On Videowalls: Direct View LEDs

For More:
Part 2 - The Grunt Work
Part 3 - Video Processing

Many clients are asking how much a videowall runs, a question roughly comparable to “How much does a new car cost?”

Just like with cars, the answer is, “It depends on your desires and needs.” Once you get larger than a 3×3 LCD grid, the price does increase dramatically, and that’s where important questions typically come into play.

Big video does, indeed, come with a big price tag. Yet the allure of the big image is undeniable, proven in thousands of applications worldwide. Understanding the core issues between the various technologies is important.

Ignoring projection systems and outdoor applications, there are three core technologies commercially available today for permanently installed walls: LCD monitors, tiles and LED. The traditional thinking is that LCD is the clear cost winner and LED the most expensive.

Not so fast.

Question 1: Capital Expenditure Ratio (CAPEX): Based on 50 square meters of surface area (roughly equivalent to 85 46-inch LCD Monitors), the current initial Capital Expenditure ratio is roughly:

1.0x (LCD panels)= 3.1x (LED tiles) = 5.5x (LED matrix)

Thus, \$400k worth of LCD panels would be roughly the same size as \$1.2 million of LED tiles or \$2.2 million worth of LED matrix tiles today. Six months from now, the ratios might be different. Yet that’s not the complete story.

Question 2: 10 Year Return on Investment (ROI): Assuming that 500 nit brightness is the minimum brightness required from your display, there’s a big issue and it’s a whopper. Most new LCD monitors spec out at 700 nits and hit their half brightness level within a few years. The more relevant question is, how long can they put out 500 nits of brightness prior to replacement?

Similarly, tiles typically spec out at 600 nits and hit their half brightness rating at 65,000 hours. That’s 300 nits, far below our 500 nit threshold. In an 18 hour/day application, we’re looking at six to seven years until they hit the performance threshold and will have to be replaced.

Direct view LEDs are somewhat different. The high-end LEDs typically spec out around 2000 nits for 20 years. Even at half brightness, they’re still brighter than their competitors and don’t have to be replaced nearly so often. Thus, the 10 Year ROI for the same models flips essentially to break even now. The 10-Year ROI is:

1.0x (LED matrix) = 1.2x (LED tiles) = 1.2x (LCD monitors)

So, when you take CAPEX, replacements, maintenance, recalibration and energy into consideration, all three are roughly the same expense after 10 years of usage. Figure a baseline of \$3 million-plus for 10 years of operation. One direct view LED manufacturer claims that its product maintains more than 500 nits at 20 years of typical operation. Time will tell.

Question 3: Image Quality: This is a bit of a contentious issue, so I’ll offer my personal opinions. Direct view LEDs are typically brighter and (for lack of a better term) can overwhelm the viewer with vibrant color, similar to old Technicolor films from the 1940s. Virtually all successful outdoor signs are LED based.

Resolution is no longer the issue it once was, now that the LEDs are commercially shipping 1.2mm pixel pitches and sub-1.0mm pitches are on the horizon. Essentially, 1.2mm LED resolution is comparable to a 2K flatpanel for viewing purposes. At least one manufacturer is currently exhibiting 0.6mm pixel pitch.

Seams are unseemly. LCD panels almost always have seams of varying widths, which generally are not well received. Neither tile nor direct view matrix LED have seam issues. Perhaps not too surprisingly, this is often the key issue from the owner’s perspective.

Tiles are particularly nice when you want a non-rectangular image. There are some gorgeous images of non-rectangular applications available on the internet.

Question 4: Don’t forget the Framing: This is less of a question and more of a reminder. High-precision alignment of all three of these video technologies invariably requires a precision-made steel frame. These can cost \$30k to \$200k, based on the complexity and service requirements. Please make sure you include this in your initial estimate.

I’ll discuss the processing, power, heat, structural and space requirements in Part 2.

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