A virtual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is a very different experience from the usual Las Vegas madness. At the 2020 event, I walked more than 25 miles, visited dozens of booths and private suites, and had close to twenty face to face meetings with display companies, industry insiders and clients. This year, I spent about 16 hours at my desk, staring at corporate and product introduction videos. I am eager to go back to the live event format, but I must admit that some companies did a good job at recreating some of the excitement of the show. As the dust settles, some interesting trends are emerging. This first review focuses on large displays. My eminent colleague Zine Bouhamri will follow shortly with a review of anything related to Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) and microdisplays.
QUANTUM DOTS KEEP PROPAGATING AND 2021 IS THE YEAR OF MINILEDS
As anticipated in a previous article last summer and in our “Next Generation TV Panel Technology and Market Trends 2020” report, 2021 is the year of miniLEDs. With the notable exception of Sony, all leading TV brands are bringing miniLED backlights to their 2021 flagship LCD models.
LG’s “QNED” LCD TVs are among the most exciting miniLED products showed this year. LG is taking ownership of the QNED acronym that until now was standing for Samsung’s nanorod LED technology, Quantum Nano-rod Emitting Diodes. Analysts must now find a new acronym for that microLED technology and get used to LG’s QNEDs, in which the “Q” stands for Quantum dots and the “N” for Nanocell.
 See detailed analysis in our “Next Generation TV Panel Technology and Market Trends 2020” report.
Let’s pause here for a minute. Until now, LG had never used quantum dots (QDs) in its LCD TVs, relying instead on its nanocell, which is essentially an additional color filter to deliver wider color gamut. This year it is therefore combining both technologies. As LG hasn’t yet disclosed actual color gamut values, we are eager to get this information and look at the TV’s emission spectrum to figure out how much better it is than QDs alone. In any case however, QD proponents can rejoice that LG is finally jumping on the bandwagon alongside Samsung, TCL, Hisense, Konka and Skyworth. The miniLED backlight’s specifications look impressive as well, with up to 30,000 LED chips and 2,500 dimming zones in the 86” model. There is no word however regarding whether the substrate and driving scheme is printed circuit board (PCB) or glass, Thin Film Transistor (TFT) or minidriver integrated circuits (ICs), passive or active matrix. We discussed the challenges related to miniLED assembly a few months ago with Rohinni.
Samsung is also implementing miniLED backlights into its top quantum dot LCD QLED series. The sets are branded Neo QLED. The company however did not share much regarding the number of dimming zones and LED chips. All that was said is that their miniLEDs are “1/40th the height of standard LEDs” and that a lot of effort was made in optical technologies to eliminate the thick lenses of traditional Full Array Local Dimming (FALD) backlights
At CES 2020 TCL arguably pioneered the field of miniLEDs for TVs with its Vidrian active-matrix backlight. However, the technology did not make it to market in 2020. Should we blame Covid-19, or the cost of this approach? Vidrian uses an oxide TFT backplane to host and drive the miniLEDs. In 2021, TCL is introducing OD Zero miniLED backlights. This time it uses a more traditional PCB. However, the main selling point of the new architecture is the claim that it essentially eliminates the gap between the LED chips and the diffuser plate. This gap is referred to as the optical distance (OD). In practice, OD Zero makes the set 5 mm thinner than the X10 from late 2019 and 12 mm thinner than the X950. The LED chips are 151 µm in size.
Reducing panel thickness is key for premium LCD TVs to compete with OLED TVs. It is therefore not surprising that up the value chain LED and backlight technology suppliers Lumens and Seoul Semiconductor both touted FALD technologies aimed at reducing the optical distance.
BOE also launched 65” and 75” panels with miniLED on glass backlights. BOE’s is developing miniLED via its Pixey joint venture with Rohinni (which we interviewed recently). The Boise company just doubled the speed of its miniLED transfer head.
OLED GETS BRIGHTER AND PUSHES INTO MID-RANGE SEGMENTS
Brightness is often perceived as a weakness of OLED TVs. Flagship LCD TVs can push peak brightness above 2000 nits in a 10% window. OLED TVs are typically limited to 700-800 Nits. This year, LG announced a new generation of OLED panels, branded OLED Evo, that are up to 20% brighter. The improvement stems from an OLED structure with additional layers and better blue and red materials, possibly with narrower emission to reduce color filter losses. In 2020, Panasonic introduced brighter OLED TVs. To achieve this using the standard panels provided by LG Display, the only supplier of OLED TV panels, they used a proprietary cooling system that means the OLEDs can be driven harder while limiting detrimental effects to the organic material’s lifetime. This year’s Sony A90J uses a similar trick with a large aluminum sheet laminated to the panel. For now, LG Display’s new generation brighter panel seems exclusive to LG Electronic’s flagship models. We’ll see if they propagate into the company’s mid-range OLEDs and other brands in 2022.
