Posts Tagged ‘LCD’

Turn Back The Clock?

A recent story in the Nikkei Asian Review states that Hon Hai Precision Industries – the new parent company of Sharp Electronics – is considering building an LCD panel facility in the United States. The finished panels would likely be intended for televisions.

According to the story, Hon Hai is responding to President Trump’s call to bring back jobs to the United States. When Hon Hai investment partner SoftBank Group’s chairman Masayoshi Son met with Trump last month, he said that both companies would make “significant investments” to create new jobs in the U.S.

In a related story on the CDRinfo.com Web site, Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou was quoted as saying that he’d consider going ahead with such an investment if “the U.S. is willing to offer land at a cost of US $1 for building the panel plants.” Apparently Apple is also part of the discussion and mentioned as a joint investor.

Gou was also quoted in the CDRinfo story as saying that “…U.S. President Donald Trump should love to see a vertically integrated industry such as panel manufacturing grow and develop in the country.”

Coincidentally, Hon Hai and Sharp are getting ready to break ground on a Gen 10 LCD fab in Guangzhou, China at a cost of $8.69B. That plant is scheduled to open in the fall of 2018. People familiar with the project said the proposed U.S. LCD fab would be of the same size and generation.

While this is an intriguing story, there are caveats. First off; LCD factories are mostly automated – they have to be, considering the manufacturing precision involved – so there wouldn’t be all that many permanent jobs created once construction is completed. (The same thing applies to Intel’s proposed semiconductor fab in Arizona.)

Second, most of the permanent jobs will likely require college degrees in the sciences (physics, engineering, and chemistry), aside from basic factory functions, shipping, and facilities maintenance.

But the biggest obstacle to building the plant will be the finished cost of the panels. There’s a reason why the LCD panel industry (and with it, television manufacturing) is migrating to China: Manufacturing costs there are much lower because labor rates are lower. That, in turn, will make Sharp-branded televisions much more expensive than those coming from Korea and China.

Consumers have been conditioned to expect ever-lower TV prices with ever-larger screens. Consider that you can already buy a 55-inch “smart” Ultra HDTV for $500 now: How will a US-made UHDTV compete against that price?

Consider also that in the 4K TV world, Samsung has over a 30% market share and LG has another 15%. Conversely, Sharp’s current TV market share is less than 1% and its brand doesn’t have anywhere near the cache it once had. So Hon Hai would have to find other customers for its panels to avoid underutilization of plant capacity.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that Hisense currently controls the marketing rights for the name “Sharp” in the United States and has no intention of giving them up. That little dust-up is why Hon Hai cut off supplies of VA LCD panels to Hisense last fall, forcing them to look elsewhere for a supplier.

Of course, there’s been plenty of talk in Washington about slapping 20% tariffs on foreign-made goods. That cost would be passed along to customers, and don’t you think Samsung and LG will adjust their prices as needed to maintain their dominant market shares? The net result would be that Sharp-branded LCD TVs would still languish on store shelves while Samsung, LG, Sony, Hisense, and TCL continued to dominate the market.

The recent election was filled with jingoistic slogans like “Bring Back America.” Well, then – which one? The America of the mid-1980s where the television manufacturing business involved lots of workers on assembly lines, hand-wiring CRT televisions and installing them into cabinets?

Sorry, that ain’t gonna happen. The US TV industry was pretty well decimated by 1986 when Zenith finally threw in the towel on TV production stateside. (Zenith was later acquired by LG Electronics.) The Japanese had our number. Then, the Koreans pulled the rug out from Japan, starting in the late 1990s. And now it’s the Chinese TV manufacturer’s turn to run with the ball.

The widespread availability of inexpensive LCD panels from China is a big reason why you can now afford to buy a 65-inch 4K TV for less than $800, or a 4K HDR model for about a grand. For that matter, you can now pick up a 50-inch Full HD (1080p) LCD TV for less than $300, and 42-inch sets have dropped below $200.

