Shipments expected to number in millions in '14

OLED TVs have been touted as the next big thing in television for the past six years, when Sony rolled out the first prototype — an 11-inch set that sold for $2,500. To date, though, the organic light-emitting diode TVs have failed to materialize on a large-scale basis. But the technology’s time may finally have come.

That seemed the case in 2012, when LG and Samsung both had OLED sets prominently on display at CES to wide acclaim (LG’s 55-inch OLED won CNET’s coveted Best of CES award, with Samsung taking a very close second place).

As the fourth quarter of 2012 started, though, both companies announced they would be delaying their sets until 2013.

While the delay prompted speculation that the companies were backing away from OLED TVs, it’s a bit premature to consider that as gospel.

Both Samsung and LG are expected to give updates and perhaps even revised shipping dates for the sets at this year’s CES. And Sony and Panasonic, which partnered last year in an effort to mass produce OLED panels, are expected to give an update on their venture. (Initially, the two had hoped to begin mass production during 2013.)

NPD DisplaySearch, meanwhile, predicts OLED TV shipments will hit 1.7 million in 2014 — surging to 9 million by the end of 2016. But the technology still has a few hurdles to clear.

The biggest is price. When they do finally hit the market, OLED sets are expected to run nearly $10,000 — putting them far out of the reach of most consumers, including home theater enthusiasts. (Keep in mind, though, that the first plasma sets carried a price tag of $15,000 — and were hampered by bad visuals.)

Production is also an issue. Yields on OLED screens are reportedly quite low still due to the manufacturing process.

“Pilot production indicates that 55-inch AMOLED TV panel straight yield (without repair) is in single digits due to instability in the large backplanes,” wrote NPD DisplayTech analyst David Hsieh in December.

That could give 4K Ultra High Definition sets an opportunity to steal OLED’s spotlight. Certainly the abundance of those sets on display at this year’s CES is a move in that direction by manufacturers.

While 4K technology is impressive, it lacks some of the oomph of OLED — which, if manufacturers can get production and costs under control, could be a carrot to convince consumers to upgrade their sets.

OLED, quite simply, is stunning to behold. It offers a picture quality that bests even top-of-the-line plasmas and makes LCD sets look like antiquated cellphone screens. The trick is the set’s ability to turn off individual pixels, giving a true black (as opposed to today’s high end sets, which still emit a bit of light when they are turned “off”). That gives the TVs an astonishing contrast ratio.

The sets are also remarkably thin. LG’s 55-inch OLED, for example, weighs 16.5 pounds and is, at 3/16ths of an inch, roughly as deep as a pencil. And as icing on the cake, the sets consume less energy than other TVs on the market.

The technology is fairly common in small screens, as OLED panels are used in several smartphones and tablets (including some from Samsung and HTC).

But small screens aren’t the focal point of the living room. OLED may have the potential to turn consumers’ heads, but if it’s going to make a big splash, there will need to be a breakthrough in the cost issue; 4K may be far behind in the content game now, but that won’t last forever.

“4K × 2K LCD TVs have become a focus and are currently available, and OLED TV needs to demonstrate its technical superiority,” Heieh said.

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