crystal ball 2015

Although many other smartphone and tablet components have stagnated lately, display technology has continued to improve. Be it through new form factors, higher pixel densities, or improved colors, and there’s a lot more to look forward to as well.

Here are 5 predictions about the future of the mobile display market, and what consumers could come across over the next year or so.

1- Displays, displays everywhere

First things first, the display market is booming, thanks to an ever growing product portfolio and a continued consumer appetite for various gadgets. Over the past few year’s you’ve probably accumulated quite a few screens throughout your home, from PC and laptops, to smartphones, TVs, tablets, and now even smartwatches and fitness bands.

As more and more aspects of our lives becoming digitalized, there’s an increasing demand for displays for us to interact with.

Despite the growth of larger smartphones somewhat eating into the small tablet market, 8 inch and larger tablet sales are still going strong. Both smartphone and tablet shipments are expected to increase again this year, and throughout the remainder of the decade, as more casual home users continue to replace their PCs and laptops with tablet devices. IDC’s research predicts that worldwide tablet shipments will surpass that of combined laptops and PC shipments by next year.

PC vs Tablet Shipments 2015

We haven’t even mentioned the growing market for wearables. Although you might not be sold on the trend just yet, Android Wear devices and Apple’s new watch are poised to put yet another display in your home. With new wearables comes demand for smaller displays and new designs, such as the Gear Fit‘s curved panel or round displays for the likes of the Moto 360 and LG G Watch R.

Another growing segment is the automotive market. From simple GPS displays and digital dashboards, to a fully integrated Android system, cars are becoming increasingly packed with useful bits of technology, and consumers are finding it exceptionally useful to interact using familiar displays, and touchscreen ones at that. Taiwanese TFT manufacturer AU Optronics noted a 30 percent increase in car-display sales this past year, and expects that future vehicles could well makes use of 3 to 5 different displays.

As more and more aspects of our lives becoming digitalized, there’s an increasing demand for displays for us to interact with.

2- Hope you like hearing about bendy displays

I’m sure you’ve all seen those wonderful bendy display prototypes that have been in and out of tech headlines for the past couple of years. Despite a couple of curved handsets, we are still yet to see anything truly bendable enter mass production, as there are still a number of production obstacles to overcome.

samsung galaxy note edge first look aa (17 of 18)

We might see a few more curved handsets next year, but we’re still a ways away from a truly flexible phone.

For a start, Samsung has confirmed that it is still having trouble sealing its flexible displays from moisture and oxygen, whilst ITO touch enabling circuitry still remains too brittle to use in a flexible format. Then there are costs to consider too, as manufacturing lines need to be adapted with new production techniques. Solutions to all these problems are being worked on, and some of them have been solved recently. But bringing all of the technologies together is a slow process.

With all this in mind, we are unlikely to see consumer grade super flexible displays in 2015, but I’m sure we will hear a lot more about the small steps being taken to finally bring them to market.

3- LTPS displays will remain the top dog, for now

Back in the summer we took a look at the current and future technologies used to power the all-important backplane found in smartphone panels. Whilst IGZO developments continue to look promising and even a-Si TFT panels have shown remarkable improvements recently, Taiwanese display developer Innolux has shown off a 1080p 5.5-inch a-Si display with 430ppi, the drive for ever higher resolution displays in a small form factor still plays to LTPS’ strengths.

Display Panel Transistors

LTPS still produces for the smallest pixel transistor sizes, allowing for higher pixel density displays than a-Si.

The reason for this is that the superior electrical properties results from the LTPS manufacturing process allows the backplane transistors to be shrunk down smaller than any of the other common processes, an essential box to tick when we want to squeeze even more pixels into a small display size, and pretty much a must for 400ppi plus and 1440p panels. Furthermore, LTPS is still the best choice for OLED and AMOLED displays, ensuring that a healthy number of next year’s flagship models will continue to use the technology.