Question: Do you really want to pay 30 – 40% more for a given TV just because it’s made on this side of the Pacific Ocean? I didn’t think so. More expensive TVs will prompt people to delay their TV upgrades for a longer time period, which is exactly what Hon Hai doesn’t want to happen, and can’t afford to have happen if they’ve sunk a few billion dollars into an LCD fab.

Time marches on..

Consumer Television: It’s Business As Usual (Or Maybe Not)

The official numbers haven’t been released yet, but a report in The Korea Herald, dated January 22 says that the final data will show Samsung dominated the global television business in 2013.

According to the story, Samsung was estimated to have sold 49 million units of flat-panel TVs last year. DisplaySearch had the totals at 32 million from January through September (the final DisplaySearch numbers for 2013 haven’t been compiled yet) and Yoon Boo-keun, Samsung’s consumer electronics division chief, stated at CES earlier this month that the company sold around 15 million TVs in Q4.

That’s an impressive number by anyone’s standards and reflects the complete dominance Samsung has in the television business. Think back 20 years to when Samsung was an afterthought; perceived as a 3rd-tier “bargain” brand for electronics.

Now, they’re on top of the heap, and have been so for eight consecutive years. In the meantime, LG looks to maintain its grip on 2nd place, with a varying market share number in the low to mid-teens throughout 2013. Between the two companies, they control over 40% of the worldwide television business.

The Japanese, on the other hand, will no doubt be disappointed by the final numbers for ’13. In the third quarter; Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp were hovering around 8%, 6%, and 5% market share respectively – and those numbers are expected to drop when the final tally comes in.

As I noted in my last DD, Panasonic seems to be charting a course away from televisions, based on what they didn’t show at CES (a full line-up of 2014 models) and their emphasis on commercial sales of everything from cameras and storage devices to digital signs and batteries. And of course, Panasonic pulled the plug on plasma panel and TV manufacturing at the end of December.

The other remaining player in televisions – Toshiba – took a similar approach to their CES booth, choosing to show a wide variety of 4K (Ultra HD) display applications for home and office and skipping the TV line-up. Toshiba has already shut down two manufacturing plants and laid off over 3,000 employees because of continued losses in television and computer manufacturing.

That leaves Sony and Sharp. The former continues to stay the course in sales and marketing of consumer TVs, but I’d be surprised if they don’t turn in yet another year of red ink – the ninth in a row. Sharp, meanwhile, has chosen to emphasize their super-sized lineup of TVs, plus clever engineering tricks like the Quattron+ line and their ability to manufacture IGZO TFTs with decent yields.

The problem for both companies is their uninterrupted slide in television market share that has been going on for eight years. With a 5% share worldwide and 3% in the United States as of Q3 2013, Sharp can’t afford to stay in this game for much longer. Neither can Sony, if they are serious about returning a profit to shareholders.

It doesn’t help matters that television sales are expected to have declined worldwide by 2.2% from 2012 when the accountants are done. The double-digit boom in TV sales in China kept that number from being a lot worse.

Amid the flurry of post-CES news stories about curved, super-sized UHDTVs was another item that went almost unnoticed, except for the sharp eyes of analyst Paul Gagnon of NPD DisplaySearch. In his blog post of January 17, Gagnon revealed how three retailers in the United Kingdom are already discounting LG’s “first to market” 55-inch curved OLED TV (55EA980W) by £3,000 ($4,910).

This product, which launched on these shores in July of 2013 for nearly $15,000, saw its price drop in the U.S by nearly $6,000 one month later when Samsung rolled out their own curved 55-inch model for about $9,000. And now – just seven months later – the LG model is selling in the U.K. for £4,999 ($8,178), almost one-half of its original sticker price. (Perhaps they overestimated demand?)

And the cannibalizing of TV prices continues unabated. On the last day of CES, Vizio announced its prices for a line of full-array LED 4K (UHDTV) “smart” LCD models – and they aren’t much higher than conventional LED “smart” TVs from LG and Samsung.

