August 31, 2012, 8:09 AM — In the ongoing race to build ever better flat-screen displays, a potentially disruptive technology has made a small debut at IFA, the consumer electronics show currently taking place in Berlin.
In a corner of the booth of Japan's Sharp are several prototype displays based on a new type of LCD (liquid crystal display) called IGZO.
The clunky IGZO name is derived from indium gallium zinc oxide, the semiconductor material on which the screen is based. Each pixel in an LCD screen is controlled by its own transistor and making those transistors on IGZO brings several favorable characteristics over the amorphous silicon that is used in today's LCD panels.
Electrons move faster in IGZO and that brings benefits in current flow that mean the transistors can be made much smaller. Because the size of the transistor directly affects the size of the pixel, a smaller transistor allows for smaller pixels and so more can be crammed in per inch than today.
One prototype 6.1-inch screen on show at IFA crammed in 2,560 pixels by 1,600 pixels, or 498 pixels per inch. That's a 50 percent increase on the 326ppi screen used in Apple's iPhone 4S and roughly double that of the new iPad. The difference is easily apparent: the Sharp screen displayed a stunningly detailed image. (See video of the IGZO prototypes at IFA on YouTube.)
This difference in current flow inside the screen also means that transistors don't have to be continually refreshed when a still image is on the screen. That leads to lower power consumption and, for touch panels, much less interference from the screen's electronics so the touch panel becomes more accurate and sensitive, said Nobuhiro Okan, a manager with Sharp's display device group.
Okano pointed to a comparison the company was showing between twin 10.8-inch panels that were cycling through a series of still images. A prototype IGZO panel consistently drew two third less power than an amorphous silicon panel and the amount of energy used by the backlights on each panel was always lower on the IGZO screen, sometimes by more than half.
Another advantage of the smaller electronics is that the glass edge of each display can be made slimmer, so portable gadgets could be made a little smaller.
Higher resolution in a small screen, lower power consumption, more accurate touch panels -- these are all things in high-demand by the portable gadget industry so it should come as no surprise there's been a string of speculation about when IGZO will make it into products, particularly those from Apple.
For now, that remains just speculation. Sharp hasn't announced any customers and no companies have said they're using the technology, but if Sharp can deliver on all the promises at an affordable price, it could be making its way into gadgets soon.