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What's Cookin' with Displays?
Posted on Wednesday, August 18, 2021
What's Cookin' with Displays?

Aug. 18, 2021 - It should be mentioned up front that the display industry is primarily driven by consumer applications - televisions, smartphones, computers, and tablets are the Big Four, with televisions leading the way. Some interesting facts from 2020: Three out of every four television purchases were for less than $400, with industry analyst Stephen Baker of NPD setting the dividing line between everyday and “premium” TV models at $700.

These prices in turn shape the retail prices of commercial displays for the pro AV market. After all, it’s the same LCD “glass,” coming out of fabs in Korea, Taiwan, and China, that winds up in both a 55-inch display over the counter at your local McDonald’s and in an Ultra HDTV in your living room! And TV shipments have picked up in the 1st quarter of 2021 after a crazy 2020: Demand for televisions soared as people stuck at home were desperate for entertainment and began subscribing to multiple streaming services.

That spike in demand caused two of the largest LCD panel manufacturers - Samsung and LG Display - to temporarily shelve plans to phase out barely-profitable LCD production by the end of this year. Even more curious; the demand for televisions caused both wholesale panel prices and finished television prices to increase to their highest levels since 2018, reversing a years-long race to the bottom. Display panels for television constitute over 80% of the total area (180 million m2) of all display panels produced by the industry!

Manufacturers continue to make major investments in organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology for televisions and mobile electronics. And investments in display fabs are up, responding to demand. While televisions constitute the largest volume of display shipments, smartphones generate the most revenue and profit. And that segment of the market has settled on OLED technology as the display of choice. Samsung dominates this market with a 40% share forecast by the end of 2021.

Remember how hard it was to buy a new laptop or notebook computer in 2020? Demand for these products was so high that display panel manufacturers shifted production to computers and away from televisions, creating a TV LCD panel shortage and causing the previously-mentioned uptick in retail TV prices, according to Display Supply Chain Consultant’s Barry Young. He noted that notebook and tablet shipments are expected to increase by a modest amount in 2021, and the same 5 companies (HP, Lenovo, Dell, Apple and ASUS) dominate this market segment.

What about inorganic LEDs (iLEDs)? We expect these to eventually dominate the display market and drive away all other competitors. But that’s a few years away - Young stated that the “micro” LED display revolution is on hold right now, as no manufacturer has figured out to cost-efficiently manufacture millions of tiny red, green, and blue LEDs and remove them from their substrates in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

Right now, “mini” LEDs are finding favor as dense backlights for LCD televisions and monitors, but at a significant price premium over garden-variety LCD displays. (OLEDs are self-emitting and don’t require backlights.) You can also buy a large television made entirely out of “mini” LEDs if you are prepared to spend upwards of $120,000 for a 100-inch “mini” LED TV capable of over 1600 cd/m2 brightness…or $270,000 for a 146-inch version. (Chump change, right?)

Young also stated that the overall display market is considered “mature” now… “where long term growth is limited and the two driving applications: TVs in area and smartphones in revenue are not growing.” According to him, worldwide population growth is mostly in geographic areas where smartphones are unaffordable. As far as televisions go; the TV replacement cycle is about a decade, and current replacements are largely consumers upgrading to larger TV screen sizes.

We found this quote from Young of particular interest: “OLEDs, miniLEDs, Smart TVs, 4K, and 8K have had virtually no impact on industry shipment growth.”  It would appear that screen size and price remain the two biggest factors in buying decisions, just as they have since the first flat screen televisions came to market 20+ years ago! Of course, just about any current television or commercial display over 43” will have Ultra HD resolution (3840x2160 pixels), which for the average person doesn’t appear any less detailed than an 8K display.

It’s also worth considering that we’re now approaching the practical screen size limit for many display applications with televisions and monitors in the 80 to 98-inch range. Young’s data shows that for the home, a 55- to 65-inch television is plenty “large enough,” compared to the 42- to 50-inch models popular a decade ago. (Not coincidentally, there is a big jump in retail prices for LCD televisions above 86 inches.) These prices will also be reflected in the commercial AV market, where large LCDs have steadily eroded market share for front projectors in small- to mid-size rooms.