Case in point: The 50-inch P502ui-B1 will retail for $1,000, while the 55-inch version will have a sticker price of $1,400. The P602ui-B3 is set at $1,800, and the 65-inch model will command $2,199. Finally, a 70-inch skew (P702ui-B3) will be offered at $2,600. Consider that Samsung and Sony are trying to peddle 55-inch 4K LCD smart TVs for about $2,900 right now and you can clearly see the train wreck coming.

Summing up: Samsung dominates the consumer television world – business as usual. Panasonic and Toshiba de-emphasize TVs at CES – maybe not. Sony and Sharp keep pouring money into consumer television manufacturing and marketing, even though they are incurring substantial losses – business as usual. LG and Vizio slashing prices on OLEDs and 4K TVs – definitely not!

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article mistakenly quoted the discount applied to the LG 55EA980W as the actual selling price. The article has been updated on January 29 to reflect the correct selling price and discount of this TV.

A Niche Too Small – Pete Putman

Rumors had been spreading for a couple of months now that Philips would give up production of its unique Cinema 21:9 (2.40:1 aspect ratio) LCD TV, a product also sold by Vizio and other brands. The TV originally had a resolution of 2560×1080 pixels and was available in one size – 56 inches.

The Cinema 21:9 made its debut in 2009.

 

The 56PFL9954H was introduced in 2009 and got everyone buzzing about its unique shape, which matches the Cinemascope format. Problem was; there isn’t a whole lot of content to watch in this format aside from feature films.

 

Conventional HDTV programs showed up as pillar-boxed images, with black bars to either side. And the odd 4:3 program looked like a tiny square in a sea of black.

 

Now, apparently the last manufacturing run of Cinema LCD sets has been completed, and no more will be made for sale.  Not surprising, as that decision was driven mostly by the cut-throat pricing of LCD TVs in general and a sluggish market for TV sales.

 

The truth is; 16:9 TVs are hard enough to sell these days. But they can accommodate any TV format nicely without leaving too much of the screen area unused, and let’s be honest: Was it really all that uncomfortable to watch Cinemascope films on a 50” LCD or plasma TV anyway? Betcha most people didn’t even notice the top and bottom black bars if the movie was halfway interesting.

 

Projector manufacturers have also tried to sell Cinemascope systems with slide-on anamorphic lens attachments into the home theater market, but haven’t experienced a whole lot of success other than with true cinephiles who are also loaded with cash. Besides, projection screen manufacturers already offered multi-format image masking systems for existing 16:9 screens that made a lot more sense.

 

Sometimes marketers find a niche only to discover that it is simply too small to bother with. And Cinemascope TVs clearly fell into that category. C’est la vie…

Samsung 2012 Spring Showcase – Pete Putman

Tempus fugit! The Time Warner Center in New York City will soon shed that moniker, as TW sells off its former ‘prime’ real estate holdings in the city to save money.

 

It should be no surprise then that the Samsung Experience pavilion on the 3rd floor is also history. This electronic ‘toy store’ once showcased the latest in Samsung TVs, phones, Blu-ray players, tablets, and even appliances, and it also served as the venue for Samsung’s annual spring line shows.

 

No more. The 2012 spring show took place March 6 at the Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street, the site of the rapidly-growing CEA Summer Line Shows. And it was a relatively sedate affair, choosing to focus on ‘connectivity’ – connected Smart TVs, connected digital cameras and tablets, and connected humans. That is, humans using more intuitive methods to ‘connect’ to their TVs and control them.

Samsung VP Joe Stinziano touts the new Smart Evolution upgrade module.

 

The big news for 2012 is the ES-line of LED (LCD) TVs, which take full advantage of voice and gesture recognition for control. The TV comes with a built-in camera and takes a picture of each user, which is then used to store your preferences. The camera can even pick you out of a crowd.

 

Voice controls include basic volume up/down and channel up/down operation, or direct channel numbers. You can also change inputs and launch a Web browser, at which point the gesture control takes over. This was demonstrated at CES to a long line of attendees and will probably be a popular item for ‘geeks.’ (I’m not sure yet if I want my TV to watch me while I’m watching it!)

