£5,000 'Oled' TVs herald entertainment revolution

Analysts predict stampede for latest generation of screens, just 3mm thick
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The Independent Culture

Just millimetres thick, energy efficient and with a far sharper picture, this is the new television tipped to take over our living rooms. Technology pundits expect a consumer stampede of the kind witnessed for flatscreen televisions when the first large Oled models go on sale at the end of this year.

Sony is expected to launch a large Oled television at the end of 2009, priced about £5,000, to follow its 11-inch, £3,489 Bravia XEL, which went on sale earlier this year measuring 3mm at its thinnest point.

Rival Japanese giant Panasonic is tipped to launch a 40-inch Oled television next year and, according to online speculation, Apple will make a 15-inch Oled notebook on which users will be able to download movies.

Oled stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode. Unlike existing screens which need a backlight, Oled's organic pixels radiate light, meaning they use less energy than LCD screens, are smaller and have a sharper picture.

Unlike the dark grey you get on most televisions, the blacks are pure black. On a good LCD television contrast ratio is about 30,000-to-one; on the Oled it is 1 million-to-one.

The Oled sets will be an enhanced version of the HD (high definition) flatscreen sets which have sparked a buying boom in high street electronics shops over the past three years.

Jim Clark, senior technology analyst at Mintel, predicted Oled televisions would become the dominant television from 2012, when cheaper models arrive in the shops in time for the FIFA World Cup, which usually prompts a wave of television buying.

"Imagine a television which is a few centimetres [thick] with better picture quality. Experts think it will be the dominant television technology by 2012. It is going to be like getting on to the HD ladder," he said. "We will start seeing expensive Oled televisions coming out with big screens next year."

The move could help struggling electronics retailers which have been forced to discount heavily during the recession. Currys and Comet are selling 26in LCD televisions for £350. The models would have cost £600 last year.

Sales of televisions are expected to fall this year, for the first time since 2004, according to the retail analysts Mintel. Television sales are estimated to be £2.57bn this year, down from £2.65bn last year.

Across the electronics sector, sales of home entertainment hardware will fall from £7.2bn in 2008 to £6.9bn this year, Mintel predicted. DVD player sales are predicted to fall by £60m, or 9 per cent, from £648m to £590m.

Hardest hit will be standalone MP3 players. Sales are expected to tumble 30 per cent from the 2007 high, down from £503m in 2007 and £454m last year to £386m, as shoppers buy iPhones and other music-playing mobile phones.

But the move from "hard" music formats such as CDs to digital downloads has helped content providers like Apple's iTunes store, despite the proliferation of illegal downloads.

Music downloads have soared in value from £5m in 2005 to just under £200m in 2008 and are expected to reach £248m this year. CD sales are expected to fall by a quarter in the 24 months to the end of this year.

Digital camera sales are forecast to fall from £705m to £701m. Video cameras are a rare possible bright spot, Mintel said, "as new ultra-portable models such as the Flip come to market, combining HD and iPod-like style sensibilities."

Mr Clark said: "Electronics retailers are selling a lot more for less, which they are doing to get consumers into stores. "It's a difficult time for retailers but it's a great time for consumers with money to spend."

Seeing the light: How television has evolved

*Cathode-ray tube: 1950s-1990s

The big, bulky, reliable tellies most of us know and love. Became widely available and popular in the early 1950s, as American families spent the money they had saved during the war on items that had been prohibited. CRT sets last much longer than their modern counterparts, but their size has led to their demise. The CRT's electron gun was the powerhouse of post-war television but vanished when sharper, flatter technologies became more affordable.

*Plasma TVs: 1990s, 2000s

Plasma screens contain noble gases trapped in tiny cells between two panes of glass, which are electrically prompted to emit light. The technology was pioneered in the 1960s but could then display only images in orange on a black background. These screens became popular in hotel lobbies, stock exchanges and pinball machines, owing to their relative thinness. The move into the TV market did not come until the early 1990s when Fujitsu introduced the first full-colour plasma display.

*LCD: 1990s, 2000s

Liquid crystal display TVs have a red, green and blue cell in every pixel, which can be manipulated to form millions of colours. Less energy-hungry and more lightweight than plasma TVs, LCDs are increasingly popular: in the fourth quarter of 2007, they surpassed sales of traditional CRT set for the first time. LCD technology was born in 1888 when an Austrian botanist observed the liquid crystalline nature of cholesterol extracted from carrots, and the wide variety of colours it generated on heating. Prices reach as high as £8,865, as the veteran MP Gerald Kaufman knows.

*OLED: 2010s

OLEDs (main picture) use millions of organic light-emitting diodes to generate the picture, so do not require backlighting. They are much more power- efficient and thinner than other TVs. In 2008, Samsung demonstrated an OLED screen measuring just .05mm in thickness, thinner than paper. OLEDs can, in theory, be printed on any surface, offering the potential for display panels in newspapers and on clothing. But OLED TVs remain by far the most expensive, with the cheapest still costing more than £1,000.