Thin is beautiful

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There’s one thing you can say about the television market – it’s never boring. These days, it’s not enough to simply offer a flat panel product; consumers are looking for something extra, whether it’s elegant design, green features, home networking or internet access.

Horses for courses

So what have been the most significant flat panel technological developments in the past twelve months? Darren Petersen, product manager at Samsung, says: “The slimness now achieved reflects the science fiction films of the early 90s – people can now buy these futuristic screens in the high street, and technology is moving very quickly. Another development has to be the introduction of advanced IPTV [internet] products which is still in its infancy but is on the verge of making a really big impact.”  George Mead, LG’s marketing manager digital display, opts for LED TVs and sets with integrated Freesat tuners. Panasonic Neo PDP technology, which doubles the picture brightness and lowers power consumption, gets the vote of John Dixon, Panasonic’s general manager for brand communications.

For Joni Roberts, Philips TV marketing manager, it’s been the introduction of LED backlighting: “We introduced LED backlighting with the launch of the 42PFL9803H, with its staggering black levels and colour reproduction, it shows the distinct performance advantages LED technology can bring to LCD TVs. LED side lighting allows for incredibly thin TVs, as demonstrated by our 8mm thick 32in.” Matt Evans, JVC’s product manager (LCD and Camcorder) also thinks LED has made a big impact: “Not only does this provide better black levels, but there is a much better energy saving message with these models.”   

Tommaso Monetto, product manager for LCD TV at Sharp, is enthused about: “The development of environmentally friendly technologies, aimed at reducing power consumption. With the DH77 and the DH57 series, customers can make the green choice using the ECO button on the remote control.” Christian Brown, Sony’s senior product manager, lists three developments: “Design – Edge LED has made super skinny TVs a possibility, such as the ZX1. OLED for its extraordinarily high contrast ratios, and MotionFlow – 200Hz MotionFlow quadruples the frame rate resulting in the smoothest picture reproduction yet.”  Andrew Line, Toshiba’s TV product manager, says: “The most significant development has been the quality of products in the entry-level sector. For example, features like Resolution+, AutoView contrasting and multiple HDMI connections used to be reserved for top end models, whereas they are now standard features in all models from our AV63 series upwards.”

Market developments

In terms of market trends, Philips’ Roberts, says: “The major market development has been the price erosion of the flat panel TV market, which has allowed consumers to purchase larger screen sizes.”  Consumers are demanding the highest picture quality and design is also playing a key factor in consumer purchasing choices, says LG’s Mead. Samsung’s Petersen adds: “Given the current economic climate, the mass customer focus has shifted from large screen sizes with the advanced technology to smaller sizes where they are finding equally smaller price tags, especially with OEM brands. Over the last few years, the momentum has been moving up the ranges and panel size, with 40-50in becoming a growing part of the market. But given the current conditions, this has slowed.”   Panasonic’s Dixon says: “Consumers want ever slimmer sets.”

JVC’s Evans notes that: “Price is an issue: lower prices increase sales. However, people are still buying high end LCDs – our high-end LCD TV, the DV1, is selling steadily. This indicates that it is not just a price war on entry level models that is influencing the market.  The digital switchover will also continue to be a driving force for LCD sales, as more people upgrade their TVs.” Sony’s Brown says lower prices for high definition flat screen TVs has seen a move towards larger screen sizes. Toshiba’s Line adds: “This year’s market has been about delivering value for money. We’ve already seen a gradual shift to large screen sizes, as manufacturing efficiencies have allowed us to reduce the cost of larger models, but this year we’ve been trying to offer more features for less – which is especially important in the current economic climate.”

Increasingly thinner

With some LCD sets thinner than 10mm at their slimmest point, is there scope for even further reduction or have we reached a point of diminishing returns? Samsung’s Petersen thinks: “There is always room to go further with technology. If the demand is there and consumers want a product to be thinner we will make it happen.” Philips’ Roberts adds: “Never say never. The rate of technological developments in TV does not rule it out, but there is a limit to how much technology you can take out of the panel without compromise elsewhere.”  JVC’s Evans says: ” There is always room to reduce depth in panels, and in fact, JVC will unveil a new 7.8mm screen.  But the panels can only be as deep as the components within would allow. I do not believe we have reached a diminishing return point yet.”

