A Plea for Clarity


by Stephen Atwood 

It's hard to believe the year is almost over and soon the holidays will be upon us. Next month, all the analysts will be focusing on the early forecasts of retail sales and the display world will be buzzing with predictions about the 2010 business outlook. I love this season because it gives me an excuse to do "research" at all the local electronics stores and investigate all the latest gadgets. It remains fascinating to me how much innovation is ongoing and how many new ideas continue to flourish in the consumer-electronics space. However, with all the innovation and new technology also comes the potential for confusion. How do consumers compare competing products and how can they come to appreciate the benefits of each? I know this is not a new subject; in fact, I have written about it before, but it always seems to resurface around this time of year. I think we have all seen that manufacturers, in a never-ending effort to deliver the most appealing message to consumers, often resort to understandably simplistic but ultimately confusing branding or labeling.

This year the latest somewhat surprising product labeling is the trend of calling LCD HDTVs with LED backlights "LED TVs." No less than a half dozen of these types of TVs can be found on major electronic suppliers' Web sites and only when you read a more detailed description of the product will you appreciate that it is LC technology with LED backlighting. I doubt most consumers will investigate the fine print, so the effect is basically to create another virtual product category in their minds. Whether this is a serious problem probably depends on your perspective. Certainly, LCD TVs with LED backlights have numerous performance advantages but they also still have some of the same properties as conventional LCD TVs. Changing the name does not change the technology. Of course, when you look at the issue from the manufacturer's point of view, it's clearly a challenge to create a four-word description of the new TVs that is succinct but still technically accurate. More than four words in a product name, and it runs off the shelf label and maybe past the attention span of a non-technical consumer. Terms like "Plasma TV," "LCD HDTV," "Dynamic Contrast LCD TV," etc., are clear and concise. "LED-Backlit Wide-Color-Gamut LCD HDTV" is clearly over the limit. The issue gets more confusing when we look forward to the coming generation of organic LED (OLED) TV products entering the marketplace. When this happens, I fear significant confusion could prevail for consumers trying to understand the distinction between OLED and LED, which is, in fact, significantly greater than the one letter in the name.

A similar issue involves the various specifications manufacturers regularly quote as headline differentiating features. Some of these claims are difficult to appreciate in context and often have value only for grasping headlines. Contrast ratio is one of these cases. The "contrast ratio" stated on data sheets and store TV displays is almost universally the dark ambient contrast; i.e., it does not include any of the effects of ambient room lighting on the image. Clearly, a display with higher intrinsic contrast will produce a wider range of luminance levels, but that may have little bearing on how good the picture looks in the user's actual home environment. Only a fair and balanced specification on ambient reflectivity can indicate this. Unfortunately, and once again in fairness to the manufacturers, in the absence of an accepted standard, trying to educate consumers on the interaction between reflectivity, ambient, and effective contrast would be a challenge. So, therefore, the question is: what does the consumer really need to know to make a fair and balanced purchasing decision? I think it depends on the degree of technical understanding the consumer has and how critical the decision is to achieving a good ownership experience. What does that mean? It means that a $300 TV does not come with the same burden of expectation that a $3000 TV does, and a person who buys a $3000 TV is a lot more likely to want to understand and appreciate the performance they are buying. That's where I think manufacturers are still doing a disservice to the industry. When manufacturers do not make the effort to educate consumers, retailers pick up the slack, and in some cases we know they can do it very poorly. I would rather see more effort from manufacturers going into improving product descriptions and specifications that are more relevant to consumers than contrast in the dark and color gamuts compared to NTSC. Let me know if you agree or disagree by writing to ID magazine at press@sid.org with your opinions.

I'm very pleased this month to welcome as our guest editor Professor Shin-Tson Wu from the University of Central Florida. Dr. Wu has arranged two very significant and instructive Frontline Technology articles covering the latest advances in the research of the blue-phase LC mode and the latest ideas on creating LCDs utilizing the Kerr effect. You can read more about both of these in Dr. Wu's guest editorial.

"Adaptive Backlight Dimming for LCD Systems" is the title of this month's Making Displays Work for You feature and you will be hard pressed to find a better survey of the state of the art in backlights than this article by authors Pierre de Greef, Hendriek Groot Hulze, and Jurgen Hoppenbrouwers from NXP, Inc.

Our monthly look at the Display Marketplace is brought to us by iSupply Senior Director of LCD Research Sweta Dash, who describes a fairly optimistic picture for unit growth of panel shipments worldwide but points out how pricing has slipped and warns of a growing gap between unit and revenue growth. Another very interesting revelation for me is the amount of investment in Gen 7+ LCD fabs in mainland China by LG, Samsung, and others. Some of this is apparently motivated by the China domestic marketplace and some may be motivated by protectionist trade practices in China, which I sincerely hope do not escalate.

Miniature laptops nicknamed "netbooks" are all the rage this season. I have purchased one myself and find it very useful. Managing Editor Jenny Donelan surveys the technology behind netbooks and explains what this new application could mean to display makers. Netbooks may not have created a new category for displays, but they have established 7–10-in. wide-format LED-backlit LCDs in an application with a lot more demand than personal video players.

Thank you once again for reading ID magazine and we look forward to your comments and feedback. •