The Dimming Future of AMOLED

It is the job of engineers to push the envelope and design the products of the future, not the products of today. When the first Compact Disc players were on the drawing board, 780-nm lasers were extremely expensive, but engineers anticipated that low-cost versions would soon become available. They bet right: cheap laser modules were perfected just before the CD format’s launch.

Sometimes engineers push a little too hard. Their designs prove to be unexpectedly difficult or expensive to commercialize. Things bog down. Rival technology appears. Companies hedge their bets. It now appears that AMOLED TVs are suffering this fate. Whether it is a fatal blow or a temporary setback remains to be seen. Either way, AMOLED TVs have issues.

Don’t get me wrong. An AMOLED TV is truly a thing of beauty. The screen is unbelievably thin and contrast and black level are superb. Small-size AMOLED displays are widely used in smart phones. But large AMOLED screens (say, 55 inches) are proving to be difficult to manufacture; yield is said to be well below 30%. Moreover, panel life may be relatively short and reliability might be iffy; that makes them tough to warranty. Both of those factors drive up the cost of AMOLED.

Meanwhile, prices on big LCD screens are irresistibly low. That low price makes AMOLED relatively less attractive to consumers; an LCD panel isn’t nearly as good as AMOLED, but with the price difference, it’s good enough for most people. The raw sex appeal of AMOLED might not be enough of an advantage.

And then there’s Ultra HD TV (otherwise known as 4K x 2K). This technology (essentially pushing existing LCD to a higher res) is getting lots of buzz. The picture quality is superb, and while its cost is now similarly as high as AMOLED, the expectation is that because its manufacture uses an upscaling of existing methods, 4k costs will fall faster than AMOLED costs.

We can debate AMOLED vs. 4K all day long. But according to some analysts, two leading proponents, Samsung and LG, have decided to scale back their manufacturing plans for big AMOLED displays. Instead, they are using that capital to expand 4K capacity. Apparently 4K, not AMOLED, is the Next Big Thing. Will 4K serve as a transitional technology until large AMOLED (and perhaps 4K AMOLED) is ready for prime time? Or is large AMOLED a bridge too far, an ambitious technology that has forever lost its window of opportunity?

AMOLED TV demos occupied places of honor in the booths at the 2012 CES. We’ll soon see the demos at the 2013 CES; we’ll let you know if AMOLED TVs are still corporate darlings, or if they’ve been quietly moved a little off to the side. . .