Sony Kills Next-Gen 11" Display; Manufacturers Hedge on OLED TVs

If one were to make a list of 21st-century technologies that deserve to be credited as the hardware equivalent of Duke Nukem Forever, OLED displays might just might sweep the competition. Display manufacturers have been talking about OLED televisions and monitors as "a couple years away" for at least the last half-decade. The recession of 2009 caused a number of manufacturers to push back their production plans (ostensibly in response), but a quick check of historic projections shows we were nowhere near predicted production levels even before the downturn. Earlier this week, Sony announced it would halt sales of its 11" OLED in Japan, where the panel first debuted. For now, the XEL-1 will remain on sale in the US and other markets, but Sony's decision to kill the unit in its home market and reduce the rate at which it's investing in future OLED TV development has been perceived in some corners as a judgment on the long-term feasibility of OLED technology.

The Elusive Holy Grail:

Sony's 11" XEL-1. $2800 at launch for a display that couldn't manage HD output.

If you don't know much about OLED panels and are wondering what all the fuss is about, it's pretty simple. Compared to standard LCDs (including those with LED backlighting), OLED displays offer better contrast ratios, require no backlighting at all, permit wider viewing angles, and don't suffer from color shift. Unlike LCDs, OLED's have no trouble producing 'true' black. When powered down, OLED elements consume no electricity, and the panels themselves typically consume about 70 percent as much energy as an LCD panel of the same size.

All of those features come into play before we talk about the fact that OLEDs can be flexible, wearable, and theoretically printed by an inkjet printer. The displays can also be transparent (a nifty feature Samsung demonstrated at CES this year.) To display manufacturers, this new panel technology wasn't the next big thing but the next big everything. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way. When the XEL-1 debuted in the US, it had an MSRP of $2899. The current price online (in what few stores list it) varies considerably but averages out to ~$2100. That's a drop of some 30 percent, but while the price has come down, larger displays with better features and support for 720p/1080p have not appeared—not from Sony—and that's actually the bigger problem. There are always people willing to pay top dollar for the latest and greatest, which implies that acceptable yields at these sizes are nothing short of terrible.

LG To The Rescue—Maybe:

Even if Sony does kill the XEL-1 in the US, all is not lost. LG has given notice that it's bringing its 15" EL9500 display to the United States with an estimated price tag of ~$2600. While that's still extremely expensive, the EL9500 can handle 720p video (1366x768 resolution) and has nearly twice the viewable area (96.14 inches2 for the LG as opposed to 51.7 inches2 for the Sony. LG has hinted that it will introduce 20" and possibly even 30" OLED panels this year with 40" panels coming Real Soon Now, but given the historic inaccuracy of such predictions, we're not holding our breath.

For the moment, LG appears to be the only company even talking about imminent OLED TV displays. Last year, Samsung declared it would be 4-5 years before OLED displays were mainstream; sentiments echoed by Toshihiro Sakamoto, president of Panasonic. Samsung has implied it would launch an OLED-equipped laptop by the end of 2010 and the company's transparent laptop display drew a great deal of attention at CES last year. In the meantime, however, the South Korean company is moving into 3D displays.


In the wake of Sony's announcement earlier this week, far too many online pundits have rushed to declare OLED panels dead, dying, moribund, or otherwise abandoned. In our opinion, "reprioritized" is a much better word. There's no doubting that panel manufacturers have seized on 3D as the next 'must have' feature, but OLED technology continues to capture eyeballs and interests whenever prototype displays are demonstrated. The new display technology is also of interest to any company designing mobile products that integrate a display. The LCD of a laptop typically draws the most juice (or second-most, depending on the processor) of anything in the chassis. Reducing display power consumption by an average of 30 percent would have an immediate positive impact on battery life, while the ultra-thin nature of OLED displays would allow for lighter, smaller notebooks.

OLED research and development isn't going to stop; the tech solves too many problems and offers too many opportunities. It seems more likely at this juncture that we'll see development focus shift from large panel sizes to smaller ones, particularly since the smartphone/handheld OLED market is growing briskly and larger screens are inherently more prone to defects. Sadly, this means that your chance of traipsing home with a truly cutting-edge display before 2014 or so could be pretty minimal.

Unless, of course, you've got an extra kidney lying around.
Tags:  Samsung, LCD, Sony, LED, LG, OLED, XEL-1, EL9500