Ever thinner

Components and materials reduce in size and increase in power

By Philippa Martin-King

At the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas it seemed that the real buzz word for 2012 was THIN. While the trend is towards ever smaller components, screens – which are thinning down too – are becoming larger. There's less distinction as to what really constitutes a computer. Telephones can act as tablets that can act as remote controllers that sometimes fit into screens that might be TVs with computing powers…. Even the traditional household device now comes equipped with a chip that provides it with intelligence and the ability to connect and communicate – provided it has a screen. IEC TC 110: Electronic display devices, deals with the essential ratings and characteristics of electronic display devices, providing methods for testing and measuring the many different categories and technologies.

The 27-inch all-in-one PC (Photo: ASUS) The 27-inch all-in-one PC (Photo: ASUS)

Bigger and more powerful

While one leading computer manufacturer was launching the company's first 27-inch all-in-one PC – with a monitor that tilts up to 25 degrees, and offers multiple possibilities for connecting to and charging various laptops using USB (universal serial bus) connections – the talking points at CES were the new Korean 55-inch 3D OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays, just 4 mm thick, and 4K TV, the latest standard for UHDTV (ultra high definition television) that measures 4 320 pixels displayed horizontally (or, in numbers of pixels per frame, 7 680 × 4 320 = 33,2 megapixels). In comparison, a typical 1 080p HD resolution has roughly two million pixels per frame, (1 920 x 1 080 = 2 073 600), roughly 16 times fewer. IEC TC 110 has already issued six publications dealing with OLED displays and clarifying environmental testing methods and quality and performance measurements and parameters.

Another Korean company was showing a 55-inch smart OLED TV with facial recognition that causes the programme to change, depending on who is sitting watching it. Numerous applications make it almost as much a PC as it is a TV. At the same time, a leading Chinese company was unveiling what it claimed was the world's thinnest smartphone, a mere 0,23 inches thick, and an American its innovative glass that enables the thickness of screens and displays to be reduced by 20%.

Organic light-emitting diodes

Because it has no need for a backlight, an OLED screen can be thinner than an LCD (liquid crystal display) and display higher contrast ratios. It also has the advantage of being flexible – something that is not possible with LCD. But, where OLED formed the centre of attraction for the TV, it was the AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) that gained a lot of attention in the smartphone market. Labelled as a "new type of smartphone", the devices might just as easily be classed as tablets.

One Korean model comes with an electronic "S Pen" for writing notes or sketching directly into the phone's system. 

Another, with an HD touch-sensitive screen, has been designed with gaming in mind. It includes the NFC (Near Field Communication) technology for fast contactless exchange of information.

NFC is based on ISO/IEC 14443, the standard developed by WG (Working Group) 8 of SC (Subcommittee) 17: Cards and personal identification, in ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1: Information technology. This joint technical committee of the International Organization for Standardization and the IEC is responsible for developing, maintaining, promoting and facilitating information technology standards such as MPEG and security standards for smart and identification cards.

Active matrix OLED

An AMOLED display uses an active matrix of OLED pixels that light up using an array of TFTs (thin film transistors). Each pixel on the screen has at least two TFTs, one that starts and stops the charging of a storage capacitor and one that provides the voltage source of current to the pixel. The touch capacity is provided by capacitive sensor arrays. An AMOLED display has the advantage over a passive-matrix OLED display because its response time is much faster. That makes it much more suitable for portable electronics where the power consumption is critical because of battery life. Since the touch screen is capacitive, it needs something that conducts a charge between the finger and the screen.

LCD to take on new lease of life

It looks as though LCD technology is moving to new domains and taking on a new lease of life where it is expected to become more prevalent as an advertising tool in shop windows. That's made possible by the price of flash memory falling which, in turn, makes small screen advertising accessible to a greater number of users. One of the objectives of IEC TC 110 WG  2: Liquid crystal display devices, is to re-define performance measuring methods for LCD, such as the ranges of viewing angles, colour shifting, motion artefact and reflective performance.

Ultra thin laptops

According to Network World, every CES has a "buzz" technology and after the previous years in which the stars were tablets and 3D televisions, they suggest that this year's buzz tech is the Ultrabook™, a super-thin laptop. Shawn Dubravac, CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) Chief Economist and Director of Research, expected there to be around 30 to 50 of the new super-thin systems presented. Finally, he said, a single manufacturer alone presented more than 75 different models! "The focus is not so much on computing itself", he said, "or how powerful it is, but on interconnectivity".

The Ultrabook™ has the advantage over a tablet in that it retains a keyboard. It sports rapid, powerful chips. The display screen measures 13,3 inches or larger and the systems offer at least half a terabyte of internal flash memory storage. Compared to traditional hard disk space, flash memory is available immediately for use when the system is switched on. The extra thin dimension of the Ultrabook™ is largely due to Intel's Ivy Bridge chipset that also provides increased speed and faster response times.

Thinner peripherals, thinner glass

It's not only the computer that has slimmed down. The protective glass on the screens of tablets, smartphones and other devices has reduced in thickness. While being better adapted for touch applications, the finer material is just as protective and sturdy. For instance, one of the new portable office computers on show had a high resolution 14 inch Gorilla glass 1 600 x 900 screen with scratch-resistant glass panels on the lid, display, palm rest and trackpad.

If the glass makes the system feel a little heavy it does give it a special touch. And, in another move towards smaller sizes, the manufacturer has reduced the bezel, enabling the 14-inch display to be fitted into a traditional 13-inch chassis. Future displays, according to specialists at CES, are likely to continue to be touch sensitive, but move from their present solid state to a flexible one.

In recognition of this market move from traditional flat panel display devices toward a more universal electronic display, IEC TC 110 broadened its scope in 2010 to take into account the new e-paper and flexible display applications that are now being developed, together with the necessary government regulations concerning recycling, waste material and energy efficiency.

Trend towards interactivity continues

Interaction is the operative word for all systems this year. Google TV, for example, allows you to view web content as well as search for episodes you might have missed in a TV show. At the other end of the scale, tablets or phones running Mac OS or Android use a wireless connection to control all the devices in the home entertainment system.

Many leading manufacturers are combining gesture recognition and work on touch screens and voice control. Often screens can be twisted, or are transparent, enabling them to function both as a tablet and then as a system controller, a sort of sophisticated mini remote control for a larger system such as an interactive TV or PC. In some cases, smartphones can also combine with a touchscreen. One smartphone, the winner of a CES 2012 award, simply fits into the back of a tablet-like screen or can be connected to it by cable, providing it with all the intelligence needed for browsing the web.

The New Scientist's Peter Nowak predicts that, just as touchscreen technology has invaded the mobile market, the remote controller will gradually stop being used with TVs, to be replaced by motion control technology. Personalized and centralized systems will mimic natural actions using reality-based interfaces that run on a variety of operating systems. The systems will be controlled with the wave of a hand rather than a multiple-button remote control. This type of interactive approach makes the job of ISO/IEC JTC 1 ever more important.

The 27-inch all-in-one PC (Photo: ASUS) The 27-inch all-in-one PC (Photo: ASUS)
Thin flexible AMOLED Thin flexible AMOLED
Ultrabook (Photo: ACER) Ultrabook (Photo: ACER)