A new generation of super-thin, power-sipping displays is making its way to the market, stretching battery lives to new limits and perhaps one day posing a challenge to heavier, energy-gobbling LCDs.
New screens that glow on their own are taking on their clunkier liquid crystal display rivals--which require powerful backlighting--by producing sharper video images for smart phones, game consoles and portable media players.
But industry watchers say it will be years before a clear winner--if any--emerges with the clout to outdo LCDs.
Organic light-emitting diode (OLED) and bi-stable technologies are the most likely challengers to LCDs.
An OLED screen uses as much as 40 percent less power than a comparable LCD and could be twice as thin because it does not need backlighting.
These technologies are already being used in some smaller portable devices, such as music players from Samsung Electronics and Reigncom and a thin mobile phone from Kyocera.
And Sony plans to sell small TVs using the OLED technology later this year.
"In handheld devices, display consumes power most. It's all about power and then maybe brightness," said Lehman Brothers analyst James Kim in South Korea.
Analysts reckon Apple's iPhone, which launched in the United States on Friday, may end up using more energy-efficient screens, such as OLED, given the short battery life of its pilot models with LCD screens.
"It makes sense (for Apple) to move to OLED screens. They are working to improve the battery issue," said Kim Woon-ho, an analyst at Prudential Investment & Securities.
"OLED makers have some expectations for Apple's switch, too, although there's no firm plan yet."
Apple was not available for comment.
In on the act
The commercial for these new display types has caught the eye of some LCD makers, like Samsung SDI and Sony, given that LCD prices have plunged by a third in the last year.
Samsung SDI is already making OLED screens, while Taiwan's Chi Mei EL--an pure OLED maker owned by LCD company Chi Mei Optoelectronics--is running at full capacity.
The market for low-power forms of OLED and low power LCD displays is set to grow rapidly, reaching $24 billion in sales by 2012, rising at an annual growth rate of 27 percent from $6 billion in 2007, according to market researcher iSuppli.
Developing new technology is costly, so some LCD producers like LG.Philips LCD are improving existing LCDs--using new power control technology and optical sensors for backlight units.
"LCD companies are working to improve LCD panels," Prudential's Kim said. "It may take years for the (OLED) market to grow if the trend continues."
But some industry experts reckon OLED technology--which began life powering car radios--may end up on large televisions.
OLED producers will have to improve the organic material used between the two electrodes which illuminate the screen, and costs will have to come down before OLEDs become widely used in cell phones, PCs and flat-screen TVs.
"The price of an OLED display is 1.7 to 1.8 times higher than that of a LCD and it won't become more competitive until after the price falls sharply," CMEL President Peter Chen said.
A rival to OLED technology are bi-stable displays, which retain images without power, making them suitable for public displays and sub-screens on devices, although bi-stable displays have image quality issues.
Another product is color flexible OLED display. LG.Philips LCD recently unveiled a 4-inch full-color flexible OLED display, although the size is still too small for handheld e-books.
And that's just the beginning. One day, versions of newspapers and magazines that are updated wirelessly might be rolled up or folded, and carried like a piece of paper, for instance.
"That's when we will see real differentiation (with other display technologies)," said Chung Ho-kyoon, Samsung SDI's chief technology officer.