CEATEC Japan Day 2: Very, very thin TVs

From our Japan correspondent John Boyd:

It was Sony Corp. that got the ultra-thin television bandwagon rollingâ''something very much of a theme at this yearâ''s CEATEC. This happened when it unveiled an 11-inch prototype organic light emitting diode (OLED) TV with a depth of just 3 mm last January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and said that it would launch a commercial model later this year. Despite a Samsung Electronics executive publicly voicing skepticism this would actually come to pass, Sony chose CEATEC Japan to announce a launch date of 1 December, just about in time for the holiday buying season. But carrying a price tag of Y200 000 (US $1,750) as it does, even Sony is under no illusion that hordes of consumers will be forming lines to snap up this elegant little beauty. So the company is geared up to produce just 2000 units monthly. As a Sony staffer at CEATEC put it, â''This is a product for Sony lovers and geeks who want to be the first to own the latest gadgets.â''

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Well, the XEL-1 is the worldâ''s first OLED TV to ship, even though a number of competing display manufacturers, including Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, and Seiko Epson Corp. have demonstrated prototype OLED TVs of their own during the past several years. Alas, all have failed to make it to market because of the short lifetime of the actual organic materials that emit light when a current is passed through them, production issues, high costs compared to LCD and plasma TV competitors, or some combination of those problems.

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So the XEL-1, despite its small size, can be considered a feather in Sonyâ''s rather denuded cap of late and it makes up somewhat for missing the LCD TV boat. In fact, Sony was metaphorically drowning just a few years ago and required Samsung Electronics to throw it a life belt by agreeing to form the S-LCD panel manufacturing joint venture. The output from that collabration has allowed Sony to reassert its prowessâ''an impressively fast turnaroundâ''in television manufacturing with its Bravia brand.

Sony is claiming a lifetime of 30 000 hours for the XEL-1, or a viewing time of 8 hours a day for 10 years. Other specs include an impressive contrast ratio of greater than 1 000 000: 1, 8-bit RGB color and a resolution of 960 x 540 pixels or QHD (quarter high definition). Power consumption is a low 45 watts and because the display is self-emissive, you can expect to watch fast action such as sports games and movie car chases without the blurring that can afflict LCD TVs.

Meanwhile, Sharp Corp., the company that launched the LCD TV boat around the turn of the millennium, has been doing its own product shrinking. At CEATEC it made much of a prototype 52-inch LCD TV it first revealed in August. The LCD module (LCD panel, backlight unit, and bezel) section measures just 20 mm at its thinnest point and 29 mm at its thickestâ''about one-quarter the thickness of a standard LCD TV module this large.

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While keeping deliberately vague on its manufacturing methods, Sharp does say it has achieved these remarkable dimensions by employing new materials, components, and designs. A Sharp official said the prototype consumes about half the power of a conventional LCD TV of the same size and just one quarter that of a plasma TV of similar size. Still, it is a prototype and Sharp says the product wonâ''t be on the market until 2010. By that time, the company also aims to shave a few kilos off the 25 kg weight of the current product.

Beating Sharp to the market by miles if not in millimeters is Victor Company of Japan Ltd., better known as JVC. It exhibited a 42-inch LCD TV with module thickness of 20 mm overall. JVC says it will start shipping its product, first to the European market, in spring next year. The TV seemingly floats in the air, mounted as it is on a central stand, somewhat similar to Apple Inc.â''s iMac desktop computer, though obviously on a grander scale. Despite the early shipping date, JVC is refusing to give out any specs except to say the prototype is full high definition.

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Hitachi Ltd. too has caught the thinness bug and it is demonstrating a 32-inch LCD TV with module thickness of just 19 millimeters. It also goes one better than JVC in that it is revealing absolutely nothing else about the prototype. Amazing, and that is literally all that can be said.

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So the promise of large thin TVs light enough to hang on the wall is about to be fulfilled. All in all, judging by the CEATEC displays, Iâ''d say itâ''s been worth the wait.

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