BOSTON The advent of high-resolution active-matrix LCDs has arrived, but a pressing question remains as to whether there will be a market for these high-priced displays and, if so, in what sizes and formats.
Among the current crop of amorphous-silicon active-matrix (AM) LCDs, medium and large screens are being pitched at challenging image-analysis applications, video editing, graphic design, electronic publishing and miscellaneous apps such as air traffic control. The smaller screens are zeroing in on portable applications in medical electronics, instrumentation, Internet appliances and various consumer and communications gear. High-res is also taking aim at various traditional panel-mount niches, as well as at the high end of the mainstream market for desktop monitors and notebook computers.
The driving force behind the high-resolution 15-inch UXGA (1,600 x 1,200-pixel) notebook display is Dell Computer Corp. and its "desire to differentiate," said Mark Akiyoshi, senior engineering manager for display products at NEC Electronics Inc. Apparently Dell is the only computer maker currently providing such high resolution in a notebook. The common format of a 15-inch display is XGA (1,024 x 768 pixels).
Among display manufacturers, Toshiba Corp. stole a high-res march on amorphous-silicon AM LCDs by scaling up a line of low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) displays over the past few years. The company's 4-inch VGA, 6.3-inch XGA, 8.4-inch SVGA, 10.4-inch SVGA and XGA, and 15-inch UXGA displays were recently joined by a 10.4-inch UXGA model coming in at 197 pixels/inch.
LCDs in the range of 200 pixels/inch give a "truly remarkable, lifelike image quality," said Steve Vrablick, business development manager for LCDs in the Tube, Battery, LCD and Materials Division of Toshiba America Electronic Components Inc. (Deerfield, Ill.). And LTPS types, he said, are "brighter, lower in power consumption and higher in resolution than similar-size amorphous-silicon LCDs."
Toshiba is aiming its 4-inch VGA display at palmtop and handheld systems including "digital cameras, personal digital assistants, telecommunication devices as well as other information equipment," said Vrablick. The new UXGA 10.4-incher, he said, "is positioned to bring a new level of display performance to B5-size, ultraportable notebook PCs, with UXGA resolution that surpasses that of standard desktop monitors to offer an image quality comparable with color photographs. The new LCD can display an image of 2 million pixels or more taken with a digital still camera without any reduction in the resolution level."
Vrablick also sees potential market opportunities for high-res displays in 2- to 3-inch sizes for videophones and 1- to 2-inch sizes for video watches.
Paul Semenza, manager of strategic market analysis at display-market watcher Stanford Resources Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), is dubious about the chances for high-res in some of the markets it is addressing. "But I can see it being useful to have really high res in a small display: say, SXGA [1,280 x 1,024 pixels] in a palmtop," he said. "If we ever get to the 3G-and-beyond infrastructure [in wireless communications], maybe we could really go the Web with a handheld. That needs displays maybe 5 inches at 200 pixels/inch. The killer app will be small displays."
The high-res display is "a curious market because not a lot of people are looking for extraordinarily high resolution," said Joel Pollack, vice president at the display operation of Sharp Electronics (Camas, Wash.).
Pollack identified just three likely markets for high-res displays: medical, prepress and graphic-and-imaging systems (GIS). "But unfortunately," he said, "those don't have a lot of money to spend on displays."
The medical market still lags in adopting electronic technology, Pollack said. "Some users say they still don't trust the [AM LCD's] gray-level rendering relative to film, even if the display is 300 spots per inch. In terms of dynamic range, it's hard to beat film, and users trust the archival quality of film," he said.
As for prepress, "They don't spend much money on displays," said Pollack, "but for GIS analyzing satellite images and the like [high-res LCDs] probably have a reasonable chance. But that's not a big market."
At levels of 200 pixels/inch and above, AM LCDs can serve applications where an "electronic format for documents is essential," said a spokesman for IBM's Display Business Unit, "such as in libraries of medical images and legal documents, as well as in the fields of graphic design and electronic publishing. And surfing the Web with one of these screens is an amazing experience."
At 200 pixels/inch, the IBM spokesman said, a 16.3-inch AM LCD based on the company's Roentgen technology can display a complete street map of Manhattan, "including every street and avenue name readable with the naked eye."
"Ultrahigh-resolution displays have the potential to greatly increase the usability of vast databases of digital images," said Robert Wisnieff, manager of IBM's display lab, "including digital libraries, architectural and electronic blueprints, historical archives and scanned records such as those stored by hospitals or insurance companies."
Semenza noted that Samsung has demonstrated "a fairly high-res 2,000 x 2,000 [pixel] amorphous-silicon LCD" targeting air traffic control. "The FAA now uses a monster CRT, 20 x 20 inches, 28 inches in diagonal, that costs $40,000," Semenza noted, so this relatively price-insensitive arena might make a likely market for high-res LCDs.
Some high-res display makers think the volume opportunities are greater for smaller screens. NEC Electronics, for example, is due to go to production in the second quarter with a 6.3-inch XGA (1,024 x 768-pixel) AM LCD. For its part, Samsung has prototyped a 6.6-incher with resolution of 300-plus pixels/inch, targeting electronic-book applications.
NEC's Akiyoshi said that midsize high-res LCDs suit some of the same medical applications targeted by the larger high-res displays, "but portable. Also, video-editing applications need high resolution," he said. "And everybody is starting to use a digital camera, but when they look at it in low res like on a PC, the image is much different."
Further out, said Akiyoshi, "future e-book and portable Internet devices will want to have high resolution. There's going to be a lot of downloading of pictures."
In the United States, NEC Electronics (Santa Clara, Calif.) is targeting its high-res 6.3-incher at "medical applications, potentially e-book-type applications and instrumentation," said Cathy Dotson, strategic-product marketing engineer. "Instrumentation is the firmest at this point."
As Pollack sees things, high resolution will have a place in the mainstream PC market, but only up to a point. "On notebooks and desktop monitors, it makes fonts look crisper and images look more vibrant," he said. "But to go much beyond 200 [pixels/inch] doesn't seem to have a lot of value yet."
The average person, Pollack said, "can see about 300 [pixels/inch] at a normal 18-inch viewing distance, and after 300, nothing you can add will add to viewable quality. When you approach 200 [pixels/inch], you're already approaching what most people are satisfied with."
Sharp's current highest-res offerings are a 19.6-inch UXGA panel at 102 pixels/inch and a 15-inch UXGA panel at 133 pixels/inch. In the works is a 28-inch QSXGA (2,048 x 1,538-pixel) panel at 171 pixels/inch. "We are perfectly capable of making resolutions of 200 pixels/inch and higher," said Pollack, "but in the 2001 time frame, we don't see demand for resolution going any higher than 170."
Said Alan Dragon, senior product manager at Sharp, "People doing graphics or photo editing could use high res, but it's really yet to be determined how high res they need. Obviously there's a cost/performance trade-off. Do we need to go higher than 133 pixels/inch? I don't know. But there's definitely a market for high-end portables, initially in 15 inch and possibly going to 14.1 inch, which would be 142 pixels/inch."