 

Voice and gesture control will be standard on the ES7500 46-inch, 50-inch, and 55-inch LED TVs, ES8000 46, 55, 60, and 65-inch LED TVs, and 51, 60, and 65-inch ES8000 plasma TVs. Prices start at about $2,200 for the line, and all models are shipping now.

 

One big question that keeps coming up as NeTVs evolve into full-blown Web browsers with powerful CPUs is this: Is there any way to make them future-proof? After all, Apple and Microsoft update their operating systems on a frequent basis, so why should anyone worry about their TV becoming obsolete?

And here's what the Smart Evolution module looks like in action.

 

This problem is solved nicely (from Samsung’s perspective) with Smart Evolution, which is basically a chassis that mounts on the back of the TV and contains all the latest firmware and hardware updates. Readers who’ve been following the HDTV market for the last decade may recall that Mitsubishi came out with a similar product over 10 years ago – an expansion module they called “The Promise” that fit into their line of rear-projection TVs. (And how well did THAT idea work out?)

 

In addition to built-in cameras and noise-canceling microphones for using Skype and voice/gesture control, Samsung also unveiled a new, super-simple remote control that is remarkably free of buttons. It’s actually a touch pad, with volume and channel buttons mounted on either side. It does double duty as a microphone for voice commands, and also ships with the ES7500, ES8000 LED, and ES8000 plasma TVs.

 

You are probably not surprised that Samsung also unveiled a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard to work with the same ES line of TVs. That’s because the keyboards on most remotes are too small for Western fingers (certainly for me!) and you may be on a Web page where you need to enter strings of text.

Now, be nice and share with your brothers and sisters!

 

Hold on there, pardner! Have we gone back in time to the days of Web TV? Historically, TV viewers have clearly shown their disdain for using a keyboard to watch television, and there’s no reason to expect that will change any time soon. Fortunately, the new Smart Touch Remote can also activate an on-screen keyboard which can then be ‘swiped’ to enter text or numbers for Web pages.

 

Other enhancements to the TV line include Micro Dimming to achieve more precise local area dimming on LED TVs and improve contrast uniformity, and the availability of Real Black Filter across all of the plasma TVs in the 2012 line.  The purpose is to minimize reflections and light scattering that lowers contrast and elevates black levels – Panasonic uses a similar technique on its plasma TVs.

 

AllShare is a new concept from Samsung. According to the press release, All Share lets viewers share content to a variety of connected devices, such as tablets, laptops, and smart phones. The content is stored on 5 GB of ‘cloud’ server space. In addition, any Web site that’s being browsed on a mobile device can be re-directed and launched from a compatible Samsung Smart TV.

 

At least one reporter asked if AllShare competes with Ultraviolet, the movie industry’s ‘cloud’ system for cross-platform viewing of content. Actually, all Ultraviolet does is to store keys on its ‘cloud’ servers, and those keys are then used to unlock and watch copies of movies previously purchased on a wide range of platforms. In contrast, AllShare stores the content, not keys.

Smart Hub is still here. In fact, everything about Samsung TVs is 'smart' these days.

 

To keep up with all of this content and GUI juggling, the ES7000, ES7500, and ES8000 TVs now have dual-core processors for high processing speeds. OK, computer! (Sorry, Radiohead fans…)

 

In the Blu-Ray department, there are five new models ranging from the entry-level BD-ES300 ($99.99) to the loaded-for-bear BD-E6500 ($229.99). Depending on the model, you’ll have built-in WiFi, an internal Web browser, access to All Share, Smart Hub, and Disc to Digital, a new service that lets you ‘rip’ a DVD or Blu-ray file to a digital file accessible to connected (mobile) devices. (Hmmm, sounds a lot like Ultraviolet to me!)

 

It’s interesting to stop and consider that just five years ago, a ‘bare bones’ Blu-ray player would set you back nearly $1200, with some models approaching two grand. Now, you can have every option you want or need – including Internet connectivity – for less than $200 after online retailers slash their advertised pricing.

