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By Jon Fortt
January 9, 2008
Sony’s XEL-1 flat TV with OLED technology drew big crowds at the Consumer Electronics Show. Image: Jon Fortt

LAS VEGAS – After chatting with Sony Electronics President Stan Glasgow, I had to see what the hype was about. So I headed over to Sony’s booth here at the Consumer Electronics Show to check out a $2,500 flat-panel TV with a screen a little bigger than paperback book.

Yes, at 11 inches, it’s that small. So what makes the XEL-1 worth as much as an HDTV 10 times its size?

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The picture. This TV delivered the sharpest, most eye-popping video I’ve ever seen. Blacks on the screen were completely black. My immediate emotional response was, “must have it.” And apparently I wasn’t alone.

Teenagers, businessmen, and elderly couples were all ambling into the Sony (SNE) booth like zoo-goers looking for a baby panda. Most seemed to make their way to the mini-stage at the center of the display area, where Sony had about a dozen of the little OLED TVs roped off and set up like jewelry. The crowd oohed and aahed and snapped pictures.

It’s tough to overstate the significance of the little TV’s popularity. Flat-panel screens at CES are like leaves in the forest. They’re everywhere. For people to crowd around one specific model — especially one this small — means they saw a visible difference in what those TVs delivered.

OLED, which stands for organic light-emitting diode, uses a technology completely different from its better-known flat-panel sibling, the LCD. OLED displays don’t require a back light, which allows a higher contrast ratio, less energy consumption and a thinner design. (Some have raised concerns that OLED screens wear out quickly, but Sony said its displays should last 30,000 hours.)

Does that mean the XEL-1 will be a big seller? Not even Sony expects that. Glasgow told me that the company is building and selling them in retail qualities mainly so that it can learn about the technology, and figure out how to manufacture the panels less expensively and in larger sizes. While the technology industry has developed standard ways of making LCD screens, OLED is still a bit of a mystery; each of the companies experimenting with making the screens does it a little differently.

Glasgow does believe that OLED is the future of television, and that while it took LCD about 18 years to go from cool idea to mass-market product, OLED will develop much faster. Whether much faster means affordable OLED is 10 years away or three, he wouldn’t say — but in the meanwhile, he and Sony’s marketing executives are surely enjoying the big buzz they’re generating with their little TV.

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