Is 2011 the year for affordable OLED?

OLED is making its way out of R&D labs and into gadgets

Is 2011 the year for OLED

This month, I was planning to bring you an uplifting story of hope and promise.

Recently, I've been giving the microscope-and-tweezers treatment to a wide range of the latest LCD monitors. Thus, the theme of my column was to be the improvement of that most ubiquitous of panel technologies: twisted nematic, or TN for short.

Then something unexpected happened that threatened to make the finer points of TN technology thoroughly moot. For the moment, though, stick with me on the tale of TN tech.

Currently, TN panels dominate the more affordable end of the monitor market. Nearly every monitor selling for sub £300 is powered by a TN panel. Historically, that hasn't been a good thing.

TN technology exists for a simple reason: to be the most affordable full-colour active-matrix LCD technology. Consequently, TN panels aren't exactly renowned for world-beating visual fidelity. Poor viewing angles, contrast and colour accuracy are just some of their shortcomings compared to more expensive VA and IPS panels.

As for the root of their visual deformities, the problem involves the liquid crystals themselves. In an IPS panel, the liquid crystals are free to rotate fully about their axes, but the crystals in a TN screen can only be bent or twisted at one end – the other is effectively fixed.

Making matters worse, the default position for a TN crystal allows light to pass through. Put those two factors together and you have a panel technology that tends to allow too much light to leak though overall, and has poor detail control of colours.

Nevertheless, the latest TN screens are significantly more vibrant, and offer much better contrast and viewing angles. In fact, at a glance, the likes of Samsung's new PX2370 could be mistaken for the IPS panels of a few years ago. Closer inspection still betrays the origins of even the best TN screens, but the industry is definitely moving in the right direction.

LED backlights

It's not just advances in panel technology that are boosting the quality of TN monitors. The rapid adoption of LED backlights is helping, as well. These backlights are more efficient and produce purer, cleaner light than traditional CCFL technology, and that means more vibrant colours and wider gamuts.

As for the unexpected part of this story, it takes the form of a new monitor I received recently from BenQ. The EW2420 is a 24-incher with a full HD 1,920 x 1,080 pixel grid. It's yours for under £160.

With that information alone, you would normally conclude that it's a TN monitor, but one that still represents excellent value for money. If I then told you it has an LED backlight, you'd elevate the EW2420's status to truly bargainous. But get this: it has a vertical alignment panel.

Admittedly, it's not the finest VA panel the world has ever seen, but in terms of colours, contrast, black levels and viewing angles, it blows away any TN screen. Quite how BenQ has managed to bring the LED plus VA panel combination to market for a price that undercuts many TN monitors, I haven't a clue.

The last time I saw a VA monitor with an LED backlight, it cost £2,500. Actually, BenQ is being a bit naughty in describing the EW2420 as the first monitor to combine the two technologies – there's a 30-inch Samsung that's been on my desk for nearly two years that would claim otherwise – but I'll forgive BenQ for overreaching in its marketing bumf on this occasion. The EW2420 goes straight in at the top of the budget monitor list.

Of course, what I'm now wondering now is whether this panel is a one-off or the start of a new trend. I'm very much hoping it's the latter, but funnily enough, even if it isn't, it may not matter in a few years' time.

Still flawed

While VA panels are clearly superior to TN, they're still constrained by the inherent flaws of all LCD technology. The ultimate end game for flat panel screens is therefore some kind of technology that does away with backlights and the problems they bring.

That technology is looking very much like OLED. It's been a long time coming, but OLED is finally making its way into products you can buy.

For now, it's expensive and suffers from relatively severe degradation issues. It's therefore limited to small screens in devices that tend to spend most of their lives in standby mode, such as smartphones.

But with monitor giants such as Samsung and Sony betting big on OLED, it's only a matter of time before those problems are licked. Never mind the poor viewing angles on TN panels – however you look at the future, it's looking bright for screen buyers on a budget.

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