Japan's New Flat Screens: The Eco-Friendly TV

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Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

A man looks at Panasonic flat-screen TVs in Tokyo on Feb. 2, 2009

Most people use their eyes to judge the best flat-screen televisions. Michiyuki Sugino, deputy general manager of audiovisual systems for Sharp, says people should also use their hands. Touch an ordinary set and you'll feel the heat given off by electronic components at work. This warmth is energy that is being wasted, Sugino says, and for consumers, hot spots mean higher electric bills. But lay your hands on one of Sharp's new 32-in. D Series Aquos TVs: "The biggest surprise for consumers is when they touch the TV front and back," says Sugino. "It's cool. They can feel the difference."

But will they care? Japan's leading consumer-electronics companies sure hope so. The global recession is weakening demand for LCD and plasma TVs. This means Sharp, Panasonic and Sony are desperate to defend their market shares and are racing to come up with features to distinguish their products from those of their competitors. The marketing catchphrase in Japan is now "eco-TV": flat-screen sets that, like the new Sharp Aquos, are environmentally friendlier because they use less energy and cost less to run. "[Environmentally friendly functions] are a premium that consumers will pay for," says Emi Nagahara, a product planner for Sony's TV business group. "It will be a standard" for all LCD TVs, she predicts. (See Japan's greatest designs.)

Using a variety of technological tweaks, manufacturers are achieving substantial power savings with no sacrifice in performance and picture quality. Sony, which entered the eco-TV market last year, developed a more efficient backlight for its new Bravia VE5 series that uses nearly 40% less energy than conventional LCD TVs. Further gains are made through additional features, including a sensor that can halve the energy the TV uses by turning off the screen when no motion is detected nearby. The sets are also equipped with a light sensor that adjusts the backlight to ambient room light and have an energy-saving switch that cuts all power to the set as if it were unplugged. (Even when turned off, conventional sets waste small amounts of electricity if left plugged in.)

Other manufacturers are launching green TVs of their own. Panasonic — the No. 1 maker of plasma TVs, with a 40% share of that market worldwide — recently started selling in Japan its 42-in. Viera V series plasma set, which uses 48% less power than the product line's previous generation. On Feb. 20, Sharp launched its Aquos D Series in Japan, which uses 45% less energy than last year's model. Cool to the touch, this model has improved power-saving components, including a modified backlight. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)

It's far from certain that buyers, accustomed to judging flat-screen TVs by picture quality, thinness and screen size, will be willing to pay more for eco-TVs. Koya Tabata, a consumer-electronics analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo, argues that Japanese consumers are increasingly concerned not only with sticker prices but also with operating costs. "I used to have a 50-in. Pioneer plasma TV," says Tabata. "It was our heater in the winter." But because of higher energy prices and more households owning two or three TVs, electricity consumption matters more than it once did. About 10% of energy used in the home goes to power TVs; an eco-TV can make a dent in the electric bill. For example, the 42-in. Panasonic V-series model consumes 200 kW-h, down from 386 kW-h for the preceding generation. This reduction could save the average Japanese household about $41 a year, according to Panasonic. Amid the recession, buyers "are concerned about consumption and running cost," says Tabata.

For power-saving TVs to catch on, "we have to develop technology that can improve the eco-function but hopefully won't increase the cost," says Hirofumi Wada, general manager of Panasonic's visual and display business group. That's no mean feat. Profit margins are under severe pressure during the global recession, and Japanese electronics companies are reporting big losses even as they close factories and lay off workers. Worldwide unit sales of LCD TVs were up about 10% year on year in the first two months of 2009, but revenues were down about 5% because companies continued to slash prices to move sets, according to Jeremy Tonkin, a retail analyst with CLSA, a Hong Kong – based brokerage. A report by Nikko Citigroup analyst Kota Ezawa says that prices for flat-panel TVs will continue to decline in the U.S. and that makers will probably lower prices further this year to clear out inventory. Manufacturers expect overall prices will fall 20% over the next two years. "The Japanese consumer is spending," says Tonkin, but "consumers want to buy something cheaper." (See Real Simple's money management tips.)

In flat-screen TVs, two trends seem assured: prices will continue to fall and sets will get greener. Over the next few years, advances in display technologies promise even more dramatic power savings. Sony's OLED-screen TVs (which save energy by using a technology that, unlike LCDs, does not require a backlight) and Mitsubishi's LaserVue (a system based on lasers that uses half the energy of LCDs) are moving toward mass commercialization. Credit Suisse's Tabata says there's still lots of room to reduce both power consumption and cost. "We've got a long way to go," says Sugino of Sharp. "It's difficult, but we have to do it." In a few years, eco-TVs may really be cool.

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