Samsung's 2012 plasma TVs may have the thinnest bezels ever.

 

And what about 3D? There was almost no discussion of it this year, quite a change from the hullaballo of 2010. 3D is largely a standard feature now in higher-priced TVs (like that ES7000-7500-8000 lineup again) because consumers just haven’t bitten on the concept.

 

One thing Samsung has done for 2012 is to cut the price of replacement active 3D glasses to (ready for this?) $20 a pair; a price that should really tick off early 3D adopters who had to fork over $100 or more to replace their active glasses each time Junior inadvertently sat on and broke them. The lower price point isn’t likely to stimulate 3D TV sales – nothing really has, not even passive or autostereo – but it’s still a nice gesture to the small group who grooves on the third dimension.

 

And now for the 800-pound gorilla in the room: No, Samsung did NOT show an OLED TV in New York. BUT – there apparently will be an OLED TV in the line, most likely using the 55-inch cut. And of course, it will be loaded to the top with all of the Samsung add-ons (Smart Hub, AllShare, voice/gesture control, etc.) We’ll probably see it late in the year.

 

My (educated) guess is that the pricing will be about $8K – $10K, or where LG has hinted its 55-inch product will be tagged when it gets to market sometime late summer or early fall. Given Samsung’s desire to sell off its money-losing LCD fab business and place more emphasis on OLED technology through its Samsung Mobile Displays division, it might be the perfect time to launch OLEDs. (Or maybe not, if yields aren’t high enough…)

 

Trivia time: Remember when a 42-inch plasma cost $10,000? That was over ten years ago, and you can now buy Samsung’s 43-inch entry-level 720p PN43E450 for less than $550.

 

Amazing…

 

 

Hey, This Is Really Hard!

A story in the October 27 edition of the Wall Street Journal states that television may no longer be the ‘king of the hill’ when it comes to watching programming.

 

Food for thought: Apple’s high-end 10.1” iPad costs more than a 42-inch LCD or plasma TV (even a 42-inch LED-backlit LCD TV). And based on a presentation in my Display Technologies session at the just-concluded SMPTE Fall Technology Conference, more and more sales of ‘displays’ are going to switch to smaller, portable devices like the iPad, and away from conventional TVs.

 

Neither Internet-connected TVs nor 3D have helped revive TV sales, which slowed considerably after the 2008 recession. According to DisplaySearch, more than half of all new TVs shipped by 2015 will have Internet connections, just as more and more TVs will include 3D as a feature and not a premium upgrade.

 

The WSJ article quotes TV industry executives as speculating Apple, Google, and Amazon might enter the TV arena with products of their own. Apple’s TV prototype is already circulating through factories in China, according to several published reports. And Amazon already has experience in mass distribution of content over its Kindle platform.

 

Profits are hard to come by in the TV business. Three of the top four Japanese TV manufacturers said they lost money on TV operations during Q2 ’11, with Sharp being the exception – although Sharp’s LCD fabrication business was its biggest loss leader in the same time period. I have previously documented Sharp’s rapidly-diminishing market share in U.S. TV sales, which has been accompanied by a worldwide decline to about 8% of the market for the latest reporting period.

 

Over in Korea, similar red ink was seen at Samsung and LG’s LCD fabs, according to the article. In contrast, the TV marketing and sales operations were profitable. The challenge that all manufacturers face is continually declining values even with larger and larger shipment volumes, and the fear that TVs will soon fall into the low-priced commodity trap of computer monitors.

 

Sony’s continuing struggle to make a profit in LCD TVs for the past eight years shows that even a strong brand can’t carry the day anymore. The real threat is between smaller, portable wireless tablets that can do an amazing job with video playback.

 

On my flight home last night from SMPTE, I counted two dozen iPads in use playing back cached video or DVDs, plus numerous notebook computers. Each and every one of those products is now climbing the hill, ready to topple the king…