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Through thick and thin

Through thick and thin
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First Published: Tue, May 06 2008. 11 59 PM IST

Updated: Tue, May 06 2008. 11 59 PM IST
Modern tech life teems with long-standing quandaries, questions that never seem to go away. Mac or Windows? Turn off the computer every night or let it sleep? Plasma or LCD?
Fortunately, that last question will soon have an answer. There’s a new television on the block, and its picture is so amazing, it makes plasma and LCD look like cave drawings. It’s called organic light emitting diode, or OLED. This technology has been happily lighting up the screens of certain cellphone and music-player models for a couple of years now, but Sony is the first company to offer it in a TV screen. Called the XEL-1, its picture is so incredible, Sony should include a jaw cushion.
The XEL-1’s picture is so colourful, vibrant, rich, lifelike and high in contrast that you catch your breath. It’s like looking out of a window. With the glass missing. Name a drawback of plasma or LCD—motion blur, uneven lighting across the panel, blacks that aren’t quite black, whites that aren’t quite white, limited viewing angle, colour that isn’t quite true, brightness that washes out in bright rooms, screen-door effect up close—and this TV overcomes it. Blacks on Sony’s OLED TV are jet black. Absolute black. To make it more drool-worthy, the XEL-1’s screen is only 3mm thick—shirt-cardboard thick. If they could build a laptop with a screen this thin, it would make the MacBook Air look like a suitcase. The reason: In an OLED screen, each pixel generates its own light; there’s no need for bulky backlights as there are in, for example, LCD sets. Finally, OLED uses less electricity than plasma or LCD.
So, if this thing is so amazing, why isn’t everyone stampeding to get one? Because even though the XEL-1 is the biggest OLED television you can buy today, it’s only an 11-inch screen. That’s not a typo; it’s smaller than your laptop screen. And it costs $2,500. If you’re tempted, beware of a few items of fine print. First of all, surprisingly enough, the XEL-1 is not actually a high-definition TV. It accepts high-definition signals, but it doesn’t display all of that resolution. In fact, it has only 960 x 540 pixels; you’d need four of these screens to equal the pixels of one 1080p high-definition screen.
Yet, here’s what’s shocking: Instead of complaining how coarse the picture is, people exclaim how much sharper it is than high-definition plasmas or LCD sets. That’s partly because the pixels are far tinier than they are on a 50-inch behemoth. You can’t see individual pixels even with your nose smashed up against the glass.
This example makes you suspect that perhaps pixel count is not the be-all, end-all television measurement that the TV industry would have us believe it is. Just as the number of megapixels has little to do with the quality of the photos from a digital camera, maybe the perceived clarity of a TV image may depend more on other factors. In any case, nobody will ever complain about the XEL-1’s sharpness or resolution. As a “desktop TV” (Sony’s euphemism for this tiny thing), the XEL-1 comes mounted on a flat tabletop base. The screen floats above it, suspended by a chrome arm on the right side.
This design is tidy and self-contained, and it permits the screen to tilt 70 degrees forward or back. The screen doesn’t rotate on its vertical axis, however; if you want to show it off to someone next to you, you have to turn the whole base. Or don’t, and just exploit the screen’s nearly 90-degree viewing angle.
Nor does the screen come off that base so that you can suspend it or mount it—a fantasy that occurs to almost everyone. The base is, after all, where you connect the power cord and the video sources. Its back panel offers a coaxial cable input, two HDMI cables, a headphone/digital-audio output jack and a Memory Stick slot (to play photos of the memory card from a Sony camera).
One concern: Until recently, OLED had a reputation for a short lifespan. Sony, however, says that the XEL-1’s screen will be good for 30,000 hours. That’s 8 hours of watching each day for 10 years. Check back here in 2018 for an update.
The user guide does warn that OLED screens can develop plasma-like burn-in if you leave a static image on the screen for a very long time. The XEL-1 comes with a very thin, nicely laid-out remote, but it’s non-illuminated and can’t control any other gear. On the base are volume up/down, input-switching and power buttons. Their labels light up when the TV is on, and disappear into the black surface when it’s off, which is very cool.
The Sony also comes with a comedy booklet titled “Operating Instructions.” It’s filled with hilarious warnings, such as “Do not install the TV upside down,” “Do not throw anything at the TV” and “Do not install the TV where insects may enter.” (Some of them are physical impossibilities. “Do not place objects on top of the TV,” for example—what could you possibly balance on a 3mm razor’s edge? Or this one: “Adjust the volume so as not to trouble your neighbours.” Listen, the only way this TV’s tiny speaker could trouble your neighbours is if they tried to swallow it.)
©2008/New York Times
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First Published: Tue, May 06 2008. 11 59 PM IST
More Topics: Plasma | LCD | OLED | TV | Business of Life |