IFA Ends with OLED TV Questions

IFA 2014 – IFA  has ended and that completes a week of coverage for me. Most of my time was spent looking at and talking about TVs. So what are the lessons from the show?

First, it’s often instructive to look at what we didn’t see. OLED TV has been one of the big topics of recent years, but the biggest player in the TV world in Europe, Samsung, only had a very small display of OLED TVs, and only in the corner of their massive booth. LG is shipping some OLED TV sets at very high prices. All of the other major TV brands showed OLED TVs, but none are shipping them. So what is happening?

First, OLEDs are ridiculously difficult to make. OLEDs need four or five times more transistors than LCDs (LCDs for TVs have one transistor for each red, green and blue dot, OLEDs have as many as five). That means an UltraHD OLED TV has around 40 million transistors – around eight times the number of Intel’s original Pentium chip!

Furthermore, those transistors have to be made of very high grade materials. On an LCD, the transistor doesn’t have to carry the energy for the image, just control a switch in front of the backlight, so can be low quality. On an OLED, all the energy for the image has to go through the transistor cluster, so it has to be much higher quality. Another factor is that LCD was massively successful in driving costs down to allow the replacement of CRTs in the TV market, partly because so much of the technology was shared. “Anybody” can build an LCD factory that could be quite competitive – if you have $3 billion to spare!

Because so much information, materials and equipment was shared between different LCD makers (although each has some “special sauce”), there was no way to make profits. Therefore, the OLED makers decided not to share. LG and Samsung have used completely different technologies to create OLEDs in transistors, materials and production methods. There is absolutely no sharing. Equipment makers have to develop “one offs” and despite the fantastic engineers and resources that these companies have, they have struggled to make large OLEDs reliably.
LG has taken a simpler course than Samsung, and is said to be getting reasonable “yield” levels – in other words they are throwing away, perhaps, only 20% to 30% as scrap. Samsung has been more technically ambitious and is a long way from this level for large OLEDs (although it has small ones under control), so is effectively dropping out of the market for now.
There has long been a question of whether a single company can develop a display technology. Canon failed with SED and FLCD, Epson and Philips with TFD LCDs, Philips with CRPs, Sony with FEDs etc etc. The last display technology to be successfully developed by a single company is probably TI’s DLP technology and that was more than 20 years ago, when TFT LCDs were not yet commercially available.
It was obvious years ago that Sony was trying to develop “the next Trinitron” with a proprietary display technology and at a press event in Japan, I asked the president of Sony if he thought it was possible to do it alone? He answered a completely different question (like a skilled politician). I assumed that he hadn’t understood the question, but afterwards he said to me, privately, “Good question!”.
So how did so many companies have OLED TV samples at IFA? Simple – they have bought a few sample panels from LG and put them in a set. However, perhaps only a few, if any, will go into production.
Meanwhile, I saw LCDs that could match the contrast of OLED, but offer three or four times the brightness. They will look great in TV stores. I have seen LCDs that have the same great colour performance as OLED, but cost only a third of the price. So tough days are still ahead for OLED in TVs and it may be that it never gets beyond a niche. Is OLED like Sony’s Trinitron was in the days of CRTs – i.e. the choice of the specialist and the rich, but not for the masses?
OLEDs in mobile devices are another matter, but I have run out of space, so maybe that is a topic for next year’s IFA? – Bob Raikes