ProAVmag

The Display Battle Heats Up

Plasma and LCD continue their fight for the flat-panel display market, and it's getting brutal. 10/24/2007 8:24 AM Eastern

The Display Battle Heats Up

Plasma and LCD continue their fight for the flat-panel display market, and it's getting brutal.

Credit: aland

OF ALL THE PRODUCT CATEGORIES I track in the pro AV industry, none is more entertaining than the flat-panel monitor and HDTV marketplace. It's a comparatively young industry, with color plasma monitors first coming to market about 14 years ago, and large (greater than 40-inch) LCD monitors making their first appearance around 2000.

Those early products had steep price tags. Back in 1996, a 42-inch plasma with EDTV resolution would set you back nearly $20,000, while Sharp's first 28-inch LCD monitor had a price tag of $15,000 a few years later.

Today the competitive landscape has changed, largely due to the consumer market. Everyone wants flat-panel HDTVs, and manufacturers are only too willing to oblige. Larger and larger LCD fabs are coming online. Plasma prices are being slashed as higher-resolution panels are introduced.

These days it's safe to say that prices have dropped to the point where flat-panel monitors and HDTVs are becoming commodities – particularly at sizes of 42 inches and below.

This past holiday selling season, 40-inch and 42-inch plasma and LCD HDTVs did achieve price parity, with ample product available through big box stores for $1,000 to $1,200.

Because the consumer channel demands so much attention from PDP and LCD manufacturers, it's affecting the breadth and price of products available through pro AV distributors. As manufacturer's margins continue to get squeezed, some are reaching the point of no return — do they stick with both plasma and LCD, as is the case with LG and Samsung, or do they concentrate on one flat panel technology for all screen sizes going forward?

Both LG and Samsung seem to be leaning toward LCD as the eventual winner. Many industry analysts believe that plasma is losing the battle at 40 and 42 inches, given that LCD technology has achieved 1080p resolution at that screen size — not to mention 37 inches.

From that viewpoint, plasma technology may have to retreat to the 50-inch category with 1080p resolution and substantial price cuts. This past November, Jun Souk, the executive vice president of Samsung's LCD research and development (R&D) center, said that plasma will have big problems if it can't hold on to the 50-inch market.

According to a story published by Boston-based research group IDG, Souk was quoted: “If they lose the final battlefield at 50 inches, I think the future is very cloudy for PDPs.” Samsung and Sony are getting ready to bring a Generation 8 LCD fab online soon, and will concentrate on 46-inch and 52-inch sizes that will compete head-on in that 50-inch space.

But screen sizes and prices are one thing — performance is another. Plasma has generally held the upper hand here in terms of image quality (sharpness, color, and black levels) and viewing angles.



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The Display Battle Heats Up

Plasma and LCD continue their fight for the flat-panel display market, and it's getting brutal.

In contrast, LCD technology has wrestled with all of these parameters, using tricks like pulsed back-lights to reduce motion blurring, switching to color-corrected fluorescent lamps and light-emitting diodes for improved color, and using next-generation compensating films to drop black levels and expand viewing angles.

There's evidence that LCD manufacturers are getting closer on all counts. Coupled with advantages in lower power consumption (about 20 to 25 percent on average over same-size plasma) and weight (about 20 percent lighter in same-size screens), LCD could indeed turn out to be a winner in what has long been thought to be a two-technology category.

Another thing that complicates the picture for plasma is the presence of Taiwanese giants CMO and AUO, which are both major players in the LCD industry. The continued downward spiral of prices has forced some of the major Japanese brands to set up deals with these and other Chinese manufacturers to get LCD glass at lower prices — a “plan B” option that most plasma manufacturers don't have.

Among those, LG Electronics held the top spot on Q3 2006 with a 32.5 percent PDP market share, according to Austin, TX-based display market research firm DisplaySearch. Matsushita (Panasonic) followed with 30.4 percent, and Samsung SDI came in third with 23.2 percent. These three companies accounted for 86 percent of all plasma shipments in that quarter, leaving table scraps for Hitachi (8.9 percent share) and Pioneer (4.8 percent).

But LG and Samsung are also major players in LCD, along with Sharp, CMO, and AUO. As such, LG and Samsung can simply shut down PDP lines if they eventually determine that LCD is the best way to go. (Even so, Sharp, which just opened a Gen 8 LCD fab in Japan, has recently had to make deals to buy smaller LCD glass from lower-cost Taiwanese manufacturers.)

Panasonic isn't a major player in LCD, nor is Hitachi. And Pioneer has no LCD manufacturing capacity, nor any LCD products in its line. All three companies are working frantically to reduce wholesale plasma prices while maintaining high volumes of production and yields, all in the face of the LCD juggernaut.

For many professional applications, the battle may already be over. Early digital signage installations made extensive use of plasma displays because that's all you could buy. Today, many of those installations have switched or are switching over to LCD as prices drop and screens increase in size.

The main reason is the higher brightness of LCD monitors, but the absence of glare from ambient light is another plus. Plasma monitors, like CRT monitors, do have problems with glare under high ambient lighting. Anti-glare glass mitigates the problem considerably, but also cuts down on brightness levels.

Other issues with motion blurring and color accuracy in LCD displays may not be as big of a problem with digital signage, where many of the applications involve relatively static displays of images, numbers, and text. As a result, the retail, transportation, public safety, command & control, process control, and hospitality sectors are largely specifying and installing LCD monitors these days.

So when does the final bell ring? How many more rounds will this fight go on?



The Display Battle Heats Up

Plasma and LCD continue their fight for the flat-panel display market, and it's getting brutal.

A few days to Black Friday, there was plenty of price slashing going on in the plasma TV market – 42-inch integrated plasma TVs were available for less than $1,000 in many stores, while 50-inch HDTVs were rapidly falling below $2,000.

On the LCD side of things, 37-inch integrated HDTVs are already below $1,000, with some 42-inch models priced as low as $1,200. And 46-inch and 47-inch LCD HDTVs are available for as little as $1,700 at a variety of wholesale clubs. (For now, larger LCD HDTVs are still trickling into the market.)

Basically, this slugfest will go on as long as manufacturers can reduce their manufacturing costs while still maintaining acceptable profit margins. But those days are numbered, and there may even be some product dumping going on to maintain market share and shelf space. (Yes, it's happened before!)

Odds are, by the end of this decade, LCD technology will have been declared the winner, based on price trends, larger glass sizes, and the proliferation of lower-cost LCD manufacturers in Taiwan and China. None of them are investing in new plasma fabs, and that ought to tell you something.

FEEDBACK

To comment on this article, email the Pro AV editorial staff at proav@ascendmedia.com.

Pete Putman is a contributing editor for Pro AV and president of ROAM Consulting, Doylestown, PA. Especially well known for the product testing/development services he provides manufacturers of projectors, monitors, integrated TVs, and display interfaces, he has also authored hundreds of technical articles, reviews, and columns for industry trade and consumer magazines over the last two decades. You can reach him at pete@hdtvexpert.com.



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