LONDON—As stay-at-home orders sent streaming through the roof over the past 12 months, the TV remains the centerpiece for home entertainment. A quarter of all TV viewing in North America is now from streamed services, according to Nielsen. Households also upgraded their TV sets, setting a record for TV shipments in 2020, according to the Consumer Technology Association, which expects steady demand for displays in North America through 2021. An estimated 43 million units shipped this year will be sets over 70-inches and/or those with 8K UHD.
TV vendors have had a tough time in recent years as consumers tended to pay more money, more frequently for smartphones. Greater attention from consumers on the value of the main screen and the maturation of a number of technical ingredients, which—combined, make for more immersive viewing experiences—has opened the window for TV makers with CES as ever the perfect place to launch a sales pitch.
“The killer app for TV is TV,” is how Madeleine Noland, president of the ATSC, put it during a CES panel session about NextGen TV. ATSC research reveals that home viewers want higher resolution and enhanced audio (from built-in 3D speakers to sound bars and 21.1 channels).
They also want higher dynamic range, higher frame rates and bigger displays and Filmmaker Mode, a button that sets a film’s color-palette, contrast, aspect ratio and frame rate supposedly as the director envisioned. In fact, they want the whole package to which can now be added “smart interactive personalization.”
“What is exciting is the synergy between these consumer desires and today’s TVs, which are bringing these features to life,” she said.
It’s been a while getting here. Michael Davies, senior vice president, field and technical for Fox Sports said on the same CES panel, that while visiting Japan last year he was “embarrassed” to admit that Fox was still broadcasting 720p SDR when the Japanese were talking about 8K.
“We’ve been living with HDTV for 20 years,” he said. “It’s been a pretty slow roll from there. We had three 8K cameras at Super Bowl LIV but that pales beside the other 120 cameras we had there.”
AI AND UPSCALING
CTA predicts 8K TV sales will grow by 300% in 2021 albeit comprising a relatively small 1.7 million units.
“Even in 4K there is limited content today,” acknowledged Grace Nolan, vice president, integrated marketing at Samsung. “It will be a little stretch to get to 8K on a more mainstream level—[but] we won’t get there unless the industry is pushing. It’s encouraging to see 8K games consoles [PS5 and Xbox Series X support 8K gaming] coming out. We will catch up with Japan.”
In the meantime, vendors are relying on upscaling technology to make incoming lower-resolution pictures “8K-ish.” “We lean hard on AI and upscaling tech,” said Nolan. “The more data that is input into the TV, the better the processor is able to work to produce a more beautiful upscaled image.”
Aside from UHD, HDR and enhanced audio, the other near universal component of TV hardware 2021 is applications for gamers. Larger, brighter screens with higher refresh rates and special gamer-only features as well as tie-ups with cloud gaming vendors should help TV brands shift more gear.
Decoding the barrage of branding and acronyms, which go hand in hand with new TV launches is a minefield, and two in particular make for confusion this year: MiniLED and MicroLED.
MiniLED could overtake LCD to become the main illumination source for the bulk of consumer electronics, let alone flat panel displays if news of recent developments comes to fruition. Apple is widely-rumored to be using MiniLED panels in its upcoming iPad Pro and MacBook upgrades.
By siting tens of thousands of LEDs behind an LCD panel, combined with “dimming zones,” this technology helps deliver more precise differentiation between bright details without the light spilling into surrounding dark areas. Black levels, of course, have a direct impact on accurate color representation in SDR and HDR images but overall brightness levels are superior to those produced by OLEDs.
MicroLED, the more expensive solution to manufacture, involves assigning microscopic LED arrays to individual pixels, therefore allowing even greater control over the picture brightness. Like OLED, this technology allows true blacks to be shown by switching any pixel off, but unlike OLED, MicroLED can deliver much brighter dynamic range and more impressive contrast.
Compared with LCD technology, MicroLED displays offer better contrast, response times and energy efficiency. MicroLEDs form the basis of Sony’s Crystal LED screens, which it is now marketing to film and TV productions wanting to shoot on virtual sets.
