08 Jan 2015
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Quantum Dots are Coming, Here’s Why You Should Care

By Patrick Pilcher

The pace of change never ceases to amaze me. Take TVs as a case in point. Only a few years ago the spam was flying thick and fast as consumer electronics firms launched new TV sets at CES.

They were touting 3D as a new killer feature that’d have buyers rushing in droves to electronics stores to part with wads of cash.

Hype and Other Bullshittery

What a difference a 36 months makes. The huge costs of re-equipping to broadcast 3D meant that beyond one or two test broadcasts, TV networks didn't embrace 3D.

Consumers also decided that an involuntary Joe-90 impersonation using chunky 3D specs just wasn’t on. 3D fell way down the list of must-have TV features.

Perhaps aware of this, many manufacturers began to also tout their wares as smart TVs. In practice this saw them grafting meagre processing power, Wi-Fi and in some cases Ethernet onto their TVs.

The premise was that consumers could use what is likely to be the biggest screen in their house to surf the web and other online stuff.

Trouble was that the limited processing power of most smart TVs limited their capabilities. Most consumers had access to tried and proven means of feeding internet addictions.

Smartphones, tablets, PCs and games consoles were already working fine for surfing, social media, e-mailing and gaming.

Adding further to the decline of smart TVs was usability. Using a TV remote to type up an email was not an exercise many cared to repeat. Motion controlled remotes and voice input helped, but the whole smart TV experience remained clunky and is still avoided by many.

The Rise of the Dot

So will 2015 be a case of third time lucky for TV makers? This time the hype emanating out of CES shows us that TV makers may finally be coming to their senses. This year’s focus appears to be all about improving the TV picture rather than tacking a bunch of expensive gimmicks onto TVs that no one will use.

The big fuss this year is all about dots. Quantum dots. While this may sound a lot like something airing on Sky’s Sci-fi channel, the Zone, it's got to be seen to be believed.

So how does it work and why should you care? The answer comes down to this: TV pictures are brighter, sharper and vivid. On a UHD (4K) TV, the difference is eye-popping and more like looking through a window than watching a screen.

Quantum dots are tiny crystals that absorb light and ten re-radiate it at specific wavelengths. This means that colours are accurate and contrast levels border on incredible.

These have long been the Achilles heel of LCD panels used in most TVs. With quantum dot technologies these become a non-issue. Rich accurate colours make a huge difference to viewability. Big contrast ratios help to sharpen up pictures, making things seem pin-sharp.

Where night scenes are usually rendered as murky near black greys on LCD TVs, they’re jet-black on a quantum dot equipped TV. In short, the video from a quantum dot powered screen looks razor sharp and vivid.

While OLED (organic light emitting diode) displays have offered similar capabilities their improvement came with a whopping sticker price.

Quantum dot displays promise to be far more affordable while offering a far more accurate and wider colour gamut.

How do they work?

Quantum dots displays are all about improved back lighting. The usual LCD displays we're used to remain pretty much unchanged.

Quantum dots are semiconductor crystals. The colour they emit depends on their size. They also don’t tend to wear out and will continue to crank out the exact same light wave length for the entire life expectancy of the TV.

Like OLED quantum dot crystals are stuck between two sheets of a semiconducting material. Supply some juice to one sheet and the electrons move in the quantum dot layer to create photons at an exact colour.

In practice this equates to light from a blue LED travelling through red and green quantum dots. Red green and blue combines to create a pure white light.

This is not only way more energy efficient, it also equates to better contrast levels. Each quantum dot is only illuminated when needed. This in turn translates into a theoretical 50% energy saving.

Dimming and illuminating specific parts of the backlight also creates deep blacks and amazing contrast levels.

Quantum dots are also bright – early estimates have it that they're 50 to 100 times brighter than to the current crop of LED back lit LCD TVs. The range of colours generated also increases by a whopping 30%.

Quantum dot powered displays are also not prone to wear and tear. This is a big problem for OLED displays which use organic hydrocarbon chains and tend to degrade over time. 

For manufacturers who’ve invested billions in LCD fabrication plants the news is also good. Quantum dots can easily be printed onto a multitude of substrates and are easy to integrate into LCD TV designs. This means that quantum dot TVs should cost less than their OLED counterparts.

And the future is?

The amount of consumer tech hype coming out of the consumer electronics industry won't diminish any time soon.

Bendable and ultra-thin TVs are already being pushed like mad. I suspect that more than a few buyers will realise that they will rarely ever look sideways at their TV to admire its slenderness.

Similarly bendable displays will probably be the butt of 2016’s consumer electronic jokes.

Sanity is prevailing. Affordable big screens that are capable of cranking out incredible images appear set to be the order for 2015. I for one can't wait.

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