Inexpensive 1080p devices with high pixel densities could be made possible if a-Si proves economically viable at this density

The fact that LTPS can be shrunk down the furthest also makes it the most attractive technology for those looking to integrate additional sensors and features into the display. If you’re of the mind that fingerprint scanners would make more sense built into the screen, then LTPS is the backplane technology most likely to enable this to happen. Both JDI and TDI are convinced that LTPS is the only way to go in this regard, despite being one of the more expensive processes.

All of that being said, the growth in budget handsets seen this year and improvements in a-Si and IGZO display types, means that we could start to see higher resolution budget and mid-range handsets powered by cheaper backplane technologies. Inexpensive 1080p devices with high pixel densities could be made possible if a-Si proves economically viable at this density, or if IGZO development takes off, but this is probably a little further away.

4- Faux K tablets

Speaking of higher resolution displays, we know that every tech companies wants to be the first to announce a new technological “revolution”. We have seen Apple milk its 64-bit processor, MediaTek’s claim to the first true octo-core smartphone SoC, and recently manufacturers were racing to be the first to release a 2K smartphone.

I think it’s safe to say the same would be true for the first 4K smartphone or Android tablet, where the ludicrous pixel density will try to disguise the likely battery problems. Perhaps true 4k smartphones will remain absent for this reason, but tablets, where 4K might actually be useful, could fall prey something equally problematic – 4K marketing misnomers.

Like Full HD vs HD ready, 4G vs LTE, and countless other technological definitions, 4K is open to some level of interpretation. While you and me are likely accustomed to thinking of 4K (or UHD as it is sometimes called) as 4 times the pixel count of 1080p, or 3840×2160, this is not set in stone. Digital cinema prefers 4096×2160 as the industry standard for 4K, owing to the multiplication of 1k (1024) by 4. Some have even coined the term 2160p into meaning 4K, but without specifying the number of horizontal pixels.

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Minor details I know, but TV manufacturers have already been spotted taking even more liberties with the term. Some Korean panel companies have been caught “pixel stuffing” their 4K TVs with basic white pixels in place of an RGB set, to keep the costs down at the expense of proper color reproduction. Although these are mainly being sold to cheap Chinese manufacturers. However, even Sharp sells TVs that split pixels into sub pixels to fake a full 4K picture, by offering greater control over the individual RBG sub pixels and counting them towards the 8,294,400 4K total.

With every Android tablet manufacturer no-doubt eyeing the 4K watermark, you can be sure that one of them will try and cut corners to abuse consumer faith in the marketing term.

5- The death of the touchscreen laptop

From that earlier chart, the sales of laptops look set to level out over the next few years, and they’re certainly not going to be entirely replaced by tablets. However, the small segment of touchscreen laptops and notebooks that have appeared over the past couple of years could suffer a further decline.

Sales of touchscreen notebooks are estimated to account for only 10 percent of the laptop market, and even display manufacturers don’t expect this number to increase. Having briefly experienced the frustration of a Windows 8 powered touch-laptop myself, I can’t say that I’m saddened to hear this.

“Touch screen only works better as a user interface, when a user is looking at a screen in a top-down manner” – JP Pang, Innolux

Instead, this market segment is expected to be replaced by 2 or 3-in-1 combo models, where devices can split apart into fully functional tablets and/or smartphones. Of course, Android would need a few software and UI tweaks for it to be a viable OS in these types of product.

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Android needs devices like this – tablet replacements for PCs and laptops.

Asus may have been a bit ahead of its time when it announced its Padfone. Not forgetting that the company also has its Transformer Book to demonstrate the principle. Larger, dual-purpose “phablets” and combo devices are expected to experience strong demand in emerging markets, where consumers are looking for maximum utility at the most efficient price point.

There you have it, five predictions for mobile displays in 2015 and beyond. Of course what really matters is what interests the consumer. Have any of these trends caught your eye, what display features are you most looking forward to in the coming years?

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