Letter from America: ’œNothing is certain’ in the display market

I suspect you’ve heard some variation the saying “The only things certain in this world are death and taxes” – often cited to first be said by Benjamin Franklin, the proof is in its own pudding. Among the things not certain may be who was first to proffer the statement (others such as Christopher Bullock and Edward Ward have also been credited). However, in our modern age, and more specifically in our own industry, there is a twist on that I might offer along the lines of “The only things that are certain (in the consumer electronics/custom installation world) are multiple competing standards or ways to do the same thing and a variety of different branding schemes to market them.

It’s as old as Tesla’s AC vs Edison’s DC, Baird’s mechanical TV system vs. the electronic systems from EMI, Farnsworth and Zworkin, NTSC vs PAL vs SECAM, 45 rpm records vs 33 rpm, and, more recently, Beta vs VHS and HD-DVD vs Blu ray. There are many more, and at this point on suspects that you know how each of these battles ended up.

Some, however, are still open. That brings us to the subject of this month’s article: Even when there are just one or two competitors for marketplace dominance, you still will have multiple branding for what is, basically the same technology approach. The consumer confusion that may cause is something that you must be ready to explain or the sale may be lost due to jargon confusion.

Case in point: “HD” vs “Full HD.” Technically, a display with 1280x720, or “720p” display is absolutely high definition – “HD”. However, for the best HD picture before stepping up to “4K” (more about that shortly), the display should be 1920x1080, or “1080p – that is what is known as “Full HD”, and often noted with a logo to that affect.

The rub comes with smaller sets, typically under 40-in, where they are “HD”, just not “Full HD.” The reasons have to do with the economics of LCD panel production, but regardless, finding a 32-in or 24-in set for an office or kitchen is a tough search.

Why note this? Because I believe you should always explain what you are provisioning so that there is no buyer’s remorse down the road. Let them know what you are selling, explain that in the case of these non-critical viewing applications the 720p HD set is fine.

What is “certain”? If you don’t explain things like this, someone will make a fuss sooner or later.

Another one? How about “LCD” vs “LED” vs. “QLED.”

Let’s take “LCD vs LED” uncertainty first.

The first non-plasma flat panel sets were “LCD”, with a compact fluorescent bulb (CCFL) behind the panel to provide the lighting. Remember, unlike plasma and now OLED, which are emissive displays that produce their own light, LCD is passive and needs a light source.

The use of LEDs, either with edge-light guides or full-array backlights (FABL), provide more brightness, use less hazardous material, are more energy efficient and allow for lighter, thinner sets. Marketers began calling sets “LED” which, incorrect. The only true “LED displays” are something quite different, as we’ll detail shortly.

However. now that virtually all displays use LED illumination in one form or another, again other than OLED, the tag “LED TV” has stuck and is in wide use. It is still technically incorrect, but as most brands use it we’ll have to let it go.

Here’s one more you’ll begin to see with increasing frequency: “QLED.” Yes, they are still LCD sets, at least for the next few years, and yes, there is an LED system for backlighting. So, you ask, “What’s the ‘Q’ about?”

Over the past two or three years we have seen more sets using quantum dot technology (QD) to more precisely control the color output of the LEDs, and thus the image that passes through the LCD panel. There are a few different suppliers of the quantum dot materials, and brands have adopted their own branding for their implementation.

Fraunhofor Quantum Dot technology Bottles on display

Samsung was among the first major brands to use “QD”. Indeed, late last year they acquired an early developer of this technology called “QD Vision,” even though their current models are based on technology from Nanosys. To set their models apart, Samsung packaged quantum dots, HDR and a few other things together and started selling them under the moniker of “QLED”.

Other brands countered with nomenclature such as “XLED”, proving again that “nothing is certain” as buyers could easily be confused as to what they are buying. However, until recently, when you saw “QLED,” one could presume that it was a Samsung.

