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OLED: new star of the small screen

A raft of sharp, bright, and power-thrifty displays for new small devices arrive soon

If you're fed up with fuzzy, low-resolution screens on your mobile phone, digital camera or portable music player, get ready for some relief. The first generation of handheld consumer electronics devices that use an innovative new display technology will be in the shops soon.

The main benefit of new Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) screens is the bright, clear images they produce. OLED screens refresh faster, so they're better at displaying video. And the best active-matrix models can display nearly four times as many colours as equivalent-size LCDs can reproduce.

"The benefits of OLED are obvious," says Lisa O'Malley, senior brand manager for portable devices at Creative, which will use an OLED display in its upcoming Zen Micro Photo. "When people see the difference in the contrast, the bright colour, and the phenomenal viewing angle, they are blown away by it."

Unlike LCDs, OLEDs emit their own light in the form of electroluminescence. As a result, OLED displays appear brighter and sharper than LCDs, even when viewed at an angle. And as a side benefit of ditching the LCD backlight, OLEDs are battery thrifty.

"Power consumption is a critical element in phones," says Muzib Khan of Samsung. "Phones will be multimedia devices, and when you use OLED, you can come down on the battery size, or keep the battery and get more performance."

Samsung already uses monochrome OLED displays for the small outer screen on its E715 and P735 cell phones. It expects to begin selling new phones with full-colour OLEDs by this summer.

But OLEDs won't supplant LCDs anytime soon. They're difficult to make, increasing the cost of any device that uses an OLED screen. The majority of the 264,000 active-matrix colour OLED displays that will be manufactured this year will be installed in high-end handheld consumer electronics devices such as cameras and mobile phones.

But by 2010, display technology analyst Paul Semenza of ISuppli forecasts, factories will be churning out 289m active-matrix OLED displays annually. He estimates about 88 percent of those will end up in mobile phones.

OLED displays will crop up in several other places, too: In certain high-end 2005-model-year cars (such as Aston Martin's DB9), the dashboard offers an active-matrix colour OLED information display. A few Pioneer car stereos are available that already use monochrome OLED displays.

And OLED televisions are coming, says Jim Sandufski, Samsung's vice president of marketing for visual displays; but don't start salivating yet. Sandufski says that Samsung, which showed off a prototype 21in display in January at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is several years away from mass-producing OLED TVs.

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