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Ultra-high resolution laptop, tablet screens to revive display biz

IGZO's 'retina screen' revival

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Market success is a product of two factors: supply and demand. Only when both are growing and, at the same time, closely matched will a market perform well.

The production of flat-panel displays for everything from tablets to televisions has been suffering from a period in which supply has far outstripped demand. Together, screen makers have been losing money on panels for all the past six quarters - a year and a half - as economic downturn has made punters unwilling to buy big-ticket items like new, large tellies.

At the same time, production capacity has never been higher. Competition is consequently at a peak, and that has driven down prices beyond the point where sales can cover the cost of production.

In an attempt to curb these losses, panel makers have largely put expansion plans on hold and are battening down the hatches for a tough 2012. Sales are still expected to plummet 63 per cent compared to 2011's tally, NPD DisplaySearch, a market watcher, reckons.

However, the signs are that 2013 will be better, and it's largely down to IGZO and a new breed of ultra-high resolution display.

IGZO stands for Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide, and it is a semiconducting material that is now being used to build transparent thin-film transistors, the core component of today's LCD and OLED screens.

IGZO's advantage over the amorphous silicon found in most existing TFTs and many of those from which new screens are still being produced is greater electron mobility. IGZO TFTs are up to 40 per cent more efficient than amorphous silicon transistors. The upshot: IGZO screens can contain smaller pixels that are able change their state more quickly than those made from amorphous silicon can.

Smaller pixels means more pixels can be crammed into a given area, so IGZO has become the foundation for ultra-high resolution screens of the kind expected to be sported by Apple's eagerly anticipated 2048 x 1536 iPad 3.

Smaller pixels also mean that more light can pass through them, so backlights need not be so bright. That makes them less power hungry. Take two ten-inch screens, one made of IGZO TFTs and the other amorphous silicon and, says Sharp, which developed IGZO, the former requires 33 per cent less power to produce an image of comparable brightness.

Best of all, from a production perspective, it's not so very hard to convert an LCD line to punch out IGZO panels. This is starting to happen.

Sharp tweaked one of its 8G LCD production lines, Kameyama 2, in Japan, for IGZO during 2011 and began punching out IGZO panels during the year's final quarter. The lines produce large panels which are then cut down into smaller, device-sized screens. The more of the smaller panels that work when they're cut out, the higher the yield and the cheaper the screen.

Sharp said earlier this month that it's focusing specifically on tablets, which would seem tactic confirmation it is indeed producing some in not all of the 2048 x 1536 screens Apple is using in its new tablet. But if Sharp isn't making iPad 3 screens, it will certainly be making ultra-high resolution panels for rival products.

Sharp's roadmap calls for the roll-out of ultra-high resolution panels for notebook PCs during Q2. Monitor-sized panels will follow.

TVs may not take advantage of the technology for some time, not least because the world's broadcasters and content delivery technologies have yet to fully embrace successor standards to 1080p HD - a resolution of just 1920 x 1080, well able to be delivered with cheap, old-style amorphous silicon LCDs.

Hence the pitch for IT applications, where higher resolutions can be supported without bringing the entire ecosystem on board simultaneously.

Quite apart from the talk of a "retina display" iPad - a screen with pixels too small to be clearly distinguished one from the other by the human eye - Apple has been laying the groundwork in Mac OS X for resolution independent graphics, the better to cope with the ultra-high resolution panels technologies like IGZO make possible.

And if Apple embraces these screens, so will its rivals, and that, DisplaySearch believes, will drive up demand, slowly through 2012 but aggressively from 2013 onwards. Coupled with tight supply - in comparison with old LCD technologies - that will mean better margins for panel producers. ®

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