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Does the LCD TV Have a Future?

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For today’s TV viewer, the big, flat screen LCD TV is the industry standard. Every company makes one, they’re available in just about every size up to 90 inches, and they fit nicely in every room of the home. You see these TV screens just about everywhere you go – in hotel rooms, at supermarket checkout lines and in lobbies of office buildings. There’s just one problem – there are other technologies out there – such as OLED – that promise to make the LCD TV obsolete.

OLED vs. LED

For now, OLED is the big new technology that could revolutionize the way you watch TV. With OLED (which stands for organic light emitting diodes) screens, there’s a significant increase in picture quality because the TV screen can literally control the color of every single pixel on the screen. That’s not the case with the LCD TV, also known as the LED LCD TV, which relies on backlighting for the pixels. In short, with the OLED TV, you can control the brightness of the screen, pixel-by-pixel.

If you walk into a consumer electronic store like Best Buy, the difference between OLED and LED can appear to be very significant – there’s greater color contrast, the bright colors are brighter, the dark colors are darker, and it’s possible to get a true “black” on the screen. Also, OLED screens are slightly curved, and that means you can see more of the picture even if you are not facing directly in front of the TV. For picture quality purists, then, OLED screens are superior.

However, OLED TVs are still too expensive for the average consumer. They’re typically priced at $9,000 or higher. As a result, there are only two major companies – Samsung and LG – that make them. And they are only available in screen size of 55 inches and greater, making them also largely impractical for most people, who are quite comfortable with their 42 inch screens.

The rise of Ultra HD 4K

If picture quality is the primary concern of consumers, then makers of LCD TVs have the solution – Ultra HD 4K televisions. In some regards, “Ultra HD 4K” is more of a marketing innovation than a technological innovation. There’s not really a change in the technology that TV makers are using – they are simply adding more pixels to the screen. The previous HD standard was 1080p (1,080 pixels), and this new 4K standard is approximately 4,000 pixels (actually, 3,840 pixels, but who’s counting?).

At a glance, you can see that 4K offers nearly four times the number of pixels as the old HD screens. More pixels, better quality, right? But 4K is still just a resolution – it tells you nothing about other factors that impact the overall picture image, such as contrast, brightness, or black level.

But, for the average consumer, 4K is a real reason to go out and buy a new TV set. And here’s the thing – the only way to get 4K is with an LCD TV. So you can view 4K as a key way that LCD TV makers are going to hold off the OLED revolution. If everyone is too busy buying 4K TVs, they aren’t going to buy OLED TVs, and that means OLED manufacturers will never be able to create the type of scale needed to compete at a more reasonable price point.

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Whatever happened to the plasma TV?

The battle between OLED and 4K, in some ways, is reminiscent of the battle between LCD and Plasma. Again, plasma TVs represented a fundamentally new way of displaying a clearer, crisper picture. TV enthusiasts raved about the overall picture quality on their plasma TV screens.

But, somehow, plasma TVs never became profitable. One reason is that, at larger sizes, plasma TVs were just physically bigger than LCD TVs, and consumers didn’t want to absorb all the extra costs (e.g. it’s cheaper to ship an LCD TV than a plasma TV.) Panasonic, which was one of the biggest players in the plasma TV market, recently got out of the business. And only two companies – Samsung and LG – even make plasma TVs anymore, and both are phasing out of the business.

In short, the LCD TV met the challenge from plasma TV. It was simply the case that the high-end LCDs could equal or surpass the picture quality of the plasma TV at much lower price points.

Why LCD will continue to dominate

For now, it looks like the LCD TV will continue to dominate the market. Plasma TVs are going extinct and OLED TVs are still way too expensive. One big reason is that the LCD screen is what’s used in nearly every technological gadget, so there’s what economists refer to as “economies of scale” when it comes to creating LCD screens. Companies can literally create a giant glass of pixels and slice it up into smaller screens. They could take one 84-inch block of pixels and use it for one 84-inch screen, or they could create lots of smaller screens.

Take your smartphone and look carefully at the screen. There’s a 99 percent chance that it’s an LCD screen. The only major smartphone that uses an OLED screen is the Samsung Galaxy S7. (However, there are rumors that Apple will include an OLED screen on the next iPhone) So, if OLED is ever going to take off in a serious way, it will be because of Samsung, which also happens to be only one of two major manufacturers of OLED TV sets. But will Apple consumers ever admit that Samsung phones have better screens?

Ultimately, the best technology does not always win – the most profitable and the most marketable technology wins. As long as the high-end LCDs are cheaper than their high-end rivals, they are likely to remain dominant. At a certain point, it’s not just about price, it’s also about the price/value trade-off. If you don’t get a lot more value for each increase in price, consumers will determine that it’s just not worth it.

Moreover, there’s one other factor in favor of the LCD TV – since so many manufacturers make them, there’s continual innovation happening in this space. One new innovation people are talking about are “Quantum Dots” to improve the LCD picture quality. Others are already talking up the promise of 8K (8,000 pixels!) TV screens that will make the 4K TV screens look like dinosaurs. And still others are experimenting with the actual technology that influences picture quality, such as High Dynamic Range (HDR, for brighter brights and darker darks) and new ways for “outdoor televisions” to display a quality picture despite the glare from the sun. There’s even talk of bendable or flexible displays – imagine being able to “unroll” or “unfold” a TV screen.

The future, though, is always uncertain. At some point, technologies from the gaming world – such as virtual reality, holograms or augmented reality – could spill over into the TV space, fundamentally changing the way we think about the TV in the living room. But until that happens, the LCD TV looks like it has a future.

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