At the other end of the price spectrum, LG is introducing an “A-series” for the first time. This is a range of more affordable OLED TVs that drop HDMI 2.1 and use 60 Hz panels. LG Display will also add more panel sizes. After adding 48” to its existing range of 55”, 65”, 77” and 88” panels in 2020, 42” and 83” should appear later in 2021.
THE OLED VS LCD BATTLE
When OLED TVs became available in 2014, the days of LCDs in premium TV segments seemed to be numbered. But LCD has since improved steadily, with better, larger panels, higher resolution, quantum dots, FALD, and now miniLEDs or dual cells. At the same time, LCD panel costs have decreased thanks to fab generations 8.5, 8.6 and 10.5, economies of scale, and the rise of Chinese makers with highly competitive cost positions. As a result, the performance gap between LCD and OLED has shrunk, while white OLED (WOLED) cost reductions have been insufficient to reduce the cost gap with LCDs.
The reduction in the performance gap has allowed TV makers to test elasticity and optimize the price of their flagship LCDs. The price is as high as possible to maximize margins while staying below OLED models in order to dominate the highly profitable premium TV market.
Some TV buyers want the best performance at almost any price but for most, price elasticity is limited. Consumers set a budget and buy the best/largest TV that they can get for that money. Why get the 65” OLED if the 75” LCD is the same price and the gap in performance is not that striking?
After years of touting OLED as the only credible premium TV technology, LG realized it was backing itself into a corner and leaving a lot of LCD money on the table. With its 2021 QNED line of miniLED and quantum dot supercharged LCD TV, LG is saying that maybe LCD can also deliver good picture quality, something that Samsung has been very successful at communicating. LG’s QNED is the company’s attempt to go head-to-head against Samsung’s Neo QLED and re-capture parts of the highly profitable –over-$1500 LCD TV market dominated by Samsung, TCL and others.
In the meantime, by improving OLED brightness in 2021, LG is attempting to maintain a performance gap over LCD. By expanding its offering to smaller screens and introducing its A-Series, it is trying to bridge the cost gap and get OLED into mid-range models. LG shipped 4.5 million OLED TVs in 2020 and plans 7 to 8 million in 2021.
The strategy makes some sense but, LG’s marketing teams will deserve a pay raise if they manage to communicate all these messages to consumers without confusing them.
LG also had transparent OLEDs all over its virtual booth. I still fail to see the appeal for the average consumer and audio-video enthusiast since the perfect, inky blacks that are the appeal of OLED can’t be reproduced on a transparent panel.
NO QD-OLED IN SIGHT
LG is not the only company struggling to fine tune its message regarding LCD vs OLED. Samsung Display is planning to invest more than $8 billion to set up it QD-OLED panel manufacturing lines. Ramp up is expected in the first half of 2021. Samsung Electronic has been clear that, for now, miniLED is its focus and it is not interested in QD-OLED. Sony is considering the technology but has not showed anything to the public. Of course, this does not mean QD-OLED is dead on arrival. In a real life CES, QD-OLED prototypes would likely have appeared behind closed doors. Maybe we will see more at the IFA show in Berlin, Germany. TCL is still working on QD-OLED TVs, but the commercialization it had initially planned for late 2021 will likely not occur until 2022.
MICROLEDS ARE MAKING BABY STEPS INTO COMMERCIAL PRODUCTS
Samsung showed its 110” microLED TVs. The product was already announced at a separate event a month prior and should be available in spring for a hefty price, probably around $150,000. At CES, Samsung promised to introduce additional 88” and 99” models later in the year. The TV is constituted of individual modules stitched together to form a larger display. However, unlike the professional miniLED-based “The Wall” displays, those real microLED TVs come pre-assembled and don’t require professional installers. You are probably still going to need a couple of friends to take it out of the box and lift it up to its wall mount. The modules are pre-aligned in factory. This likely involves some ingenious mechanisms. Samsung indicate that if the modules were to shift over time, the customers will be able to re-align the modules themselves with a simple screwdriver. Those who regularly spend hours trying to align cabinet doors on assemble-yourself furniture will be eager to see how this works.
At the opposite end of the size spectrum, Vuzix showed its first AR glasses based on microLED microdisplays, a product first announced last September. This will be discussed in a separate article.
Overall, those first steps toward commercial products are encouraging for microLEDs. This will not move the needle for the display industry in the short term though. Another 20x reduction in cost is needed for a chance to compete in the TV market. There are credible yet still challenging paths to get there, as discussed in our microLED report. Smartwatches are the most likely candidate for a big splash in the consumer market, especially if Apple makes the plunge in 2023.
Elsewhere LG showed its Magnit modular displays. Although advertised as microLED, these are more traditional PCB-based chip on board direct view LED displays geared toward professional environments. LG however hinted at the fact that it is preparing the technology to evolve toward the home, which could earn the marketing team another pay raise.
