A (very) brief history of television displays

December 17, 2014

As the home stretch of the holiday shopping season bears down upon us, the sheer number of options made available by the television display arms race can be enough to trigger one’s inner Grinch. Here at Data Dive we won’t tell you what to buy, but with the help of this Reuters graphic, we hope to provide a cursory peek inside the technologies that drive all of those options.

For decades, cathode ray tubes (CRT) were the only option for TV displays.  The technology, which dates back to the 19th century, displayed electron beams on a phosphor screen, but were bulky, heavy and needed a lot of electricity to run. The also used inefficient and somewhat unreliable analog signals, prompting Congress to mandate a schedule for the switch to digital TVs and signals as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. After a couple of false starts, Congress ultimately set a March 1, 2007, date as the point at which all new TV were required to include a digital tuner, and more efficient digital TVs with better pictures started to become the norm.

Plasma TVs were a leading early digital option, creating a display from the light emitted by charging xenon and neon gases, but though plasma TVs provided excellent picture quality, they eventually lost favor to less expensive, less power-intensive Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) displays, and plasma TVs now face extinction in the U.S.

LCD technology produces images by blocking or allowing light from a florescent-powered backlit source to pass through a series of filtering layers. Technologically similar Light Emitting Diode (LED) displays differ mainly in their source of light, and the increases in the quality and size of LCD and LED displays, combined to establish them as the incumbent display type.

Finally, Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) TVs are the newest best thing, using organically glowing materials to light themselves, thus eliminating the need for a backlight. OLED sets now reign in terms of picture quality, but their $10,000 price tag remains prohibitively expensive for most buyers.

And that’s the current state of the TV display landscape. But if you think you have a handle on it, don’t worry: At January’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, LG is expected to show off their version of enhanced-LCD “quantum dot” TVs—a technology that only Sony currently offers—and the battle for your bucks will begin anew.

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