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Television is about to undergo a major revolution with LCD and TFT technology set to play a major role in future screen delivery systems.

Although still in its infancy, some industry analysts are predicting that LCD (liquid crystal display) technology will not only lower the price threshold for TV viewing, but replace plasma within four years.

One big issue that could drive the success of LCD technology is viewing life, with plasma delivering 20,000 hours vs 60,000 hours with an LCD screen.

Sony president and chief operating officer, Kunitake Ando, said recently that future televisions including LCD and plasma will be the centre of home entertainment networks, allowing consumers to access data and services found on other devices connected to the network. He also tipped that LCD and TFT technology were set to break new ground.

The strategy for televisions echoes similar efforts by many TV vendors, in particular Sony, to connect all of its products to networks, letting their customers access a vast supply of entertainment content such as music and movies.

Other technology and consumer electronics companies, such as Microsoft, Intel and Philips, have recently begun exploring similar plans that allow vast amounts of visual data to be pumped from storage systems to LCD viewing systems in homes, boats and offices.

The skinny on TVs

Four years ago, Sharp CEO and president Katsuhiko Machida predicted that by 2005 his company would stop selling bulky tube televisions. By then, he claimed, Sharp would sell only flat-screen TVs based on its leading-edge liquid crystal display technology. At the time, sceptics pointed out those LCDs were suitable only for use in small screens, certainly nothing larger than a computer monitor. “It seemed like a lofty goal,” Machida says now. “But we’re making it a reality.”

The numbers tell the story: Last year, Sharp sold a half-million LCD TVs worldwide, and it expects to sell 3.6 million by 2005. Last month in Australia, it launched a new range of LCD TVs, including a 20-inch Aquos LCD TV.

Other companies like Samsung are now delivering LCD and TFT screens that allow you to view both PC and TV signal input.

Sharp is also developing high-end LCDs for cell phones, car navigation systems and PDAs. In late April, the company announced it will start making ultra-efficient LCDs better suited to mobile devices. As for its own products, Sharp will focus on LCD TVs, where they see big growth over the next five years. The Sharp Aquos line of skinny TVs, which range from 13 inches to 30 inches, are brighter than conventional TVs. They hang on the wall and are better suited as networking devices.

“There’s no doubt that this will be a big market,” says Japanese industry commentator Reiji Asakura, “because the prices of flat-panels are reaching affordable levels.”

Some history

LCD screens are everywhere we look, but they didn’t sprout up overnight. It took a long time to get from the discovery of liquid crystals to the multitude of LCD applications we now enjoy.

Liquid crystals were first discovered in 1888 by Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer. He observed that when he melted cholesteryl benzoate, it first became a cloudy liquid and then cleared up as its temperature rose. Upon cooling, the liquid turned blue before finally crystallising. Eighty years passed before RCA made the first experimental LCD in 1968.

Since that time, LCD manufacturers have steadily developed ingenious variations and improvements on the technology, taking the LCD to amazing levels of technical complexity.

New technology

Sharp invests 8 per cent of annual sales in research and development. One pay off is a new technology known as continuous grain silicon that allows the manufacture of ultra-thin screens that are three times faster than conventional ones and remain bright in broad daylight. In the future, this technology will be scaled up for screens 60 inches and up. Sharp engineers are also working on LCD tablets and ‘electronic paper’ – screens that can be written on and rolled up.

“Samsung and LG study our products and recreate them,” says Toshishige Hamano, group general manager in charge of Sharp’s LCD business. “But we’re confident we’ll remain ahead.”

While plasma displays consume more energy than comparable LCDs, they can be produced in larger sizes. Down the road, LCDs could also be displaced by organic electroluminescence displays, which glow without backlights. Moreover, Sharp must contend with Samsung, which plans to market a 40-inch LCD TV this year.

 

Plasma

Plasma displays may be better, more afford-able and more popular than ever, but are they the be-all and end-all in home theatre?

Consumer technology expert Jim Bray claimed recently on Techno File that the conventional wisdom appears to be that, once plasma prices come down to the mainstream, their sales will take off exponentially because of their thinness and practicality.

But as great as plasma is, it still has drawbacks other than price, which is one of the reasons Sony and others are offering alternatives. Take Sony’s new Grand Wega rear projection TV (conventional) as a representative example of these alternatives.

Sony apparently believes that, for now, LCDs offer the best solution for a practical home theatre application.

