Seoul: Liquid crystal display (LCD) screens were expected to slowly fade and die, giving way to lighter, thinner and tougher organic light-emitting diode (OLED) panels in everything from smartphones to televisions.
But LCD is refusing to go quietly as its picture quality keeps getting better. At the same time, the major backers of credit card-thin OLED panels led by Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics are struggling to make the technology cheap enough to mass produce. The two South Korean firms this year showcased 55-inch (140 cm) OLED TVs, but priced at around $10,000 10 times that of an LCD equivalent they have yet to reach store shelves.
OLED displays, used on Samsung's Galaxy S and Note smartphones, have been touted as the future display model to replace LCDs across the consumer electronics spectrum from TVs to computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. OLED is more energy efficient and offers higher contrast images than LCD, and is so thin that future mobile devices will be unbreakable, and will be able to be folded or rolled up like a newspaper.
But OLED panel makers such as Samsung Display and LG Display have yet to address major manufacturing challenges to lower costs to compete against LCD panels. At the same time, LCD panels, which are used on 9 of every 10 television sets, are still evolving and show no sign of giving way in this latest battle to set the global standard less than a decade since LCD effectively killed off plasma screens.
"OLED still has a long way to go to become a mainstream display, as it has to become bigger and improve picture quality," said Chung Won-seok, an analyst at HI Investment & Securities.
"The use of OLEDs will continue to be confined to small displays at least for the next 2-3 years. Its usage as a mainstream TV panel is only likely in 2014, but even then there's a possibility of intense competition with LCD TVs as that technology keeps improving."
According to DisplaySearch, it will take another four years for OLED screens to capture less than a tenth of the global TV screen market. Better picture quality Far from fading, LCD panels now offer better picture quality up to four times better than OLED and use less power, creating robust demand from smartphone and tablet makers.
As has often been the case, Apple Inc moved the goalposts by upgrading the display resolution for its iPhone and iPad, still the high-end LCD market's gold standard, prompting rivals to upgrade their display panel qualifications. Analysts at Macquarie predict Apple will adopt high-resolution screens for the MacBook Air and iMac monitor next year, accelerating the industry's shift to high-resolution displays.
"It's only a matter of time (before) other high-end notebook companies such as Sony, Toshiba and Samsung upgrade their screens to high-resolution to compete with Apple's MacBook series," Macquarie analyst Henry Kim wrote in a recent client note. Rivals are taking note. Taiwan's HTC has introduced the Droid DNA smartphone with a 440 pixel per inch (ppi) density the sharpest smartphone screen yet, with far higher resolution than the iPad's 330 ppi and the iPhone 5's 326 ppi. Samsung's Galaxy S III, which uses an OLED screen, has 306 ppi density.
"The pixel war is an absolute bonanza for LCD makers," said Kim Byung-ki, analyst at Kiwoom Securities. "Manufacturers from LG Display to Samsung, Sharp, AU Optronics and Chimei (Innolux) all will gradually convert their traditional lines into more high-end product fabs, and that will curtail supply and boost profitability."
In tight supply?
These higher-resolution panels cost more than double the commodity-type LCD screens, boosting panel producers' profits. Even Samsung, the standard bearer for OLED panels and also a major LCD manufacturer, is actively promoting LCD screens for tablets and laptops over OLED, said a person familiar with the matter, who was not authorised to talk to the media so didn't want to be named.
To squeeze more pixels per inch, panel makers are upgrading their thin-film transistor (TFT) panel production facilities to new IGZO or LTPS processing technologies that require almost twice as many processing steps and which suffer higher faulty product rates.
Japan's Sharp is the frontrunner in IGZO technology, which uses indium gallium zinc oxide instead of amorphous silicon, in panel manufacturing. LG Display, a major supplier to Apple, is investing 1.2 trillion won ($1.1 billion) by end-2013 in its production of low-temperature poly silicon (LTPS) panels a technology used to make screens for the iPhone and iPad.