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Still waiting for OLED TVs

Televisions based on organic materials promise better picture quality and energy efficiency, but they'll be pricey and unavailable until sometime next year. Photos: Future TVs

OLED televisions are going to be a boon for picture quality and energy efficiency--someday, if you can afford them.

We've been hearing about the potential for OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs for several years now and Sony, Samsung and Seiko Epson have demonstrated the ability to make a prototype OLED panel.

So when will TV manufacturers actually start selling OLED TVs and, more important, will those TVs cost way too much for the average consumer? So far, Sony has indicated that it will be the first out of the gate with an OLED TV sometime next year, and the panels will likely be small, in the range of 11 to 27 inches wide. No one is saying how much it will cost, but some pundits think that little TV could cost somewhere between $800 and $1,000. Toshiba is expected to start selling 30-inch OLEDs in 2009.

"OLED TVs at the moment essentially don't exist," said Lawrence Gasman, principal analyst at Nano Markets. "If you go to an (industry) conference you'll see some beautiful prototypes, which are very impressive, but you can't actually buy one yet."

There's another problem: unlike LCD (liquid crystal display) and plasma, which were completely new display technologies compared with cathode ray tubes when they first debuted, OLED TVs are a variation on the ingredients and manufacturing process used to make LCD panels. The fact that it's not a drastically new technology could mean a more difficult time gaining a foothold with consumers, particularly when the price for a new OLED TV will be so high, at least initially.

"Any tech coming into the TV market now has to be many steps ahead of where existing plasma and LCDs are at. The technology has to be substantially better and (have) comparable prices," said Riddhi Patel, an analyst with iSuppli. And right now, that's simply not the case.

Another major issue that's holding up OLED TVs is the reliability factor. It's "fair" to consider that organic materials used in OLEDs need further advances to be realistic for the TV market, said Janice Mahon, vice president of technology commercialization for Universal Display, an OLED research company. The OLEDs currently used in cell phone displays are lasting 5,000 to 10,000 hours while TV manufacturers generally need OLEDs that won't peter out until 30,000 to 50,000 hours of use.

Nonetheless, the market for OLED TVs could be big. According to a forecast by Nano Markets, the OLED TV market should be worth about $42 million in 2008, $436 million in 2009, and $1.2 billion by 2010.

That leaves time for OLED companies like Universal Display and to tinker with manufacturing processes and dream up more innovative ways to use smaller OLED screens, such as in flexible displays. This technology is being deployed in some cell phones and portable media players.

The key to OLED TVs is the series of thin organic films that give off light when an electrical current is applied. TVs can be simpler to make with OLEDs than LCD panels mainly because there are fewer parts in OLED TVs. Specifically, there's no back light, which makes OLED TVs potentially thinner and able to reduce the power consumption of the display by a factor of four, according to Universal Display, which works on several different OLED technologies.

There are other issues, of course. One of the biggest is differential aging, meaning the red, green and blue diodes degrade at different rates, which results in a distorted picture. But that's changing.

"Over the past two years this problem has begun to disappear as the result of technical improvements in OLEDs," said Gasman of Nano Markets. "Cambridge Display has, for example, announced that it has achieved lifetimes of 80,000 hours for blue OLEDs and blue polymers for OLEDs with 100,000 hours of life."

The manufacturing process is also experiencing growing pains. Right now, OLED manufacturers can produce a sizable amount of smaller displays for cell phones, but increasing the glass size at large volumes necessary for TVs could be a challenge--but one that could be solved, said Mahon of Universal Display. "It's no different for what's had to be done for LCD and plasma panels. It's simply part of the maturation of a technology."

And then there's price. Considering the , which is making high-definition viewing accessible to a larger subset of consumers, OLEDs will be far out of the price range of the average TV shopper whenever they do land on store shelves.

To put it bluntly, "Right now OLED cannot come in at a competitive price," said iSuppli's Patel. "We are anticipating OLEDs by the end of this year from Sony, an 11-inch for $800 to $1,000. For a $1,000, you can get a 40-inch plasma."

Plus there's a choice that major LCD manufacturers have to make: they're right . LCD is a technology that many consumers are only recently embracing, so it could make less sense for some to spend resources on something like OLED.

At some point, when parts become more plentiful and manufacturing efficiency increases, OLEDs will likely be cheaper to produce than LCDs. But that point could still be a few years off. "An OLED may cost 60 to 70 percent of a comparable LCD. Intrinsically, there will be a cost advantage in making an OLED (TV)," Mahon said. "The question is how quickly (they'll get there)."