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4K vs OLED: and the winner is...

South Korea, Japan - fight, fight, fight

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How will television makers persuade punters to buy a new set now we all - well, most of us - have 1080p sets with internet access? We’ve already seen that 3D isn’t going to do it, but now two new alternative upgrade-driving technology are emerging - OLED and 4K - and they two are re-establishing an old battle line between manufacturers.

On one side, we have the South Koreans: LG and Samsung. Both are pursuing OLED screen technology, pitching its superior picture quality and scope for even thinner panels as the logical next step for Full HD sets.

The alternative ara the 4K TVs, sets with four times the pixel count of a 1920 x 1080 screen: 3840 x 2160, conveniently rounded to 4K x 2K. The main proponents of this “ultra-definition” are the Japanese telly makers who’ve been suffering for years at the hands of the Koreans, who have proved themselves able to make TVs more cheaply.

They see 4K as a way of stealing a march on their rivals who are having a job turning OLED into a solid mass-market proposition. OLED panels are not cheap to make, but then neither are 4K LCDs, though LCD production is mature. On the other hand, there is a mass of 1080p content available but almost no 4K material. The 4K supporters counter that by saying they can do upscaling and deliver a better experience.

There’s some truth in that because the 4K set’s higher pixel density makes it harder for the eye to detect individual pixels, something that you can see on a large 1080p set if you sit too close. Ideal distance increases proportionally with the screen size: the bigger the TV, the further away you need to sit to avoid spotting the pixels.

Meanwhile, the two main OLED backers are busily accusing each other of pinching their intellectual property, and that may yet delay the technology further. Both LG and Samsung showed off 55in OLED TVs in January 2012, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. They’ve demo’d them again since, in Asia and at least twice in Europe, most recently at the IFA consumer electronics expo in Berlin. But neither seems any closer to shipping product.

Indeed, while it was being suggested in January that we’d see a global rollout before the year is out, of late their ambitions have shrunk to a South Korean launch first, possibly early next year.

The Japanese vendors, meanwhile, reckon they will have large 4K LCD TVs out worldwide by December. The problems is that they are focusing on incredibly expensive very large format - 84in - sets at first.

So which technology is likely to win? Ask market watcher IHS iSuppli and it will tell you 4K shipments will only amount to around 0.8 per cent of the global LCD TV market through 2017, at which point, it reckons, some 2.1m 4K TVs will ship. “Neither consumers nor television brands will have the interest required to make the 4K LCD TV market successful,” the researcher reckons.

The reasoning is that the focus on very large sets taps into such a tiny segment of the telly market: “The market for super-sized, 60in and larger sets is very small — at only about 1.5 per cent of total television shipments in 2012.”

Figures from NPD DisplaySearch, another market watcher, put the shipments of 55in and up LCDs at six per cent of all the LCD panels that shipped in August 2012. Even that six per cent is dwarfed by the 29-32in panels (42 per cent) and 40-42in screens (20 per cent). If regular 60in-plus LCDs amount command just a few percentage points of market share, how much smaller will be larger sets still that are an order of magnitude more expensive?

Not that OLED is going to fare any better. Behind closed doors, South Korean companies apparently admit it’ll be two years or more before OLED panel production yields will support mass-market volumes and prices.

That will encourage them to turn to 4K sets as an interim offering - just as their Japanese rivals have OLED sets, and screens based on other technologies, such as Sony’s Crystal LED, in the labs awaiting the maturation of the production process - but will face the same difficulties persuading anyone but corporations and the über-rich to buy a $10,000-25,000 TV.

Can they drive the price down? The two-year lag in the development of an economic OLED screen gives the room to push 4K out to smaller sizes - at much lower prices. DisplaySearch estimates a 50in 4K panel costs just $800 to make, twice the price of a 50in 1080p panel, but still a lot less than the $5000 it costs to punch out an 84in 4K screen.

Pitch 50in 4K sets as presenting Full HD the way it was meant to be seen - "retina" tellies, anyone? - and they may just have a compelling sales proposition on their hands. ®

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