“We feel it’s important to strike the right balance between size, picture quality and value. We’re certainly not willing to sacrifice the performance of our products in favour of reaching a certain depth, because our belief is that consumers will ultimately favour quality over size,” says Toshiba’s Line. It’s an attitude shared by LG: “It is important for LG that when the depth of the screen is reduced, the audio capabilities are not compromised. Our 42LH7000 has invisible speakers that enhance the audio quality, even though the TV measures just 39.8mm in depth,”  says Mead. Sharp’s Monetto believes that: “LCD TVs can potentially further break through the 10mm barrier. However, as the majority of LCD TVs are on table stands, the advantage of having a thinner screen adds no benefit. Additional thinner screens tend to compromise on the sound quality”. Panasonic’s Dixon points out that plasma sets are also getting slimmer, with the company’s TX-P54Z1 54in plasma just 28.4mm deep.

 A number of companies, including, Sony, Sharp, Philips, JVC and Toshiba, do not market plasma products, but several major brands still do. “We appreciate that the global market for plasma is undergoing some major changes and have recently implemented a strategy to promote and market plasma TV’s in the UK. The development of new technologies including, our THX certified PS8000 series, shows a strong indication of the growth opportunities for plasma TV’s in the UK market,” says LG’s Mead. Samsung’s Petersen adds: “We believe in giving our customers a choice – for many the ultimate decision is down to personal preference and lifestyle.” Panasonic has more plasma sets (17) than LCDs (13) in its current line-up. “We support both and think that plasma is best for larger screen sizes,” says Panasonic’s Dixon.

The newcomers

A television technology making a lot of noise in the flat panel sector is OLED, but even its biggest supporters are cautious about its immediate impact on the market. “The OLED TV market will not surpass the LCD TV market within the next few years. Rather, we think it is necessary to steadily cultivate OLED so that we can deliver new lifestyle ideas and applications that make full use of OLED technology. BRAVIA LCD TVs will continue to be the core part of our TV business, while OLED shows the best promise as the next display technology,” says Sony’s Brown.

Samsung’s Petersen says: “At the moment OLED technology is really only for small screen devices. It would just be too expensive to produce a large screen OLED TV for the consumer. LED TV actually offers consumers nearly all of the benefits that an OLED TV would – it’s remarkabl
y thin, produces amazing colours and contrast but all at an affordable price.” Philips’ Roberts shares this view: “We don’t believe the technology will make a significant impact on the market in the near future. In fact, in the short to medium term, LED can offer all the advantages of OLED but at a lower cost.” The cost of large screen OLEDs coupled with their shorter working life, means it’s not ready for the consumer market, says Panasonic’s Dixon.

What’s hot in 2009

So what will be the biggest trends in the flat panel market in 2009? JVC’s Evans says: “Our research shows 32in will still remain the largest screen size in the market, the reason for this being price led.  However, we see the next area of growth being 19 to 22in. 42in has significantly come down in price and now people are making the jump from 32 to 42in.  Also, we have found that the adoption to HD [High Definition] has stimulated the sale of 42in Full HD 1920×1080 panels.” For Samsung, it’s their Internet@TV service and thinner sets using LED technology. Philips’ Roberts says: “The current economic climate will put pressure on volume levels but more significantly on value. Manufacturers and retailers will need to respond by increasing their focus on design, innovation and new technology, clearly differentiating premium product and moving consumers up and away from entry level sets.”

For Sharp, LED TVs will be the hot ticket items this Christmas, while Sony’s Brown thinks: “Switchover will prompt an increase in smaller screen sizes as people look to replace their second and third sets. And consumers are also looking for more networking solutions.” Toshiba’s Line says it’s the development of technologies that improve motion-handling performance and the implementation of LCD TVs using LED backlights. “At the lower end, we expect there to be big demand for small screen digital models, as the digital switchover continues,” he adds.

LG’s Mead says: “We’re most excited about our LF7700 LCD TVs with integrated Freesat, and the LH5000 incorporates TruMotion 200Hz. Our 42in LH7000 measures 39.8mm in depth.” Panasonic’s Dixon sees four big trends: “Slimmer sets. A desire for a more cinematic experience thanks to Blu-ray, hence our THX-certified TVs. HD, which is why we have launched sets with built-in Freesat tuners and SD Card slots for playing HD content from a camcorder or camera. Finally, the TV set will become the hub of home entertainment and that includes internet content from products such as our Viera Cast range.”

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