Posts Tagged ‘Plasma’

It’s “Fade To Black” for Plasma and Projectors in Japan

Are we seeing the end of a golden era for display manufacturing in Japan? It sure seems so.

Earlier this month, Reuters published a story quoting sources inside Panasonic that state they are finally pulling the plug on plasma TV production. The exit is to be complete by the end of March 2014, otherwise known as the end of the company’s current fiscal year.

According to the Reuters story, Panasonic has been unable to stem the tide of red ink resulting from its television operations. In the past two fiscal years, Panasonic has lost $15 billion, with TV operations accounting for a $913 million hit in fiscal 2012.

I can’t say this decision was all that surprising. Ever since plasma TV shipments hit their peak in the mid-2000s, market demand has shifted rapidly to LCD technology. In fact, during FY 2012, there were more CRT TVs shipped worldwide (6.9% market share) than plasma (5.7% market share), according to NPD DisplaySearch.

Of course, LCD technology remains king of the hill with an 87.3% market share – an increase from last year, even though overall TV shipments dropped by 6% worldwide. And LCD still has plenty of legs – witness the advancements in TFT design (IGZO), backlights (quantum dots), and resolution (4K) that are now breaking into the market.

Panasonic is a strong player in LCD, and operates a Gen 8 fab that cranks out IPS-Alpha glass in Himeji, Japan. In fact, they shipped more TVs last year than Sharp and weren’t that far behind Sony.  But Panasonic had already idled a good portion of its plasma TV fab capacity by the start of 2013, including a brand-new facility in Shanghai and about 50% of its Osaka operations.

The departure of Panasonic may also result in Samsung and LG dropping plasma from their TV portfolios. For each company, plasma TVs remain the “value” product offering, with 60-inch LG 1080p plasma sets going recently for about $800 while equivalent 60-inch LCD sets with some bells and whistles command about 10% – 30% higher prices.

Still, the market for TVs is expected to continue a slow decline, thanks to shifting interest in tablets and smartphones for media consumption. There just isn’t any more time (or money) left to indulge small niche display technologies. It’s enough of a challenge for Japanese TV makers to approach profitability.

And things will only get worse. Japan can’t compete with Korea, and now has to deal with Chinese LCD TV manufacturers. In Q1, China was the only country to show an increase in LCD TV shipments Y-Y, while in the rest of the world, TV shipments fell by 4%.  The Chinese have enthusiastically embraced LCD manufacturing and are now cranking out big 4K panels, with the current world’s largest model (110 inches) coming from the CSOT fab in Shenzen. And they’re enjoying the strongest profit margins in the industry, too.

One result of this trend is super-cheap LCD TVs, often selling for less than $40 per diagonal inch. And the commercial AV channel has taken notice: Instead of specifying front projectors and screens, they’re putting in 70-inch, 80-inch, and 90-inch 1080p LCD screens instead. No more lamp changes, no ambient light issues, and “set it and forget it” operation – these are all strong selling points that financial and higher education markets have now embraced.

It’s hard to make a buck selling projectors – margins are very slim, and a great deal of product moves through distribution channels these days. Combine those thin margins with a trend away from front projection, and you have the “beginning of the end” for more than a few notable projector brands.

Consequently, Mitsubishi Electric Visual Solutions announced on October 11 that they were pulling out of the projector market for good, and also ceasing sales of large LCD monitors. Previously, the company had enjoyed good market share across a number of projector categories and even announced a new line of hybrid and “cloud” projectors at ISE and InfoComm.

Now, that’s all history. Mitsubishi will instead concentrate on tiled displays and videowalls, categories where they’re still profitable.  But they won’t be the last company to bid adieu to projectors: Sharp’s InfoComm and ISE booths have focused almost exclusively on large LCD displays, but they still list projectors on their Web site despite dwindling market share and continued struggles with red ink and underutilization of their huge Gen 10 Sakai LCD fab. How long before Sharp throws in the towel on projection?

These are not happy times for Japan Incorporated’s once-dominant TV industry, which is undergoing the same sort of painful downsizing the U.S. TV industry endured in the 1980s and 1990s.

Back in the day, Ernest Hemingway wrote a famous novel titled, “The Sun Also Rises.” If and when some future author records the last days of Japanese display manufacturing, that account could well be called, “The Sun Also Sets”…

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…

 

 

Ho-Ho-Ho! Is Turning Into Uh-Oh-Oh!

The results are in, and they aren’t pretty.

 

Both Sony and Panasonic posted substantial losses for the current fiscal quarter and are looking at lots of red ink next March, when their current fiscal year ends. Sony forecast a $2.2 billion loss for its TV operations in the fiscal year that ends next March. Overall, the company is looking at a $1.1 billion net loss for the current financial year, which reverses an earlier prediction of a $730 million profit.

