more and more, tablets are beginning to adopt capacitive or projected capacitive technologies. These displays offer multi-touch control and pinch to zoom, among other features.

In-cell, on-cell and surface acoustic wave (SAW) are other well-known touchscreen technologies, but at present only occupy a small share of the display market.

LED backlighting

LED-backlighting is quickly replacing CCFL backlighting in LCD TVs and monitors, with some companies promising to offer complete line-ups with the technology. LED-backlighting is already coming to various tablets, including the iPad, and is sure to become commonplace over the next couple of years.

Finally, OLED

Something of considerable more interest and desire is how Organic LEDs (OLEDs) could come to tablet PCs in the future.

OLED panels continue to be shown in prototype form at trade shows, but are becoming increasingly regular on smartphones. Samsung’s Mobile Display division is one of the key players in OLED production and has already equipped its Galaxy S and SII smartphones with Super AMOLED displays, so it is feasible that such displays could come to tablets in the future.

So, what’s so great about OLED? For starters, it offers incredibly vibrant colors, and are far more energy efficient than that of their LED counterparts, which allows for far slimmer form-factors. Theoretically, OLED, which requires no backlight, even allows for flexible displays, which will permit the bendy mobile prototypes you’ve likely seen online.

Unfortunately, the technology does have its drawbacks; notably, high manufacturing costs and a less-than-spectacular longevity, especially when it comes to blue OLEDs. Because of these drawbacks, DisplaySearch’s Richard Shim is cautious on the feasibility of OLED for tablets.

“Similar to higher-resolution displays, OLEDs are a challenge. The technology has not been appreciated in the past, and there are still capacity issues and concerns over form factor and battery life”.

Screen sizes

Although not directly related to the future of the display technology in tablets, screen size is one of the hottest topics in the industry, with Steve Jobs having  famously belittled 7-inch models shortly after the introduction of the 9.7-inch iPad.

As it is, an array of differently sized models has already hit the market, ranging from the 5-inch Dell Streak and Samsung Galaxy Note up to the convertible Windows 7 tablets at 11.6-inches.

“There is an opportunity for more screen sizes”, said Shim. “There are 7-inch, 9-inch and 10.1-inch displays now on the market. But we believe that 7.3”, 7.7” and 8.9” displays will come in future”. This view was touched upon by Context analyst Salman Chaudhry at a recent event in London, where he claimed that 9-inch models will be the size of choice in the future.

Time will tell.

Doug Drinkwater is based in London and is TabTimes International Editor.

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