Now, Sony has long been known as a company that isn’t afraid to march to its own tune, and its own tune is traditionally pretty interesting if not ultimately mainstream. So it isn’t that surprising that, when other manufacturers are trotting out newer and bigger (and smaller) plasmas and rear projection CRT televisions, Sony is putting its highest end consumer eggs into a different basket. And it isn’t just Sony.

Toshiba has also introduced a 60-inch rear projection television model. Panasonic and Hitachi offer DLP models which, while not really LCD, share many of the features and advantages of LCD, though as yet they can’t match LCDs for price. Can other manufacturers be far behind? Why is this happening?

Besides picture quality (and today’s LCDs finally have that down pat, no longer making it appear as if you’re watching TV through a screen door), perhaps the most important consideration for the consumer being asked to pay thousands of dollars for a television set is longevity.

CRTs fade over time (a long time, fortunately!), but LCDs should look the same ten years from now as they do today, at least in theory. Then there’s burn in, where a static image damages the TV over time. This is a big problem, especially for widescreen TVs that are used to display 4 x 3 programming in its native aspect ratio. You may have seen such displays in stores: beautiful state-of-the-art 16 x 9 TVs sitting there with a menu screen or TV program on it and grey (or another colour) bars to each side of the squarish TV picture occupying the middle of the screen.

Damage control

Whether CRT or plasma, if you insist on displaying your widescreen TV like this for long enough, you’ll be damaging your video pride and joy, regardless of how much you paid for it. This is one of the reasons why manufacturers include stretched or zoomed ‘wide’ settings with their widescreen TVs. It’s a necessary compromise between the ‘normal’ and the widescreen aspect ratios and although it isn’t perfect, it’s a lot better than nothing. Okay, this distorts the picture to a certain extent, but over time you get used to it and eventually you barely notice.

 

Burn in doesn’t really plague LCD panels, however, which gives them a leg up in the longevity department.

Part of the reason is that LCDs use a separate light source (a special light bulb) from the ‘data source’ of the LCD panels themselves, and this light source needs to be replaced every few thousand hours. Under normal use, you should only have to replace the bulb every couple of years, although of course that depends on what you mean by ‘normal’.

Replacing the Grand Wega’s bulb is supposed to be easy enough for the consumer to do, and although it means you’ll have to spend a couple of hundred dollars every couple of years, it’s a small price to pay for the added longevity. And once you replace an LCD unit’s bulb, you’ve returned the TV to its original specifications, and that’s not only good, it’s something you can’t do with CRT or plasma sets which, as mentioned, fade over time. Then there’s the size advantage.

While plasmas are still the champions when it comes to overall size, or lack thereof, Sony’s 60-inch Grand Wega LCD rear projector (as a representative sample of the species) is less than 22 inches deep – as compared with the 27-inch depth of my 57-inch CRT rear projector. This lets such televisions fit into more rooms or venues than the hulking CRT projectors.

And LCDs handle black and white pictures without breaking a sweat, an area that has traditionally been spotty with plasma units.

Then there’s front projection, where LCDs are giving CRTs a real run for the corporate and high-end home theatre dollar. Front projectors allow for really big screen sizes, although they also require a darker room.

The bottom line for now is that, while plasma is nifty in a sci-fi kind of way, and CRTs are proven technology that’s more affordable, there is an alternative. It’s called LCD and it is lowering the price threshold on thin TV delivery systems.

 

Samsung

Samsung’s LS40A1 Thin Film Crystal Display (TFT LCD) 40-inch television is very thin and light, measuring a slim 2.3 inches thick and weighing in at only 28kg with its stand, making mounting installations easier than other flat panel models currently available.

The television is equipped with 16:9 screen-ratio and is HDTV-ready to accommodate future changes in broadcasting. In addition, with its built-in DVI-I port, the LS40A1 can also double as a computer monitor.

Samsung’s LS40A1 LCD TV is priced at $15,999 and it’s available from all key Samsung stockists. Call 1300 369 600 if you require more information or for your local stockist.

BenQ

The 20.1-inch HDTV-compatible H200 features an exceptionally bright display, 3-D image correction, comb-filtering technology, SRS Surround Sound and low radiation emissions.

Taking advantage of BenQ’s strength in liquid crystal displays, the BenQ H200 delivers flicker-free pictures and sharp realistic images, the company claims. De-interlacing technology allows for flicker-free viewing, adding picture definition and improving the overall image stability.

The 3-D edge filtering improves the depth and sharpness of images, yielding unequivocal image quality.

