Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

DISPLAY CONSULTING

The Display Continuum

August 2005 Distorted Images…

After a long day of cross country travel that included a three-hour wait on a taxiway in Denver -- for the weather to clear in New York -- the uneventful taxi ride and check-in at the midtown hotel was a welcome relief. I like this particular hotel because it is close to Central Park and that gives me an opportunity to go for a run at the end of most business days.

On this visit, upon entering my room, I immediately noticed that the traditional décor was now competing with a new, very contemporary looking, plasma panel television. Gone was the old CRT-based set, now replaced by a 42-inch plasma panel with a bright metallic-silver surround. Clearly this hotel was intent on providing the latest and best technology for its clientele. And I planned to enjoy this new experience to the fullest.
Unfortunately, that is not what happened next. My initial high expectations quickly turned to disappointment.

As I scanned through the channels, the images jumped out at me in overly saturated colors, but with a limited color range. This was not just a minor annoyance. The picture quality was truly awful. The second problem was that the standard 4:3 TV images were being stretched into the 16:9 format with no compensation. All the people looked fat and distorted. The remote control provided with this TV did not have any buttons on it that would allow the user to adjust either the color saturation or the image aspect ratio. And unlike most CRT sets, the TV unit itself was also devoid of any accessible means for adjustment.

This plasma panel was certainly not producing images close to anything resembling the quality I had recently seen at the SID Symposium in Boston. In fact, by now I was wishing that this hotel still had their old CRT televisions. It’s embarrassing to admit, but what I was seeing on this new plasma panel television was worse than anything I have seen even on a poorly adjusted CRT television. The combination of distorted images, overly saturated colors, and limited gray scale made for a truly bad viewing experience.

Well, perhaps this was simply one of those situations where I happened to be the one to end up in the room with a faulty or poorly adjusted set. However, during my next stay a few weeks later, I had the same bad experience in a different room with a different set from the same manufacturer. About the only positive comment that I could come up with is that these panels were certainly very futuristic looking with their bright silvery metal bezels. They captured the look and feel of a product that could have the promise of a great new display technology. But they sure didn’t deliver on this promise. This upscale hotel had made a major investment to provide something special to their clientele and the result was worse than the old technology they had abandoned. They would have been better off buying new $300 CRT-based televisions instead of these $3,000 plasma panels. Perhaps by now, you are beginning to think that, for some unexplained reason, I have decided to be overly critical of plasma panel televisions. Well then, let me tell you about another recent experience that involved LC televisions.

On a visit to the local Target store a few days ago, I wandered into the electronics section. At this particular store they have a large wall of traditional CRT televisions and on a display table in front sit the new LCD models in various sizes. I found the video-wall of approximately fifty CRT televisions impressive because they were all surprisingly well matched for color and contrast. The images were bright and the primary difference was in whether scan lines could be seen or not. The higher end sets were obviously using some form of line doubling to create the appearance of HDTV-like images.

All of the LCD televisions came in a poor second. The color balance varied from set to set to the extent that even an untrained person would notice immediately. The same was true for contrast and color saturation. Not one of the sets produced an image comparable in quality to those seen on the CRT televisions. Should we then expect that consumers are going to be willing to pay a two or three times higher price for an inferior viewing experience? Maybe that is not a reasonable expectation from an engineer’s viewpoint, but the reality is that people seem to be buying “these great new flat-panel televisions” even at these high prices and even with inferior image quality.

Of course not every experience will be as bad as the two I have described. I have visited electronics stores where all of the new flat-panel products were operating at their optimum settings and the images were just as good as those seen on CRT-based sets. But, it is nevertheless a disappointment to see display technologies that we in the display industry have worked so hard to perfect be presented in such an inferior way.

What concerns me for our future is that in the drive to get selling prices ever lower, the quality of the images will suffer even more. New products will be introduced using low-cost designs and manufacturing processes that give up on image quality in order to achieve lower selling prices. This could then end up as a “good news” scenario for the few remaining CRT television manufacturers. If consumers begin to see that the extra money is only buying a more stylish looking product, but that the product is not providing them with a better viewing experience they may consider less costly alternatives. It is perhaps impossible to predict how the typical buyer will behave over the next few years. However, it could turn out that we have been premature in writing off the CRT as a viable display technology -- for at least some portion of the consumer television market.

Is there a plasma or LCD television in your immediate future? Do you already have one? When you make your next purchase what will you buy? If you would like to comment on these questions or other topics discussed in these columns you may reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at silzars@attglobal.net,, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.