Improved LCD Technology, First Developed And Deployed In Consumer Televisions, Finally Finds Its Niche In The Professional Monitoring And Display Market
Consumer TVs are driving the LCD display market. That’s both good and bad for video professionals. The good news? Everything is moving to 16:9. The bad news? The free ride where professionals and consumers could share essentially the same product ended with the CRT. The consumer market is now the big dog in town, and the professional market has little choice but to follow along, even with some of the most advanced technologies.
Take 120-Hz scanning, which is becoming a must-have feature on LCD consumer televisions for smoother, jitter-free video playback. At the Consumer Electronics Show both last year and this year, manufacturers wowed attendees with convincing comparisons between TVs with and without the technology. So when will 120-Hz scanning show up on the pro desktop, other than with Sony’s pricey reference monitors, the 23-inch BVM-L230 ($23,000) and 42-inch BVM-L420 (price to be determined)?
Hold the Flicker
"We have working prototypes with 120 Hz- I have one right here," says Jeff Muto, Samsung’s display product marketing manager. "It’s being implemented in TVs first. After those products hit the market, eventually you’ll start seeing it in our commercial desktop displays. I don’t have an exact timeline because there’s nothing firm on our roadmap." It isn’t just video professionals who are interested in 120-Hz monitors. "We’ve identified other applications that might need it," Muto explains. "I know the TSA- the airport screeners- have requested 120 Hz because they get too much flicker with regular LCD monitors."
What’s the hold-up if there’s a definite need for smoother video? The 120-Hz technology needs to be built-into the LCD panel. "The panel has to be capable of running it, and there’s just no availability," says Rhoda Alexander, iSuppli’s director of monitor research. So why not ramp up production of the 120-Hz LCD panels that are suitable for desktop monitors? "Because it’s a video issue, not a still image issue, you’re talking about a very small portion of the market that would be concerned with the 120-Hz capability," Alexander explains. "You have to balance that with how much you’re willing to tie up a panel production line in order to fill that particular need within the market."
Given the narrowness of the market, Sony may have had an arrangement with the panel manufacturer for exclusive rights to the 120-Hz panels for a limited period of time. If that was the case, the exclusivity agreement appears to be coming to an end. At the NAB tradeshow in April, Panasonic announced a 17-inch LCD production monitor, the BT-LH1760. It features 120-Hz scanning, 10-bit image processing, pixel-to-pixel matching (so you won’t need to resize content) and a built-in vectorscope (for signal level monitoring). It has a suggested list price of $4,500 and should be available by the time you read this.
Also at NAB, Barco announced its new 22.5-inch LCD reference monitor, the RHDM-2301. It has a 120-Hz panel, calibrated LED backlighting, true 10-bit native color and 48-bit color processing. A Barco representative wouldn’t provide a price, but did indicate it would be competitive with what Sony is charging for its BVM-L230. The RHDM-2301 won’t ship until the end of the year.
Running the Gamut
Another top feature of the Sony BVM product line- LED backlighting- is moving down the food chain into less expensive desktop monitors. It is, however, coming in more slowly than was expected a year ago. "Samsung currently has three LCD displays that use an LED backlight," says Muto. "The 30-inch and 24-inch models- the XL30 and the XL24- are 123 percent of the NTSC color gamut. The 20-inch model- the XL20- is 114 percent. We also have some high-efficiency CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent) products that aren’t quite that high. For example, our 305T is 102 percent." All three Samsung LED monitors include color calibrating hardware and software, as well as a hood.
At NAB, HP announced a new 30-bit color LED-backlit monitor that it developed in cooperation with DreamWorks Animation. It will have factory presets for standard color ranges, such as NTSC, SMPTE sRGB, Adobe RGB and DCI. HP has been vague about the details (hence, we can’t show you what it looks like yet), except to say it will sell for less than a quarter of what a comparable studio monitor would sell for. The technology will likely migrate across HP’s consumer and business monitor lines as well.
"The problem with the LED solutions is they tend to be more expensive to implement," says Alexander. "LED continues to be an area of much interest for achieving color purity, but if with the LED backlight solution, you have long-term reliability issues coming into it- if you have uneven degradation or uniformity issues- then they’re not as interested in it. If you create a problem in the process of the solution, then that’s going to be a problem with some of the people I’ve spoken with."
LED-backlit desktop monitors have made little, if any progress since a year ago, according to Chris Connery, DisplaySearch’s vice president for PC and large-format commercial displays. Because wide color gamut CCFL monitors now approach or even exceed the standard NTSC color gamut, the move from CCFL to LED-backlight systems has slowed, except for some of the new reference-quality broadcast monitors.
