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A few years ago Samsung introduced very thin large-screen LCD-TV sets with LED edge-lighting and thin light-guide plates (LGPs). The company earned its place in the infamous marketing hall of fame by ignoring reality and calling these sets “LED TVs,” which has confused TV consumers and salesmen every since. With these thin, elegantly designed sets, Samsung created a reason for people to buy premium TVs and enjoyed a surge in market penetration that lasted until the rest of the industry caught up — about 9 months. Thin was in.

But as LEDs became more efficient and less expensive, manufacturers began to see advantages in returning to the old style of placing the backlight’s lamps directly behind the LCD, but with a significant difference. The old stack of several cold-cathode fluorescent lamps would be replaced by a full array of LEDs. This would also be a return to the old, thicker, “light box” style of backlight, which LGPs had seemingly relegated to the dustbin of history. Would consumers accept thicker TVs after the industry had spent so much time selling them on thin ones, or would Tei Iki’s old flat-screen insight carry the day?

Tei Iki? In the waning days of CRT monitors, Tei Iki was assigned the task of squeezing as much lifetime as possible from Sony’s then-large CRT and monitor operation in San Diego. Iki was fond of placing a flat-screen LCD monitor on a desk next to a nearly-flat-screen Sony Trinitron CRT monitor, and aligning the screens so they were in the same plane. “See,” he would say. “All screens are flat.” And then he went on, motioning to the very different depths of the monitors, “The rest is just infrastructure.” How much infrastructure will consumers accept? And what will they get in return?

Two-year-old Samsung TV, as seen at the GrafTech International booth at SID 2014.  The display is removed to show the full-array LED backlight. GrafTech makes the graphite heat spreaders seen under the LEDs on the left side of the backlight. (Photo: Ken Werner) Two-year-old Samsung TV. The display is removed to show the full-array LED backlight.

Two-year-old Samsung TV, as seen at the GrafTech International booth at SID 2014. The display is removed to show the full-array LED backlight. GrafTech makes the graphite heat spreaders seen under the LEDs on the left side of the backlight. (Photo: Ken Werner)

A couple of years ago, LCD-TVs with full-matrix LED backlights began to appear in the North American market as low-cost sets. (See photo.) One big saving was the elimination of the expensive LGP. And to keep costs really low, a minimal number of LEDs were used in the array. As a result, these sets generally had less luminance than edge-lit models.

But, as was very well-known at the time, the LEDs in a full-array backlight can be controlled in groups to significantly enhance the dynamic range of the images displayed. Thus, set makers could use the same backlighting technology for value-priced and premium sets, depending on the number of LEDs and the sophistication of the “local area dimming.”

And that’s what Vizio is doing as it rolls out its new 2014 M Series, FHD, smart LCD-TVs. The premium M series sets have their LEDs controlled in up to 32 separated zones, with the 70-inch having 36 zones. Only the 80-inch still uses an LGP. (The 80-inch also features local-area dimming since a somewhat limited version of this technology can still be implemented with edge-lit LGP backlights.)

The more economical E series also uses full-array backlights and local dimming, with the local control maxing out at 18 zones.

Although it’s not really part of this column, Vizio is not offering 3D capability on any of its 2014 sets. Chief engineer Ken Lowe has always said that Vizio achieves its very competitive pricing not by compromising quality, but by including only those features consumers value. Vizio feels that consumers’ lack of interest in 3D is so profound that the cost of 3D capability should be directed to other features.

Getting back on topic, AmTRAN, which has licensed the JVC name for direct-view TV sets, announced this week the introduction of a 32-inch HDTV model in its JVC Emerald Series. The EM32FL is intended for the growing number of people who inhabit small apartments but still want a full-featured TV. The $269 (MSRP) set features full-array backlighting. Since AmTRAN claims a four-million-to-one dynamic contrast ratio and “silky black levels,” we can assume the set is using local-area dimming.

Is this enough performance and cost-saving to justify a fat TV? Well, they really aren’t that fat. Vizio’s 65-inch M-class is a whopping 2.28 inches thick. Yes, an LGP edge-light could cut that to less than an inch. But I feel Tei Iki leaning over my shoulder, saying, “It’s just infrastructure.”

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications.  He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies entering or repositioning themselves in industries related to displays and the products that use them.  You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Posted by Ken Werner, June 12, 2014 10:10 PM

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About Ken Werner

Kenneth I. Werner is the founder and Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, which specializes in the display industry, display technology, display manufacturing, and display applications. He serves as Marketing Consultant for Tannas Electronic Displays (Orange, California) and Senior Analyst for Insight Media. He is a founding co-editor of and regular contributor to Display Daily, and is a regular contributor to HDTVexpert.com and HDTV Magazine. He was the Editor of Information Display Magazine from 1987 to 2005.