Not anymore. At the recent Society for Information Display’s (SID) annual Display Week there was any number of sessions where QLED was applied as a generic descriptor for, catch this, “an LED set using quantum dots”. Thus, QLED is now being used to describe products other than Samsung’s. At the same time, Samsung has opened up the QLED designation to others, hoping to spread LCD/LED-based products with QD and HDR as a more unified effort to go up against OLED.

“QLED is now being used to describe products other than Samsung’s. At the same time, Samsung has opened up the QLED designation to others, hoping to spread LCD/LED-based products with QD and HDR as a more unified effort to go up against OLED.”

Bottom line here? Seeing “QLED” will not be a Samsung set with full certainty. However, if designed properly, it is reasonably certain that regardless of brand it will be a good display.

Before closing for this month, let’s return to the “nothing is certain” about “What IS an “LED display?”. We’ve explained the use of LED as an illumination technique, but the confusion remains when consumers see “LED” and think that the set is ONLY LEDs. Recent product announcements in the worlds both the professional and consumer displays about LED-based displays, however, may cause confusion if you are not ready to explain what is going on.

Perhaps you have seen the recent announcements of Sony’s “Crystal CLEDIS” display system, the new Samsung Cinema Screen, or the C-SEED 252, which purports be “the world’s largest 4K widescreen TV.” One might take argue with that, as CLEDIS, the LED screens at most stadia and arenas, or perhaps the advertising displays in the likes of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, are larger, but that’s besides the point. Read the descriptions and you will find that these are “LED TVs”.

Wait! Didn’t I just say that LED is in improper descriptor? In this case it is not, and hence the item that “is not certain."

These large displays do not have an LCD panel, but the light comes directly from ultra-bright LEDs. Put those LEDs together in module blocks and then fit the modules close enough together to be seamless, much as if they were high-tech Legos. Then, the display may be assembled to almost any size. Smaller assemblages are often behind news presenters’ desks, slightly larger ones are used at retail or in transportation hubs as information displays. As the size gets larger you get to cinema or “large venue” installations.

This is important to understand, as when questioned by clients as to what an “LED TV” is, you have to be able to explain that the display, again, ex-OLED, is “an LCD panel lit by LEDs – you do not see the LEDs themselves.

“…you have to be able to explain that the display, again, ex-OLED, is “an LCD panel lit by LEDs – you do not see the LEDs themselves.”

different NEC pixel pitches on display

Key to the true LED sets is the pitch between the LEDs in the module. When you are up in the nose bleed seats in an arena or stadium, the coarseness isn’t evident. Displays with LEDs over 1.9mm are fine for large distance viewing above 2m for retail, control rooms and similar. Pixel pitch of 1.5mm or less begin to work for Full HD displays under 2m, and at 1.2mm and less, display becomes suitable for close in viewing, or in module combinations used for 4K/UHD displays.

But, you will be asked, “Why can’t I get a “real LED” in my home?” Here’s where the education is key. At a top level, you can install such as display, but the price falls into the range of “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” C SEED is not shy about quoting a price above USD $500,000, with installation extra. But, there’s more to it than price.

The use of small dot pitch systems as in the Samsung and C SEED products, or “micro-LEDs” or as the technologist would write, mLED, in CLEDIS makes these REALLY expensive. If you saw the CLEDIS display at CES, ISE or other trade shows there is no denying that the virtually seamless, high resolution displays was incredible. Unfortunately, so is the price. Sony still isn’t quoting pricing for CLEDIS, but it is said to be three or four times the already expensive price of small pitch displays. Oh, figure multiple of dollars, for the largest CLEDIS display, but who’s counting.

Here, there is no uncertainty that direct-LED displays will be developed and cost-reduced over the next few years. The papers at Display Week certainly pointed to that, as did the purchase of Silicon Valley-based LuxVue by Apple is 2014. While some point to OLED or advanced emissive display technology may be used for future smartphone, tablet or watch products, direct LED, in the form of mLED may be here sooner than later.

On the other hand, when it comes to consumer electronics in general, and displays in particular, “the only thing that is certain is a variety of ways will be in the market to do the same thing and describe and market them”. Being able to explain all of this is the one certain way to keep ahead of the game.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group. Follow him on Twitter: @captnvid.