Illustration: Oliver Raw

Digital Lifestyle: Organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV

Is your flat-screen actually flat? Of course not, but a new breakthrough in display technology has produced a television that, while not quite wallpaper-thin, gets seriously close. Using organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology, this eco-friendly, 4mm panel also promises picture quality 1,000 times better than what we have now.

Bold claims, indeed, but for once the actual product matches the hype. Glimpsed at a recent trade fair, where both Samsung and LG were touting their upcoming 55-inch OLED televisions, it appeared almost too good to be true. During a sped-up sequence of a moving night sky, the contrast looked stunning, with the bright white, yellow and red stars against a textured, highly detailed, but completely black background.

Not a hint of the washed-out grey mush visible on most LCD televisions. And the good stuff doesn't stop there. The colours in some nature sequences appeared bolder and more real, and the objects moving around within the image do so fluidly, with no streaks blur or judder. Put simply, it feels more like you're looking through a window than simply watching telly.

Donning a pair of 3-D glasses is almost as big a revelation, with objects popping out of the screen with no double imaging (and the resulting headaches) or flicker.

"OLED televisions are a big step forward in many ways," says Ed Border, a television technology research associate for IHS, an information and analytics company in London. "As a new display technology, the introduction of OLED is more analogous to the introduction of flat panels in the mid-2000s. OLED offers thinner bezels, higher contrast, much wider viewing angles and, potentially, one day, flexible displays."

All this from a television that's barely there, its barely visible bezel contributing to its weighing less than one-third of a regular television of the same size. That's done by swapping the bulky backlight found in LCD televisions for self-illuminating organic compounds that need only an electric current to light up. In short, almost all of the components used by a regular television are irrelevant for OLED.

But there is one problem. OLED televisions, whose appearance in stores is imminent, will cost about HK$120,000 each. "At the moment, it is much more expensive to manufacture than LCD - so much more expensive, that initial sales will be confined to wealthy early adopters and industrial users who need excellent picture quality," says Ken Werner, founder of US-based Nutmeg Consultants. In fact, ABI Research predicts that OLED televisions will make up less than 1 per cent of flat TV sales for their first year, and will take until 2017 to reach just 9 per cent of homes.

OLED is more about restoring profit to an industry that's been through a tough time. "A very big advantage as far as the makers of flat screens for television are concerned is that they believe they can make money selling OLED displays, while the profit margin on LCD displays has become very small ... and is heading towards zero," says Werner.

After almost a decade of incessant price-cutting, flat-screen television makers are in need of a cash cow. While Panasonic and Sony have confirmed their intention to jointly produce large OLED televisions next year, Samsung and LG promised to sell them earlier this year. However, there's still no sign of them. "Considering that both LG and Samsung have delayed the commercial introduction of their 55-inch OLED TV sets, it is clear that OLED is, indeed, a work in progress," says Werner. "But it would be better to say that OLED is at the very beginning of its history as a commercial TV display, with a lot of development yet to come."

Border agrees: "As a display technology, OLED is actually pretty far along the line. I've seen OLED TVs several times now, and performance-wise, there are very few issues, certainly at a level visible to the majority of consumers."

The real issues, Border says, are yield and scale, with manufacturers yet unable to make larger OLEDs in sufficient, cost-effective quantities. Whether Samsung and LG are having such problems is an industry secret, but even though this is an undoubted leap forward in both quality and design, is it what people want? Aren't modern LCD televisions slim enough?

"Almost any consumer research taken usually indicates that there are three things consumers prioritise above all else: price, picture quality and screen size," says Border, who insists that the price issue will hold it back for several years, especially as LCD television prices are still falling.

If OLED does catch on, it will be because of the technology's success in China. "It is the largest market in the world, and Chinese consumers have recently shown the highest take-up rates for new technologies, such as 3-D TVs," says Border.

Border predicts that only a few early adopters will buy OLED televisions at first, because of their high price, but that the new product's price will drop fast as local brands take part in the market.

What's more, OLED isn't the only new television technology in town. Next year we'll also witness the first screens that measure 4,000 by 2,000 pixels. To put that in perspective, a normal full high-definition television displays a two-megapixel image; the "4K" can achieve eight megapixels.

If technicians are now tasked with creating much higher resolution OLED TVs, LCD displays will dominate for some time. So, going organic might have to wait.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Slim leap forward