 

This is Sony’s eighth straight year of losses for its flagship TV lines and rumors are flying that its S-LCD partnership with Samsung may be deep-sixed. Earlier, Sony announced it would split its television business into three divisions, consisting of (a) outsourcing, (b) the current LCD TV business, and (c) next-generation TVs (read: OLEDs), starting November 1.

 

But that may not be enough to stem the tide. Some prominent Asian market analysts think Sony should bite the bullet and just pull the plug on TVs altogether, concentrating on their gaming console, smart phone, VAIO computer, and camcorder operations.

 

The easier path to income may be for Sony to license its name to a Chinese TV manufacturer and collect royalties, much the same as Philips has done with Funai in North America.

 

Panasonic is looking at as much as $5.4 billion in losses by year’s end. The culprits are the high value of the yen against the dollar and euro, and the merger and re-sizing of the combined Sanyo – Panasonic operations.

 

Two TV manufacturing plants in Japan will be taken offline, while plasma TV production capacity will be cut by 48%. Further procurement will move to Singapore from Osaka, and plans to relocate plasma fabs to mainland China will also be put into limbo. The company expects to cut its payroll to 350,000 employees worldwide.

 

What does all of this mean to you? Expect to see deep discounts on TVs starting around Black Friday. There will be some amazing deals on large (55 inch and up) LCD and plasma TVs. Even the 3D products are going to come down in price, continuing a trend of diminishing premiums for 3D functionality.

 

So if you are in the market for a new LCD or plasma TV, this could be the perfect year to upgrade. Watch your online price trackers and be ready to move when you see a good price. Right now, you can find ‘basic’ LCD and plasma TVs for about $10-$12 per diagonal inch, up to 55 inches – use that as a baseline when you are wheeling and dealing. Who knows? You may do even better!

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…

Sneak Peek: Panasonic’s TH-42BT300U Reference-Grade Plasma Monitor

It’s been almost six years in the making, but Panasonic has finally come out with a reference-grade plasma monitor. First announced at the 2011 HPA Technology Retreat and shown publicly at NAB 2011, the TH-42BT300U (and its 50-inch brother, the TH-50BT300U) is an industrial monitor that doubles as a reference display for post-production and a host of critical imaging applications.

 

Panasonic is one of three companies still manufacturing plasma displays in quantity, the others being Samsung and LG. But Panasonic has made significant investment in PDP fabrication and also branched out into larger sizes (85”, 103”, and 151”).

Panasonic's TH-42BT300U (left) blew away the TH-42PF20U (right) at Panasonic's NAB suite in the 'crow's nest'

AN INDUSTRY IN TRANSITION

 

As the days of the time-tested Sony BVM-series and PVM-series CRT monitors ran short, many studios and post houses started to experiment with using LCD and plasma TVs and monitors to replace them. Problem was, these consumer TVs didn’t offer anywhere near the consistency and accuracy of the BVMs. They were often way too bright, had S-curve gamma performance, high black levels, and wildly inaccurate color coordinates and gamuts.

 

Sony even tried to replace its BVMs and PVMs with a line of LCD monitors, known as Trimaster. These expensive displays ($25K for a 23-inch monitor) were certainly accurate, but could not overcome many of the physical and optical limitations of LCD technology.

 

Their biggest drawback was price. Customers just could not rationalize spending that much money for a small LCD monitor, particularly when they could buy a 50-inch industrial plasma for less than $5,000. And the pictures they got out of the industrial plasma monitors looked pretty darned good! (But not accurate.)

 

I started testing Panasonic’s 42-inch industrial monitors back in 2008 to see if they could be ‘tuned up’ for improved performance, using the existing set of controls. The answer was, they could indeed be calibrated, as long as they were not running in ‘dynamic’ picture mode, and all ‘enhancements’ to images were shut off.

 

In fact, the model I tested – the TH-42PF11U – performed so well that many post houses started putting them everywhere in their facilities. The price point (less than $2,000) couldn’t be beat, and Panasonic offered both SDI and HD-SDI modular input cards, along with dual HDMI inputs. After a seminar at B&H photo in 2009 to explain how to tune up the TH-42PF11U, I recall a Panasonic area rep as saying the company was back-ordered on this particular monitor to the tune of almost 800 units.

 

YOU CAN ALWAYS MAKE IT BETTER

 

As well as the TH-42PF11U performed, it lacked some critical settings and adjustments. First of all, the monitor’s color gamut never changed in any mode. It covered most of the digital cinema P3 gamut, but far exceeded the BT.709 HDTV gamut. And you couldn’t adjust it.

