As has been the case for the past decade, the show floor at the International CES this year was dominated by impressive, gorgeous televisions, one after another. But what I found most interesting were the different technologies that the major TV vendors were using to make their high-end sets stand out from the crowd. While I saw a lot of 4K or Ultra High Definition (UHD) sets, as expected, what stood out were the new technologies the companies were showing designed to improve the color gamut and fidelity of their sets.
In past years at CES, the important TV trends usually came down to new technologies supplanting old ones: CRTs giving way to plasma, plasma moving to LCD, 1080p supplanting 720p at most sizes, LED backlighting replacing fluorescent backlights, etc. A few years ago, we started seeing 4K or Ultra High Definition (UHD) sets starting to appear; and indeed, every TV maker now has a 4K UHD set, and sales of UHD sets seem poised to become mainstream on 55-inch and larger sets over the next few years. Indeed, in its CES press conference, LG Electronics said it expected a 153 percent growth in 4K UHD sets in 2015 with total worldwide sales of 32 million, of which 5 million will be in the U.S., compared with 1 million in 2014.
But within the UHD market, every vendor seems to have a slightly different idea of how to produce the best picture.
If you had asked me a couple of years ago what was next, I would have thought it would be OLED technology replacing LCD. While that may still happen eventually – and LG in particular is banking on that technology – most other companies seem to be struggling with OLEDs and instead were showing off alternatives that they claim provide better pictures.
The most common of these technologies is called quantum dots, where typically vendors install an additional film that goes in front of the backlight on an LCD display and allows for a wider color gamut. Nearly all of today’s televisions use white LEDs for backlighting. The light then passes through a polarizing filter, a thin-film-transistor (TFT) electronics array, the liquid crystals themselves (which either block the light or let it through), and then through a color filter, which creates the subpixels – typically the red, green, and blue that make up a pixel on the screen. With quantum dot technology, in most cases, blue LED lights in the backlighting first pass through a film with various microscopic nanocrystals that emit a particular color when given energy. The color depends on the size of the crystals.
Every vendor seems to be implementing quantum dot technology slightly differently – some just adding a commercial QD film to an edge-lit LED backlighting design, some using a tube of the QD material alongside the edge-lighting, some combining it with full array backlit LEDs with local dimming which should allow for deeper blacks.
This is often linked with high dynamic-range (HDR) technology, which has been popularized in smartphone cameras in recent years. The idea is that a broader range of colors produces a more vibrant image, and when used correctly, a more life-like picture. As one vendor representative mentioned to me at the show, you’ve never seen a sunrise or sunset on a TV that looked as good as one in real life.
In addition, just about everyone is now showing curved sets on the high-end. I’m still not convinced this is a huge advantage – it does reduce glare in some situations, and that’s good; but I often hear the vendors talking about how a curved design gives the images more depth, and I just don’t see it, and I’m particularly not sure about the advantages for off-axis viewers. (I feel differently about curved monitors, by the way, since those are designed for a single viewer.)
One important thing I noted was the announcement of the UHD Alliance, a partnership with TV vendors and content makers to set standards for 4K and higher technologies, including things like high dynamic range and wider color.
On the TV side, this includes LG Electronics, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony, while on the content and distribution side it includes DirecTV, Dolby, Netflix, Technicolor, The Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros. Entertainment. Hopefully, this will speed the distribution and production of 4K content to these new sets – but I note that none of the big cable companies were listed. Here are what some of the major vendors are highlighting this year:
Samsung Introduces “SUHD”
Samsung, which has been the market leader in TV for the past several years, made a big push for both curved sets and UHD, but its focus was on its new high-end lineup, which it is calling “SUHD.”
This uses quantum color technology based on nanocrystal semiconductors, using a 20-atom thick film designed to give a much wider color spectrum than others. It will be available in two lines: the JS9500 line, in 65- and 88-inch versions, both with fully array local dimming; and the JS9000 line, from 48 to 78 inches, with edge-lit local dimming.
Samsung said this creates a picture that is 2.5 times brighter and with 64 times the color choices of a conventional TV, and that combined with local dimming, it allows the blacks to be 10 times deeper than on previous models. It also said the broader color range will be driven by a new remastering engine designed to provide high dynamic range and a broader color gamut, and announced a partnership with 20th Century Fox to provide HDR versions of some of its movies.
In the press conference, Samsung EVP Joe Stinziano said SUHD will be brighter than any other display technology, and offer rich colors better than those of OLED sets.
In addition to the SUHD and more standard UHD and HD sets on display, Samsung showed off a 105-inch bendable model on the show floor. For smart TV functions, Samsung has moved to its Tizen operating system, which the company said was based on Web standards, and is designed to be faster and easier to use than previous smart TVs.
LG Pushes OLED, ColorPrime QD
LG is the one company that seems to have OLED manufacturing working at a large scale, and in the company’s pre-show press conference it trumpeted that fact. (There were a number of smaller vendors also showing OLED TVs at the show; nearly all of them use panels manufactured by LG Display.)
Tim Alessi, head of new product development for LG Electronics USA, said OLED makes for a revolution in TV, saying it offers “perfect color.” He made a big deal of the strongest point about OLED technology– that it is an emissive technology, allowing each pixel to turn on and off, so the set has an actual black, as compared with the backlighting required with LCD technology. He said this allowed for high dynamic range, and announced a partnership with Netflix to add HDR to some of its content to further improve the quality of the picture.
