While many people are weighing up the pros and cons of plasma and LCD TVs, the world's biggest consumer electronics companies have already embarked on a new era of display tech that promises to make flatscreens even thinner – and, for a while at least, much more expensive. Meet OLED, organic light-emitting diode technology.
Actually, OLED is not that new. First shown in 1999, industry watchers have long been waiting for OLED to graduate from small-screen curiosity to big-screen alternative to LCD and plasma. But technical challenges in super-sizing the technology have meant huge outlays on R&D.
OLED's biggest supporters have needed deep pockets and genuine vision to see how the technology might at some point dent LCD TV's massive popularity. There's a lot at stake, but OLED's biggest supporters still believe that it has the potential to become the ultimate home cinema display. Being luminescent, an organic panel lights up when a current passes through – with no need for a power-consuming, bulky backlight.
Perfect black and blur-free images
The self-luminance stops when the current flow stops, so OLED screens are also capable of producing perfect black. Unlike plasma or LCD screens, there's no light to filter through and compromise the picture. Add an awesome viewing angle and blur-free images, and it's easy to see why OLED is an exciting proposition.
It's taken a while, but production lines for OLED screens, in miniature at least, are maturing. A size of between 2.2in and 2.4in seems to be the current sweet spot, with Samsung and Chinese manufacturer Chi Mei churning out significant numbers of 320 x 240 pixel OLED panels. They should start to filter through to new mobile phones and portable devices at the beginning of next year.
Home cinema is a completely different matter, but Sony is leading the charge. Armed with a nascent production line in Japan and a stubborn ambition to be the first to market with new technology, Sony released its debut OLED television in Japan last December.
A beautifully designed panel measuring 11in in diameter and weighing in at a paltry two kilograms, Sony's XEL-1 sells for around £875 in Japan. It went on sale in North America in February for the dollar equivalent of approximately £1,300, and is expected to debut in the UK early next year at roughly the same price.
A glimpse of the future
Despite that high price and its diminutive size, the XEL-1 provides a tantalising glimpse into the future of flat TVs. Forget the recent efforts of Hitachi and JVC to get superslim LCD TVs down to 35mm or so, or even Pioneer's promises to produce 9mm plasmas – the XEL-1 measures an unbeatable 3mm in depth. When seen in profile, it virtually disappears. The wafer-thin TV is a reality.
To the casual viewer, the Sony XEL-1's picture response is as fast as a CRT, with more depth, and enjoys deeper black levels than usual flatpanels – it actually claims a contrast ratio of over 1,000,000:1. However, it's not even HD Ready, sporting a resolution of just 960 x 540 pixels.
"We call this a Quarter HD pixel panel," says Yoshito Shiraishi, Chief engineer for OLED at Sony HQ in Tokyo, as he demos the screen especially for Home Cinema Choice. "It's not an HD panel. Instead it's downscaling it to Quarter HD, but it does seem to be high-def.
"And we are going to prepare OLED for high-definition," he continues. "A Full HD 1920 x 1080 panel is not necessary at this size, but if we go larger a Full HD screen will be necessary." 40in or even 50in panels are Sony's ultimate aim, Home Cinema Choice was told.
The OLED engineer continues his tour of this futuristic screen, which offers HDMI, USB and Ethernet connections. The latter is there for Japan's HD video-on-demand channel and IPTV services.
The XEL-1 design is unique. An arm supports the frame atop a rather bulky main unit, which doubles as a desktop stand and a home for the panel's tuners and other electronics. "Our designers told the older engineers to realise this floating style, so that the product stands out," says Shiraishi. "At Sony the designer's position is very high – maybe next to the President!"
Of course, the design has had an impact on sound quality. Housed in the desktop support, the OLED's digital amplifier squirts out a mere 1W through both channels. "The designer didn't give us the space for front speakers!" admits Shiraishi.
Best in show
Such concentration on style won't surprise anyone watching the current trends in AV, especially at Sony, but it would be an overstatement to call the XEL-1 a design-led product. This is a startling technology with huge advantages over both plasma and LCD.
For one, it's a lot faster. "In the case of LCD you have a pixel response time of several milliseconds," explains Shiraishi. "On the XEL-1 it's a few microseconds, so it's a thousand times faster in terms of pixel response. When you see a moving scene through this panel we have circuitry that avoids artefacts and after-images – even compared to a plasma."
Inside is the same easy-access menu system, called XcrossMediaBar, now found on a host of Sony products, including the PlayStation 3 and recent high-end Bravia LCD TVs. But the XEL-1 is not a Bravia. "Whenever we have the first model in the world we never call it the special name. If it's a success and you have a line-up of ten or so models, and you sell it over the world – then you need a brand name."
Recent claims by Sony that its Bravia TVs are among the most eco-friendly are dwarfed by the XEL-1's low power consumption when compared to the older screen technologies, according to Shiraishi: "If you compare the power consumption panel-to-panel by screen inch, OLED is a 40 per cent reduction from LCD."
Behind these impressive claims, OLED does appear to come with some problems. While plasma and LCD TVs are guaranteed by manufacturers to last for 60,000 hours, the XEL-1 is quoted at half that. "From a technological point of view we cannot avoid that," Shiraishi tells us.
Why? Because at present OLED technology hasn't advanced enough to prevent moisture getting into the panel, which dramatically reduces its lifespan. The Sony man, though, is content with the end result. "If you watch eight hours of TV a day over ten years, that's 30,000 hours in total. That's enough! This is not a living room TV, but for a desk or bedside table. For this purpose it's fine."
Sony seems convinced of OLED's importance in its future. It recently committed to spending over £100million to make larger versions of OLED screens next year.
"It's easy for us to make them smaller if demand is high, while for larger screen sizes we need more R&D and investment," explains Shiraishi, who talks with a tone that suggests a difficult year fraught with deadlines up to the XEL-1's launch.
There are signs that Sony is close to producing the XEL-1's successor, with one rumour suggesting that a 20in or even 27in OLED TV will sell in Japan this Christmas. A 40in model could follow that.
Justly proud of being first to market with the XEL-1, Sony does face more challenges if OLED is ever to find its way into home cinemas, but after a long time in development Shiraishi is a happy man: "This technology is ready for mass production and we showed it!"
Expensive, untried and incredibly impressive, the XEL-1 has got Sony written all over it.
First published in Home Cinema Choice, issue 160