The H200 is priced at $3999. Call (02) 9714 6800 or visit www.benq.com.au for more information.

Panasonic

Panasonic refers to its LCD TVs as “living furniture”, with two models, the TX-22LT2 and TX-15LT2 in its range. Circuitry inside automatically detects the brightness levels of the input signal and adjusts the backlight accordingly in real-time. It results in a greatly expanded dynamic range from black to white peak, with crisp, natural pictures. The active system control adjusts the video signal according to the image contrast. Working in tandem with Active Light Control, it adds greater brightness to bright scenes and brings more depth to dark scenes.

The Panasonic range will be on the market late April. Call 13 2600 or visit www.panasonic.com.au for more information.

LG LCDs

LG’s new ultra slim 20-inch LCD TV (RT-20LA30) measures 7cm in thickness and 9kg in weight. It’s equipped with DVD input and can receive analogue TV signals, as well as standard definition grade digital TV signals when connected to the appropriate set-top box. The model has a sleek metallic design and is portable enough to go anywhere in the home or office. Pricing: $4499.

LG’s 30-inch model (MW-30LZ10) is an extremely portable, lightweight unit and delivers high-quality vision and saves on power. Pricing: $7,999. LG also has a 15-inch model (RT-15LA31) for $1999.

Call 1800 725 375 or visit www.lge.com.au for more information.

Palsonic

Palsonic’s entry-level TFT LCD (TFTV-151) offers a naturally crisper, more precise picture quality, including more saturated colour than conventional CRT monitors and provides consumers with a complete solution for converging computer and television needs into a multifunction entertainment system. Pricing: $1699.

Another multimedia LCD, the TFTV-201 is ideal for anyone looking for the benefits of a large screen. With built-in digital stereo and removable stereo speakers, it’s able to create surround sound, ideal for all audio applications. It’s priced at $3999.

For more information, call 1300 657 888 or visit www.palsonic.com.au

 

Sharp

The LC-20B2MA, part of Sharp’s Aquos LCD TV range, has a full 20-inch screen with a seamless design incorporating stereo speakers. The built-in cable system offers a clutter-free look whether free-standing or wall mounted.

Sharp says its unit delivers bright, clear im-ages and vibrant natural colour reproduction even when positioned near windows or in high-glare locations. This is achieved with 170 x 170 degree viewing angles, supported by the Black TFT panel unique to Sharp and the proprietary Edge-Light backlighting system that offers enhanced level of contrast and clarity.

Pricing: $3299. Call 1300 13 55 30 or visit www.sharp.net.au for more information.

Baumann Meyer

Baumann Meyer, exclusively an LCD TV manufacturer, has three models in its LCD range – a 15.1inch 4 x 3 format (WTP-15B2), a widescreen 16 x 9 format, 17.1inch model (WTP-17WE2) and the 20.1-inch (WTP-20B2).

With a depth of only 6.5cm, the Baumann Meyer LCD televisions can be table top or wall mounted. They have high brightness, wide-viewing angles and onboard features of stereo TV tuner, teletext, action freeze frame and the capability to interface with game consoles, digital set-top box, DVD or Video via S-Video, RCA and component inputs. Pricing: 15B2, $1699; 17WE2, $2699; and the 20B2, $3100. For more details, go to www.baumannmeyer.com.au

Grundig

Grundig’s latest addition to its LCD family is the Tharus 51. With a flat housing, the Tharus 51 has flicker-free images, with clear and sharp resolution. The powerful Digi 100 Progressive Chassis guarantees natural reproduction of movement even during rapid panning sequences.

The Grundig Tharus 51 LCD TV has a separate audio unit, along with all the sockets required for camcorders, headphones and other auxiliary equipment. The VGA port means the Tharus 51 can support video signals from Progressive Scan sources. It comes supplied with a handy wall bracket in the matching colour and will be available from April. Pricing: $4999. Call 1800 812 965 for details or visit www.grundigaustralia.com

Philips

The Philips LCD TVs in both 15- and 18-inch models (150MT and 180MT, respectively) have a contemporary look that complement today’s homes where less is often best. The models are also very practical – the ‘Picture in PC’ technology allows you to view the TV and PC simultaneously, so there’s no excuse for missing your favourite show.

Both models have a multiple video input allowing display of PC and TV/DVD/VCD. Response times are fast with very high bright-ness and super high contrast, says Philips.

Pricing: 150MT, $1959 and the 180MT, $3219. Call the Philips Help Desk on 1300 651 993 for more information or visit www.philips.com.au.

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