Feature

Tech Watch: LED panels

By Heather Clancy, Contributor

Display makers are beginning to see the light -- light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, that is.

A display backlighting option that promises brighter, more balanced displays with a lot less heft and power consumption, LED panels are becoming a familiar feature for ultraportable business notebooks. They could be in half of all notebook PCs shipped by 2011, according to research from Insight Media.

The technology replaces traditional cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) and can be used in one of two ways: as edge lights that are positioned along one side of the display and then illuminated with the help of a polymer light-guide plate, or as direct backlights that are distributed behind the entire display. The benefits of LED panels include lower weight, a longer lifespan, reduced power consumption and more balanced display properties.

Solution providers are enthusiastic about the advantages of LED panels.

"LEDs have a more consistent lighting capability, which virtually eliminates 'hot spots' and dimming over time," said Anton Ruighaver, director of operations for AHR Consulting, the parent company of solution provider Techlinq in Oakland, N.J.

"LEDs are a real easy way to thin up a laptop," said Tyler Dikman, president and CEO of Cooltronics, a value-added reseller (VAR) in Tampa, Fla. "For me, when speaking with customers, one of the big selling points is the significantly improved battery life. It's also much brighter. I can sit outside and still be able to use my screen."

Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Toshiba America are all experimenting with LED as an option in their notebooks, focusing on the potential for improved battery life. Early this month, as an example, HP plans to ship its latest system to use the HP Illumi-Lite LED display. The HP EliteBook 2530p, carrying a street price of about $1,499, is the company's lightest business notebook at 3.19 pounds. Its screen measures 12.1 inches on the diagonal and promises to improve battery life on the computer by about 90 minutes, depending on the configuration.

Systems with LED-enabled screens can cost about $125 more than non-LED editions, but with customers concerned about the extra money, Dikman emphasizes the trade-off in battery life. "Starting next year, this will be much more in the spotlight, along with solid-state drives. This is a battery-life-winning combination," he said.

Market research firm Insight Media estimates in its 2008 LCD Backlight Report that LED backlight units will be in half of all notebooks by 2011, becoming the predominant display option in subsequent years. The penetration rate was 5% in 2007 and will probably reach 12% this year, Ken Werner, senior analyst for Insight Media, predicted. What's more, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) recently announced that its LED sales jumped 16.1% to $771.3 million (U.S.) during the first half of 2008.

LED panels are also creeping into desktop displays, although price premiums suggest they will remain a niche market for some time. Werner projects a penetration rate of just 0.2% this year, and it will likely be 2012 before adoption hits 10%. "Monitors generally use direct backlights; LED direct backlight units are significantly more expensive than the CCFL versions," Werner said. "Combine that with the fact that most monitors are very price- and cost-sensitive, and LED backlight units are much less attractive in monitors than they are in notebooks."

Samsung Electronics America, which is unusual in that it manufactures both the displays and some of the panels, has been one of the monitor makers most aggressively experimenting with the LED feature set, according to Werner.

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One example is the SyncMaster XL30, a 30-inch LED backlight unit monitor that provides 123% of the range required by the National Television System Committee (NTSC) color gamut. Most LCD screens cover about 82% of the NTSC color gamut. The display, priced at close to $4,000, is intended for desktop publishing, video editing and high-end graphics applications.

ViewSonic has taken a more mainstream approach to LED monitors, with a 22-inch widescreen model that it introduced earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show. The VLED221wm displays 118% of the NTSC color gamut, features a dynamic contrast ratio of 12,000:1, and supports a native 1,680-by-1,050-pixel resolution. Erik Willey, director of product marketing for ViewSonic, said the monitor is also certified at the Silver level under the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool rating system, in part because it is free of mercury. The street price for the product is $479, significantly less than the $799 it commanded in February.

Willey said two big benefits of the product include backlight uniformity and the ability to control different sections of the screen more intelligently. Right now, the price premium for the monitor is between 40% and 50% when compared with non-LED editions. When the gap shrinks to 20% to 30%, Willey predicts, interest in LED-enabled monitors will grow. ViewSonic plans additional LEDs, but he declined to provide details.

AHR's Ruighaver said sales of LED monitors are growing slowly among his clients in healthcare and accounting, where the brightness of the screen can be helpful in number-crunching. Two potential downsides of the technology include the nature of LED failures: Even though LEDs can last more than twice as long as CCFLs, they tend to fail suddenly rather than fading out like CCFLs. What's more, some users have complained about the higher brightness.

But this hasn't stopped Ruighaver from carrying the technology nor from investigating the next wave of LEDs, called organic LEDs, or OLEDs. OLEDs are exciting because they don't require any sort of backlight, he said, which means they will use even less power and have the potential to be even thinner than today's LED panels.

Kodak is one of the leading innovators in the OLED field and has been demonstrating panels using the technology at high-end imaging conferences. More recently, Samsung Electronics made a significant investment in OLED development. In late July, the company poured about $927 million into a joint venture, called Samsung Mobile, that will create an organic electroluminescent display panel that could play a role in future consumer electronics devices.

About the author
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist and consultant on high-tech channel communications with SWOT Management Group. She can be reached at hclancy@swotmg.com.


This was first published in August 2008

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