Sony introduced two new versions of its Crystaled microLED videowall with a strong emphases on video and movie production applications.
Although I couldn’t find the information on the CES websites. BOE says it won a display application award for its active matrix microLED technology.
Besides those brand names, technology providers Playnitride, Lumens and Seoul Viosys also presented their microLED technologies.
IS 8K GOING MAINSTREAM?
Most brands now have 8K flagship, premium models. TCL might undercut them. For 2021, its 6-Series of mid-range TVs will all be 8K! Yes, not a single 4K model in the series. Prices have not been announced yet, but if TCL remains faithful to its 6-Series spirit and pricing, which have always been priced below $1,000, this could be a tipping point for 8K. TCL, with its vertically integrated panel supply from CSOT and two Gen 10.5 fabs, is uniquely positioned to drive the price war on 8K and 65”/75” panels.
GAMING IS NOW A MAJOR SELLING POINT
In 2020, OLED was pretty much the only game in town for serious players. This year, flagship models across most brands all offer gaming modes, Variable Refresh Rates (VRR), HDMI 2.1 for the next generation of consoles, low latency modes, high frame rates, with Innolux showing a 65” panel that goes up to 240 Hz, and support for G-Sync and Free Sync.
Samsung’s flagship TVs have G-Sync and Freesync Premium Pro compatibility and 12 bit colors with 4096 level of grey. They also offer wide 21:9 or even 32×9 aspect ratio enjoyed by gamers. LG has a 48” TV that bends to a radius of 1 m to offer more immersive gaming.
WHAT ELSE? LASER TVS, ROLLABLE PHONE REFLECTIVE DISPLAYS, OLED MONITORS AND LAPTOPS
CES is never a major event for smartphones. It was however interesting to see that after Oppo’s first demo a few months ago, both TCL and LG showed rollable phones. The TCL model extends from 6.7” to 7.8” with a tap of a finger. LG claims that its rollable phone will be commercially available in 2021 and bring an interesting alternative to the flurry of foldable phones already introduced by the likes of Samsung, Huawei, Motorola and Royole. Off course, this is now to be regarded in the light of the more recent announcement that LG might exit the smartphone business altogether.
On the notebook front, Samsung showed a narrow bezel OLED laptop with an under-display camera, although the product likely won’t be available in 2021. The company also plans to commercialize over ten new OLED notebooks this year. Asus, Lenovo and others are also unveiling more 13” and 14” OLED notebooks.
On the monitor front, the most noticeable news is LG’s 4K Ultrafine 31.5” professional OLED monitor that will feature panels made by JOLED in its new Nomi G5.5 inkjet printed OLED fab.
E-Ink and other reflective displays are also making their ways in more applications. TCL introduced its first tablet based on a color reflective display technology.
Finally, Hisense chose to spend most of its keynote address on its Laser TVs. Its 2021 models adopt a full RGB laser source, enabling high brightness and stunning color gamut with more than 96% of DCI P3 coverage. Laser TVs are essentially short throw projectors bundled with specially designed screens that reject ambient light. The product category is highly popular in China and picking up in the US and Europe.
There was no groundbreaking announcement in the display world. Not being able to see and touch the products make it hard to experience any “wow factor”. Nevertheless, piecing together all product announcements and technology updates show that the battle between LCD and OLED is far from over and that there is never a dull moment in the display industry. In 2021, we will keep a close eye on miniLED products, look at the first commercial microLED devices and watch how Chinese companies navigate the political and trade war headwinds to keep expanding. All that while waiting for our COVID-19 vaccines of course, and the green light to get back on the plane.
About the author
Eric Virey, PhD. serves as a Principal Display Market and Technologies Analyst within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Eric is a daily contributor to the development of the Display activity at Yole, with a large collection of market and technology reports on display technologies, Quantum Dots, MicroLEDs, TFT backplanes as well as multiple custom consulting projects: business strategy, identification of investments or acquisition targets, due diligences (buy/sell side), market and technology analysis, cost modelling, technology scouting, etc.
Eric has spoken in more than 50 industry conferences worldwide over the last 10 years. He has been interviewed and quoted by leading media over the world including: The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, Bloomberg, Financial Review, Forbes, Technology Review, etc. He is also a regular contributor to various display industry media and organizations.
Previously Eric has held various R&D, engineering, manufacturing and business development positions with Fortune 500 Company Saint-Gobain in France and the United States.
Eric Virey holds a PhD in Optoelectronics from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble. He is currently based in Portland, OR.
China has won the LCD war. Now, LG, Samsung and others are readying complex and expensive technology investments to fight the battle for the next generation of TVs.
MicroLED equipment and manufacturing infrastructure: a cornerstone for microLED and a key strategic lever for Apple and Samsung to disrupt the industry.
- MicroLED Displays – Intellectual Property Status & Landscape 2020
- Displays and Optics for AR & VR 2020
- Microdisplays – Market, Industry and Technology Trends 2020