Passive and Active Matrix

Passive-matrix LCDs use a simple grid to supply the charge to a particular pixel on the display. Creating the grid is quite a process! It starts with two glass layers called substrates. One substrate is given columns and the other is given rows made from a transparent conductive material. This is usually indium-tin oxide. The rows or columns are connected to integrated circuits that control when a charge is sent down a particular column or row. The liquid crystal material is sandwiched between the two glass substrates, and a polarizing film is added to the outer side of each substrate. To turn on a pixel, the integrated circuit sends a charge down the correct column of one substrate and a ground activated on the correct row of the other. The row and column intersect at the designated pixel, and that delivers the voltage to untwist the liquid crystals at that pixel.

The simplicity of the passive-matrix system is beautiful, but it has significant drawbacks, notably slow response time and imprecise voltage control. Response time refers to the LCD's ability to refresh the image displayed. The easiest way to observe slow response time in a passive-matrix LCD is to move the mouse pointer quickly from one side of the screen to the other. You will notice a series of "ghosts" following the pointer. Imprecise voltage control hinders the passive matrix's ability to influence only one pixel at a time. When voltage is applied to untwist one pixel, the pixels around it also partially untwist, which makes images appear fuzzy and lacking in contrast.

Active-matrix LCDs depend on thin film transistors (TFT). Basically, TFTs are tiny switching transistors and capacitors. They are arranged in a matrix on a glass substrate. To address a particular pixel, the proper row is switched on, and then a charge is sent down the correct column. Since all of the other rows that the column intersects are turned off, only the capacitor at the designated pixel receives a charge. The capacitor is able to hold the charge until the next refresh cycle. And if we carefully control the amount of voltage supplied to a crystal, we can make it untwist only enough to allow some light through.

By doing this in very exact, very small increments, LCDs can create a gray scale. Most displays today offer 256 levels of brightness per pixel.