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A manufacturing technique being adopted by companies that make gadgets for some of the biggest names in consumer tech will help them significantly improve the resolution of TV and tablet displays later this year.

Applied Materials, which makes electronics manufacturing equipment, has introduced machines that make it feasible to use an advanced approach for making displays—previously limited to R&D—at a large scale. This will enable consumer electronics companies to put screens with much higher resolution into many gadgets, Applied Materials says.

Sharper display resolution has become a popular feature with gadget buyers, and both Apple’s iPhone 4 and the latest version of the iPad come with a very-high-resolution “retina display.” Some competitors of Apple have launched phones with similarly high resolution displays, but no other tablets are available that can match the latest iPad’s sharpness. Apple’s competitors are eager to catch up. An engineer at Microsoft posted an article online this week about efforts to ready Windows 8, the next version of the company’s flagship operating system, for tablets with very-high-resolution displays.

Applied Materials’s new machines perform plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD), a process that deposits thin films of material onto surfaces. The machinery makes it possible to produce displays that use a different material for the display’s backplane—the layer of transistors that sits behind the display and controls its pixels. That material, known as indium gallium zinc oxide, or IGZO, makes it easier and cheaper to build displays with extra-dense pixels, like the one Apple installed in the latest iPad. Making displays with this kind of resolution larger than seven inches diagonally would be impossible without using IGZO, Applied Materials claims.

“I would expect to see products this year,” says Doug Hayden, senior director of global product management at Applied Materials’s displays division, AKT. “It will probably be tablets followed by TVs, but it will be close.” In TVs, the new material will mean both higher resolution and faster refresh rates.

Although Applied Materials announced the new production equipment just this week, five customers have already installed the new machines and are using them to produce displays, says Hayden. He wouldn’t name those customers, but Applied Materials is known to supply display-making equipment to Samsung, Sharp, and LG, and Sharp and Samsung are believed to supply Apple with displays for its iPad tablet.

LCD televisions and monitors, as well as mobile devices, all have displays that rely on a backplane of many thin film transistors (TFTs), each of which turns one pixel on or off. That TFT layer is typically made using a layer of amorphous silicon, so called because its atoms are not arranged in a neat crystal. However, amorphous silicon doesn’t have the right electrical properties for controlling very large, or very-high-resolution, displays, says Hayden.

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Tagged: Communications, Materials, displays, Samsung, tablets, Applied Materials, thin films, amorphous silicon, resolution

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