The rationale for corporations buying LED systems has also changed. "Before they were looking at it as an RGB replacement to have even a wider color gamut than wide color gamut CCFLs," says Connery. "Now they’re looking at it in the same way that they’re using it for notebooks, which is as a white-light backlight replacement. LED backlighting where you use white LEDs just to replace white CCFLs can reduce power consumption for a desktop monitor, which is currently of greater importance to a lot of corporate IT buyers than display performance."
Display performance may not be the prime motivation at retail either. "I talked with retailers at a lot of the big chains when the LCD-versus-plasma-versus-CRT battle started," says Alexander. "They talked about the draw that LCD televisions would have for people, because in a retail setting, they are so much brighter. It didn’t have anything to do with absolutes of performance. It had to do with grabbing the customer’s attention in the store."
Wide Open Spaces
While professionals are having to play catch up with consumers with 120 Hz and LED backlighting, the larger television market is helping to drive commercial monitors toward the 16:9 aspect ratio. "What the industry is starting to talk about is 16:9 for the desktop," says Connery. "To consolidate manufacturing processes, manufacturers want to make only one panel form factor and put it in a desktop or a TV. Either put a tuner in it and call it a TV, or don’t have a tuner in it and call it a monitor."
Consumers have moved to widescreen monitors much faster than businesses. "As of January, 79 percent of the monitors sold to consumers through retail outlets were widescreen," explains Connery. "In a commercial environment, it’s just the opposite. Only about 24 percent of what was sold into commercial environments was widescreen."
Looking at the desktop monitor market overall- not just retail- you can see that a dramatic shift toward widescreen is currently under way. "For desktops overall, it was about 40 percent of the market for Q4 2007, but we expect that to grow to almost 60 percent of the market by Q4 2008," says Alexander. "If you look at the 20-inch and larger segment for Q4 2007, wide format is already 89 percent of the market. That will be changing to 94.6 percent. That’s because the remaining standard format product in the 20-inch and larger space becomes UXGA 20-inch product, and everything else will be wide format."
Ultimately, improved consumer television is a good thing for the video industry because it helps to close the gap between production-based and home-based viewing. "A future consumer might have a 24-inch 120-Hz LCD TV at home, and if the video professional had designed, managed or manipulated the content on a 24-inch 120-Hz desktop monitor with the same resolution back in the studio, then you would have a perfect match," says Connery. The industry still remembers a simpler time when much of the content was shot on 35mm film and shown on CRT televisions. "If you look at 35mm and CRT televisions, the performance that comes out of both is actually much closer than what you get when you look at the difference between film and LCD," says Alexander. "That has been one of the frustrations for the studios."
Lost in Translation
Today’s video professionals often work with both analog and digital, and that has created its own set of problems. "These specialty markets have traditionally loved CRTs because it’s a kinder medium," says Alexander. "They’re seeing artifacts that weren’t showing up on a CRT when they were doing the final film production. Now when the executive of the studio looks at the content on a plasma or LCD display, those artifacts are showing up, particularly on LCDs."
The biggest challenge for many video producers is determining where and how the video will be viewed. "When you look across the professional space- all the professional space- this is something that they’re going to be grappling with more and more," says Alexander. "How are consumers going to be using the finished product they’re producing? Are consumers going to be looking at the finished product- be it photographs, magazines, catalogs or film- on digital displays?" Producers don’t want to tweak the content for each type of display. "Ideally, you want to make it replicable across as many of the platforms as you can without having any degradation of the performance," she says.
One solution to the Babel-like spread of display formats is to offer simulation modes for high-end reference monitors. "Obviously you have to start with the best possible image that you can, but when you’re looking at that image, you want to understand how it’s going to look in all these different venues," explains Rob Carroll, president and CEO of Cine-tal. His company recently purchased Rising Sun Research’s cineSpace technology, which allows Cine-tal’s Cinemage production-based LCD monitors to more precisely emulate other display systems. "How will this look when it’s delivered via an iPod, iTouch or iPhone?" he asks. "How will it look when it’s delivered on the side of a building in Times Square?" The audio industry has dealt with this issue for years. You mix the symphony in 32 channels using studio reference speakers. Then you put it through AM-quality speakers to see if it still sounds OK.
"One way to look at it is that you have to have a monitor that’s a superset of everything else that’s out there, so you can simulate everything," says Carroll. "That’s going to be very difficult to do. Not only that, it’s going to be hard economically for a lot of people to afford that superset type monitor- which, by the way, doesn’t exist yet."
Software emulation modes are useful even on a less-than-perfect monitor, because they can alert you to what you’re not seeing. "If you can visually know what you’re not seeing, even though you’re viewing it on a monitor that may be a subset of what you’re trying to emulate, you can at least say, I know this color red isn’t being reproduced right here, right now, exactly like it will be out there," Carroll explains. "You may say that’s not important. But if you’re doing a commercial for Coke, it might be vital that that red is accurate, so you need to make it exactly right."
In addition to his reviews for this magazine, contributing editor David English evaluates software and hardware for and Computer Shopper magazine.