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China set to lead ultraHD in demand and supply

The headlines at Europe’s biggest consumer electronics show, the IFA in Berlin, were hogged by big screens and new technologies from well-known brands like Samsung and Sony, but in the case of ultraHD (UHD) the driving forces are coming increasingly from China. Although forecasts from NPD DisplaySearch and other market research groups are suggesting that China will be the world’s biggest market for 4K TVs in 2016, when UHD may be taking off, the country’s TV manufacturers are already disrupting the market by bringing out models several times cheaper than Samsung, Sony, LG, and other established players.

These displays are already becoming available in Europe and North America, with Chinese TV maker TCL in July 2013 announcing the first 50in. 4K screen to be released in the U.S. for less than $1000, the 7E504D at $999. Other Chinese makers — such as Haier, Konka and Changhong Electric — are likely to follow suit, throwing down the gauntlet to non-Chinese competitors, whose 4K displays typically weigh in at around $5000, or substantially more for bigger displays. A number of pay-TV operators, such as Viasat in the Nordics, are now betting on this arrival of lower-price displays stimulating the UHD field and accelerating developments right across the ecosystem.

At the same time, though, 4K technology is still at a nascent stage, with manufacturers still experimenting not just with different resolutions, frame rates and screen sizes, but also with the display technology. This was clear at IFA in Berlin, where one of the highlights was a prototype 4K UltraHD OLED TV from Samsung, following in the footsteps of Sony, which showed a similar laboratory model at CES in Las Vegas last January. Unlike LCD, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) uses an organic material to emit light in response to an electric current. Their big advantage is that they operate without a backlight. This means they can display true deep black and generally sharper colors, especially at low ambient light levels, while also being thinner and lighter in weight. There has been a growing belief that OLED is almost a substitute for high resolution, achieving a comparable viewing experience with a smaller number of pixels for a given screen size. But for very large screens resolution would still be a handicap, so the combination of OLED and 4K could deliver the ultimate picture quality.

Currently, however, the largest OLED displays anywhere close to commercial reality are 55in models from Samsung and LG. Inevitably, though, these two vendors and others were busy flexing their muscles at IFA with much larger 4K screens based on conventional LCD technology. Samsung took the lead here with a 110in. 4K UltraHD display, along with a 98in successor to its current 85in S9 Series 4K UltraHD TV. Even the S9 costs $40,000, so the 100in model is not likely to become a commodity anytime soon.

There were also a number of curved TVs on view at IFA, aping the curved screens in many cinemas so that the viewer is the same distance from all parts of the picture. The problem for curved TVs is that they only work well if the viewer is facing the mid line of the TV, and that is not possible for more than one person.