Samsung, the world’s largest TV seller, has made MiniLEDs the backlight system for its range of new NEO QLED TVs. By shrinking the LEDs to a 40th of their traditional size, Samsung is upping both brightness and black levels while allowing for more precision and less bleeding of bright areas into darker spots.
The flagship 85-inch Neo QN900 comes with a bezel-less screen similar to the infinity screens of its Galaxy smartphone. It’s less than a centimeter thin too with the speakers embedded behind the screen. No price was given but this could cost north of $10k.
An interesting feature is a “game bar,” which enables quick access to settings such as refresh rate and aspect ratio when attached to a PS5 or Xbox Series X. The aspect ratio can be changed from 21:9 to 32:9. It also supports 4K at 120fps, which is another must-have for gamers.
Samsung’s CES headline generator though is its new MicroLED TVs, which come in 88-, 99- and 110-inches. Reports suggest that the largest one costs $156K and it’s only 4K. Two years ago Samsung was demonstrating this technology in an 8K 150-inch version called “The Wall” and directed at the business-to-business market. These consumer-grade monsters come with a “Multi View” feature that enables the screen to be split into four separate 55-inch pictures. Each of the four sections have their own separate volume control too.
The world’s second best-selling TV brand is also introducing MicroLEDs into a range of displays it is calling “QNED.” The “Q” refers to sets’ uses of tiny “quantum dot” crystals to display colors. “N” refers to “nano cell” particles used to absorb unwanted light wavelengths to improve color reproduction and viewing angles; the ‘ED’ refers to “emitting diodes.”
LG is packing 30,000 of these tiny LEDs into the back of its largest 86-inch screens to produce a contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1 when paired with up to nearly 2,500 dimming zones and advanced local dimming technology,” the company claimed.
In a video presentation the company said, “The only way for LCDs to get bigger is for details to get more precise—hence ‘Mini-LED.’ Blacks that are deeper and more precise than any other of our LCD TVs.”
However, LG’s premium picture quality will still be found in its OLED “Evo” range, which now comes with a new processor. During its press conference, LG said the Evo benefitted from “a new luminous element” that would deliver “punchy images with high clarity, detail and realism.”
Gaming is a focus for LG too. It has a new partnership with Google, which will see Google Stadia run on its TVs while Amazon Twitch has earned a prized position on LG’s "magic" remote control.
A prototype of a 48-inch OLED capable of bending 1000mm from a conventional flat screen into a curved display for greater immersion also targeted gamers.
Panasonic majored on OLED and also zeroed in on gamers with its 55-inch and 65- inch JZ2000. The model is billed as having low latency and support for HDMI 2.1 variable refresh rates as well as frame rates up to 120fps.
An AI processor can automatically detect what you’re watching or playing as well as the ambient light settings of the room you are in and calibrate settings including Dolby Vision IQ and HDR10+ Adaptive for optimal viewing.
As an example, Panasonic said it can detect a football game and adjust the picture accordingly to help accentuate things like the grass on the field or how players look. The AI system will also give you a sound setting that feels like you’re in the stadium, Panasonic said.
Alongside Dolby Atmos support, the TV comes with side and upward-firing built-in speakers, which create what the company calls 360-degree Soundscape Pro.
Hisense is adding an 8K up-rezzing chip to its flagship ULED TVs later this year and will promote this through its official partnership with the rescheduled Euro 2020 soccer tournament.
Bigger news from the Chinese vendor, though, was the unleashing of a massive 300- inch version of its TriChroma laser TV. These are laser projectors that use short throw technology to display 4K images on walls but Hisense has added a smart platform—AI cameras to support interaction like online karaoke and fitness and a TV tuner.
“Laser TV is the only TV category which experienced growth in China last year,” said CEO Fisher Yu, who added that sales had rocketed 288% outside China in 2020.
Since launching the first laser TV in 2014, Samsung, Sony and LG have followed suit with their own ranges.
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