LG introduced seven new OLED models, in sizes from 55 to 77 inches, including a 77-inch flagship product that can turn from a flat screen to a curved screen at the touch of a button. Alessi said LG is making a $600 million investment in expanding OLED production, and expects to sell more than 1 million units by 2016.
But LG is of course hedging its bets with a new line of LCD-based HD and 4K displays – which remain much less expensive, with 34 models ranging from 43 to 105 inches. Within this, the top-end UF9500 line, which ranges from 55 to 79 inches, includes its ColorPrime technology, LG’s version of quantum dot technology designed to improve the color gamut of its 4K LCD displays.
This technology works by using nanocrystals that range in size from 2 to 10 nanometers, with each quantum dot emitting a different color depending on its size. In manufacturing, the company places a film of these quantum dots in front of the LCD backlight, allowing brighter pictures and what the company says is a 30 percent improvement in color gamut.
All of the smart TVs will run LG’s webOS 2.0 platform, which the company said is simpler and twice as fast as last year’s version, with new 4K streaming options.
Sony Touts Triluminos Color, X1 Processor
Sony was one of the first companies to push quantum dot technology, introducing its version of the technology, which it calls Triluminos, a couple of years ago. Sony also offers is X-tended Dynamic Range (XDR) technology for high dynamic range, designed to produce deeper blacks.
This year’s new line of Bravia 4K TVs include the XBR-X900C, which looked incredibly thin (thinner than a smartphone for most of the set). But the big news was a new image processor, called the 4K Processor X1, which Sony says was designed to enhance color, contrast, and clarity for 4K images, and which will work with its newest upscaling algorithm technology.
Sony has moved its smart TV experience to Google’s Android TV operating system, with Chromecast support and a feature for streaming PlayStation 3 games directly to the TV.
Sharp Goes Beyond 4K
As was true of the other vendors, Sharp was pushing new technology for providing a broader color gamut, in this case a technology it calls Spectros line, a version of quantum dot technology which uses red and green phosphor coatings to provide over 100 percent of the digital cinema standard color space. This is offered in its high-end UH30 series. Sharp also showed a very thin TV, and talked about how it is moving to Android TV for its smart TV interface, promising new TV-optimized apps.
But the big issue for Sharp was what it called “Beyond 4K.” Sharp USA President Jim Sanduski said that studies indicate that as images approach 8K, it becomes impossible for the human eye to discern the difference between a screen and reality, so high-end displays become more like looking through a window.
As it has in previous years, Sharp showed an 8K display – and this year, a couple of other vendors showed such sets as well. They look great, but of course there’s almost no 8K content, and none of these sets will be commercially available anytime soon (although Japanese broadcaster NHK has said it plans to broadcast the Toyko Olympics in 2020 in 8K, so there’s a push to have the TVs ready by then.)
In the meantime, Sharp talked about increasing resolution in 4K by using more subpixels, a technique it pioneered with its Quattron line, which added a yellow subpixel to the traditional red, green, and blue. For its 80-inch Aquos Beyond 4K UHD TV model, Sharp has a solution which uses pixel splitting to provide 66 million subpixels, 167 percent more than the 24 million subpixels in a traditional TV. This still uses 4K content, but includes an upscaler for using the extra subpixels (or for upscaling HD content), and also uses the Quattron and Spectros technologies, along with a full-array backlit LED with local dimming. This set should be available later this year.
Of course, there were lots of other vendors showing 4K TVs at the show. Just about everyone had curved sets, quantum dot technology was in a lot of places, and there were a few other OLED displays, nearly all using LG panels.
Panasonic’s TV line was smaller than in years past, as the firm has phased out of plasma TV production, which it used to dominate. Much of what it displayed was focused on future technologies, including an 8K demo and an OLED prototype.
Chinese vendor Hisense started talking about its “ULED” or Ultra LED last year and it was on full display at CES, with the company showing off a 65-inch curved UHD set that it said could sell for around $3,000 compared with about $10,000 for an OLED model. This set, due to be out in the U.S. this summer, uses a quantum dot film with Dolby Vision HDR technology. Hisense has been particularly vocal about how its ULED sets stack up to OLED, saying the picture quality and color gamut is as good if not better.
And I saw lots of sets from other Chinese vendors as well, such as Changhong, Haier, and TCL. All of these had full lines of sets. TCL showed a 110-inch curved TV, which it claimed was the world’s largest. Again, the company was promoting quantum dot technology and local dimming to produce better pictures.
One thing that impressed me was that pricing everywhere is coming down, including for 4K displays. For instance, Westinghouse has a 42-inch smart 4K set with a list price of just $599.
Which technologies will win in the long run? It’s impossible to tell just by looking at the sets on the show floor – they all look amazing on their own, and of course, you can’t see all the vendor’s high-end offerings next to each other. And of course, the best technology doesn’t always win – plasma offered a better picture with deeper blacks than LCD, but economics and marketing dictated that LCD would prove the winning technology. I still think OLED displays have an edge in the long run, but it may take a long time to get there.
In the meantime, though, expect to see 4K UHD sets pretty much becoming the standard for larger sets –certainly those 50 inches and above – over the next couple of years. UHD won’t be the defining feature of large sets – instead it will be better color. Again, this will mean more when there’s more content that takes advantage of it, but we’re beginning to see more efforts to make and distribute 4K and HDR content.