For many, many years, the message of CES for television owners boiled down to “here’s why your TV sucks.” But as picture quality has increased upwards, the amount of set suckage inflicted by keeping last year’s model has diminished. So what’s a TV vendor supposed to do to get you to retire a perfectly adequate high-definition TV for something newer and shinier, preferably with a healthy profit margin?
CES 2017 has revealed one respectable sales pitch for Ultra High Definition, the successor to HDTV that debuted at the 2012 CES. But there are also a few reasons to wait yet another year before indulging in a new TV.
UHD and HDR
UHD, also known as 4K for its almost 4,000 pixels of horizontal resolution, offers a much finer picture than mere HDTV. But unless you get a screen larger than 55 inches or so, the additional detail will vanish when viewed from across the room.
An upgrade to UHD called HDR, short for “high dynamic range,” provides a discernable difference even on smaller displays: a wider range of colors. The difference is obvious, especially with scenes like sunsets and sunrises that involve a large degree of contrast.
HDR stopped being a niche variation of UHD at last year’s CES but still came at a price premium. At this year’s show, the HDR tax looks set to shrivel. Most vendors aren’t talking prices yet, but the Chinese vendor TCL — a leading supplier of TVs with built-in Roku media-player software — said it will sell a 50-inch UHD HDR set for $500.
Alas, this being the electronics industry, there isn’t just one flavor of HDR. One standard called HDR10 is the most common, but another, Dolby Vision, provides greater color fidelity. DirecTV is adopting a third, HLG, and Technicolor backs a fourth, Advanced HDR. LG plans to support all four, but many vendors will pick a subset of them.
An effort launched at last year’s CES to cut through this format clutter by certifying TVs that pass a set of tests with a “UHD Premium” logo doesn’t seem to have advanced much, to judge from the absence of any such logos at Samsung, LG, TCL and Sony’s exhibits.
OLED vs. LCD
The other big change in TV technology over the past few years has been the rise of OLED (organic light emitting diode) screens, which are both exceedingly thin and capable of the same surpassing range of darks and lights that plasma sets provided.
LG, the dominant OLED vendor, unveiled a 77-inch “TV W’ model—that’s “W” as in “wallpaper,” as the screen is only 2.57 mm thick, just over a tenth of an inch. It’s designed to be fastened directly to a wall, with a thin ribbon cable connecting it to a separate box that contains its circuitry and doubles as a soundbar speaker system.
This thinness will also leave your wallet looking thin: With a smaller 65” version set to sell for $8,000, $10,000 for this one doesn’t seem out of sight.
Historically, OLED screens have cost significantly more than conventional LCDs that, because they use LED backlighting, are often called “LED TVs.” That price gap has shrunk, but LCD has kept progressing. Samsung is pitching an upgrade to the technology called “QLED,” the Q standing for the “quantum dot” technology Samsung uses to increase the brightness and color range of these sets.
Both OLED and QLED look fantastic here. A side-by-side comparison would be instructive, but we’re talking about increasingly marginal differences. And in the real world, you bring the TV home and you don’t mount it next to a competing model, and most of the time you’re happy with it as it is.
More options for cord cutters
The other upgrade UHD is waiting on is better availability of content. Cable operators have yet to make room for UHD fare on their networks, and a standard to allow over-the-air broadcasts awaits a few final decisions in the US.
“The lion’s share of the standard is done,” said LG public-policy vice president John Taylor in an interview Wednesday. “There are continuing discussions about HDR and other aspects, but we continue to expect to be wrapped up in the spring or maybe even the first quarter.”
This ATSC 3.0 standard (short for “Advanced Television Systems Committee”) has also yielded better reception of HDTV in advance tests. But existing TVs can’t tune in ATSC 3.0, only the ATSC 1.0 standard used for HDTV today. I haven’t seen any shipping sets with ATSC 3.0 built in, although LG had one prototype model set up with a test signal.
Meanwhile, broadcasters will need to make their own decisions on how to switch from the old standard to the new one, assuming the Federal Communications Commission allows them to make their own calls about that. When that option arrives, cord cutters with sufficiently reliable reception will have an even more enticing option to paying for cable or satellite.
In the meantime, set vendors are building in additional ways for watching streaming video services. The budget-priced TV brands Westinghouse, Seiki and Element are showing off sets with Amazon’s (AMZN) Fire TV software built in, and additional viewing options continue to arrive: Hulu is readying a live-TV service that should cost under $40 a month and offer enough channels to replace many cable bundles.
And at TCL’s press conference, Roku general manager Chas Smith revealed some good news for Comcast (CMCSA) subscribers: The cable giant’s promised Xfinity app will be arriving on the Roku platform very soon. That will allow Comcast subscribers to send back their cable boxes and stop paying their rental fees — and start watching their cable bundle in that app on sets with Roku built-in or Roku players connected.
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