 

Second, there were only a handful of pre-set gamma curves, like 2.0, 2.2, and 2.6. While these did turn out to be close to ideal, there were problems getting the blue channel to track correctly from black to white and produce a stable value of gray at any brightness level.

 

Finally, there were no memory settings available to save a bunch of different calibrations. Depending on the source material and the final master file, a post house could be working with EBU or HDTV color spaces, or even a digital intermediate that might emulate the P3 DCI space. How could all of those settings be saved?

 

The TH-42PF11U was replaced by the TH-42PF20U, which was more of a digital sign display and had major black level issues. So that wasn’t the solution. It took one more year of waiting for the 300-series to make their debut, and the wait was well worth it.

Yeah, you're right - these new monitors don't look very 'sexy.' But it's what's inside the counts.

THE HIGHLIGHTS…

 

Those of us who had been nagging Panasonic to step up their game got almost everything we wanted in the 300-series. No, we didn’t get 10 steps of individual red, green, blue, and white gamma adjustments, although you almost don’t need them now. But we did get multiple memories with custom labeling, and we finally got a color gamut adjustment, with one custom setting for fine-tuning x,y coordinates for primaries.

 

The TH-42BT300U isn’t quite as bright as its predecessors. That’s because it has additional first surface filtering, a trick stolen from Pioneer’s Kuro playbook. As a result, these monitors are not ‘blazingly’ bright, unless you operate them in Dynamic mode. But that’s OK, as Panasonic found that many editors and colorists were operating the 11-series monitors at much lower brightness levels than the 120-130 nits (over 30 ft-L) I was calibrating at.

 

Now, you’ll see about 75-80 nits out of the TH-42BT300U in Cinema mode, and 85-95 nits in Standard mode. Both modes can be calibrated nicely to a specific color temperature, but gamma performance is most accurate in Cinema mode.

 

Speaking of gamma; you’ll find numerous presets including 1.8, 2.0, 2.2, 2.35, 2.5, and 2.6. And they’re all right on the money – in my calibration tests, a 2.35 gamma resulted in an actual curve measuring 2.35. Close enough for government work!

 

Better yet, the TH-42BT300U tracks a tighter grayscale than its grandfather, and the TH-4211PFU was no slouch in that department. Out of the box, the BT.709 color gamut setting was pretty close to ideal, but I was able to get it even closer using the Custom adjustments for red, green, and blue offsets.

 

…AND THE PROOF

 

Here are some performance charts I generated with ColorFacts 7.5 for your edification. First off is a gamma curve, plotted with the gamma set to 2.35 and peak white at about 75 nits (about 22 foot-Lamberts, for those of you who prefer your measurements in the olde English style).

Next up is a color temperature histogram plot. The dashed line is the target of 6500 Kelvin. Note that the accuracy of my sensor head (an X-rite Eye One Pro) is a little off below 10 IRE).

How does that line track so cleanly? The next chart shows you why. It’s an RGB levels histogram, plotted from 0 to 100 IRE. The mix of red, green, and blue is pretty consistent – not perfect, but adequate for most critical work.

And our next chart shows just how closely the color gamut of the TH-42BT300U tracks the BT.709 color space. Out of the box, the green coordinate was slightly over-saturated and shifted toward yellow. Some quick adjustments in the Edit menu fixed that in a hurry.

For those readers who want to know how much of the P3 color space is covered by the TH-42BT300U, look at the next chart. Note that the green saturation isn’t quite enough to do the trick, but you can calibrate a nice grayscale track for the DCI target color temperature (all those small white dots show where the plotted temperatures feel for each grayscale value).

The last CIE chart shows the native full-gamut color capabilities of the TH-42BT300U (white outline), compared to the BT.709 HDTV color space (black outline).

And to wrap things up, here are some quickie contrast measurements:

After calibration, in Cinema Warm BT.709 mode with 2.35 gamma:

ANSI contrast = 771:1
Peak contrast = 1527:1

Average white level, checkerboard pattern: 68.85 nits
Average black level, checkerboard pattern: .089 nits

Maximum color temperature shift across a 100 IRE screen, measured at nine points: 76 degrees Kelvin

(That last number is mind-boggling for an industrial display monitor of any type!)

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

My hat’s off to Panasonic, although I am one of those who has been nagging them for years to come out with a reference plasma monitor. I’d like to think a lot of the testing I did on the 11-series and 12-series provided much of the momentum that led to the 300-series displays. Even so, the company figured out it had a diamond in the rough and started polishing.

 

What’s up in the next generation? Let’s hope multi-point gamma correction finally makes it into the menu, along with improved color saturation in the green channel so it can cover more of the P3 space. Regardless, the TH-42BT300U delivers a level of performance that is an absolute bargain for the asking price, which as I understand it will be less than $5,000. (Much less, in fact!)