Sales in flat panel displays (FPDs) accounted for 16 per cent of total monitor sales in June, a 2 per cent rise on May sales and a dramatic 10 per cent increase on FPD units sold in the same period last year. According to IT channel research firm Inform, both TFT (thin film transistor) and CRT (cathode ray tube) flat panels have been eating away at the standard CRT market. Standard CRTs, a long-time favourite of consumers due mostly to their affordability and robust nature, lost ground this year, claiming only 65 per cent of total sales as opposed to 84 per cent in June 2001. Considering the economic motivator, this means the price of TFT is starting to pique consumers' interest en masse.
Dealers say most of the interest in TFT and CRT flat-panel displays is coming from the business sector as large organisations try to gain long-term ROI (return on investment) from the energy savings - both in consumed power and reduced heat load on air conditioning - and compressed real estate, since flat panels have a smaller footprint.
"In call centres and security rooms, space saving is a benefit," says Rudie Hoess, chairman of Camcom International, the Australian importer for AG Neovo. "Health-conscious medical professionals avoid the harmful emissions and damage to eyesight associated with CRTs. Power users in graphics, video and the heavy applications space enjoy the screen real estate of the 1280x1028 resolution dual display options in the 17 to 19-inch sizes, while demand for concurrent applications with priority switching is increasing.
"TFT in the home is problematic if young children abound - one good knock on the surface of a TFT will bugger it quite effectively - so business use is still higher, but the elegant look of flat panels means they are finding favour among interior designers."
What the specs don't say
Meanwhile, TFT is experiencing some teething problems. Customers are reporting units with bubbles in the screen and the pixel failure rates are yet to make an appearance in the technical specifications available to resellers and end users. Importers contacted by ARN said negotiations with Taiwanese manufacturers revealed the majority of consumer-level TFTs, including those bundled with Hewlett-Packard, Acer/BenQ and Dell PCs, carry a D grading, the lowest quality, meaning they have between eight and 10 "black spots" (areas where the pixels are damaged) across the surface of the display.
"The production process [of TFTs] is highly yield' prone, resulting in slight display quality variations per manufacturer - what's called the missing pixel' effect," explains Hoess. "Panels are graded and costed based upon the number of pixels inactive across the full display. Cost variations enable assemblers to choose their entry level. Well-known brands also outsource TFT panels from OEM manufacturers. When a specific assembly price point matches off against end-product profitability in tight economic conditions, sustaining a low missing pixel' count can be less of a priority."
Unfortunately, the only way for dealers to unearth information about grades and pixel failure rates is to demand that suppliers declare it. There seems to be a vague suggestion that units coming out of Korea are of higher quality though there is little means of substantiating this. As one manufacturer says: "Unless you are very knowledgeable in computers and have a very sharp eye, it is difficult to discern the difference between the grades." Brad Hook of Altech says the best advice is to thoroughly investigate the range of products, read industry reviews and take note of vendor warranty - you should be looking for a minimum of three years.
A case of more or less
The argument of whether or not TFT LCDs are more failure prone than the old and very stable CRT technology has advocates on both sides. Some say that like any new technology TFT has experienced various quality shortfalls, though they are steadily being resolved. Others, like Debra Chien from AOC Monitors, say that TFT screens are actually more reliable than CRT due to their integrated parts, design and lower power consumption. "TFT screens do not have the high power components, which tend to fail often, found in CRT screens," she says.
Michael Mannasz of Hitachi agrees, adding that TFT LCD screens actually have a "significantly lower failure rate than CRT monitors", although due to the nature of TFT technology any glitch will be more apparent to the user.
"Digital failures in TFT systems exhibit a hard failure' - it either works or it doesn't, whereas an analog system can degrade over time and is less noticeable," explains Matt Dalton, transactional desktop and monitors product manager for Hewlett-Packard.
Bearing the brunt of failure
Some manufacturers take a surprisingly naive approach to the failure rate and its ability to chew through channel resources. While admitting that the brand is the first point of vengeance for the consumer, HP says that its three-year onsite warranty ensures all faults with TFT monitors are resolved through a swap out' of the failed unit. What HP neglects to mention is that a lack of communication between dealers and vendors often sees the same unit swapped out twice or even three times.
"In those cases where quality issues have resulted in returns, both the manufacturer and distributor will incur a cost, and both will also lose the customer's confidence if the case is not handled in a way that isn't satisfying to the customer," says AOC's Chien. "Returns will happen even with the most reliable products and customers understand this. The manufacturer and distributor must have an adequate service program to handle these returns to show the customer that they fully stand behind their products."
Hoess agrees, saying that whether it is the reseller who has 10 angry people coming back with faulty screens, or whether it's the distributor who gets calls from 20 resellers who have all had 10 angry customers, or if it's the importer who receives calls from 30 distributors, or the vendor who gets calls from 50 really annoyed importers all over the world, when standards fall against increased prices and bold marketing assertions, the industry loses and everyone bears the brunt.
Growth in home entertainment
While use of TFT LCD in the home is growing, Paul Reeves of LG Electronics maintains that at this stage, IT still comprises the bulk of consumer and business interest. Currently the major hindrance to TFT uptake, aside from the cost, is the slow refresh, which leaves streaks or impressions on the screen when viewing fast-moving graphics. "Many TFT LCD monitors are a little slow for displaying fast-moving images such as TV, movies and fast games. This may result in dragging or blurring of images," says Hitachi's Mannasz. This has been a source of disillusionment for many performance users who sought out TFTs for a better gaming experience or to watch TV and videos.
Mannasz says there are high-speed TFT LCD monitors available, like Hitachi's CML155XW, that do not suffer from these problems. For the dealer (and consumer), however, the problem is identifying which screens are high-speed and which are not. The technical specifications rarely carry information of this type and cost is an unreliable indicator.
Meanwhile, CRT monitors will remain a strong contender as long as the price gap between TFT and CRT remains large and because of CRTs' ability to display multiple resolutions. "TFT LCD monitors have a fixed pixel resolution and must digitally scale any images outside of this resolution to fit the physical resolution on the screen. This may result in a less than ideal image," explains Mannasz. "The images may look a little soft' after scaling. This mainly affects applications using fixed resolutions lower than the physical resolution of the TFT LCD monitor - games, for example. This is not normally a problem for Windows applications, which can run at the native resolution of the monitor."
Still, HP's Dalton says development in flat-panel technology may open the door to cheaper production of TFT LCD and OLED (organic light emitting diode) panels. "A move to plastic from glass and higher-speed manufacturing processes have the potential to reduce the cost of flat-panel technology to a level where it will squeeze CRT out of the market," says Dalton. The hope is that these moves will also allow the manufacturing of panels suitable for large-screen high-definition TV, which will assist in driving the technology across both the computing and home entertainment markets.