5 TV Takeaways From CES 2019
With CES 2019 behind us, it’s time to assess how all of the amazing advances in video, television and home theater technologies are likely to impact us this year and beyond. So, as Rod Serling would say: “submitted for your approval” — HD Guru’s five takeaways of CES 2019.
First, a cautionary note: Many of the most exciting new advancements in display tech that made headlines around the world will take time to transition into the market. Although it’s fun to ponder how some of these dazzlers will look in your living room, for most of us its fodder for day dreams. Yes, LG will finally deliver a 4K Rollable Signature OLED TV R to market this year and Samsung will offer an even bigger (219-inch) razor-thin Micro LED video wall with some of the most spectacular picture performance characteristics ever seen in a consumer display, but these are going to be really expensive, meaning it’s not going to sell a lot of units for a few years.
More importantly for now, and perhaps less exciting, was what mushroomed up in more mainstream products in manufacturers’ booths across the show floor. 4K Ultra HD and high dynamic range (HDR) TVs are quickly supplanting Full HD 1080p models. Many of these now are also including advanced chip sets and enhancements to boost HDR brightness and black levels and widen the color gamut to get closer to covering the full range of colors visible to the human eye.
Keep in mind that TV manufacturers are caught in a perpetual spiral of decreasing prices and profit margins forcing their hands to avoid “commoditization” and push new, better and more expensive technologies on the market. Although the new bigger, brighter and better televisions make all the headlines and set the performance bar, the vast majority of televisions sold are priced under $1,000. These pricier offerings allow those comparatively dirt-cheap TVs to deliver products of really great value to the masses.
4K UHD and High Dynamic Range (HDR) Enters The Mainstream
4K Ultra HDTV shipments continue their growth momentum around the world, up 34% in 2018 from 2017, and are forecast to grow another +22% in 2019, according to data from Futuresource. The data analytics research firm predicts the market will continue to grow with double-digit CAGR throughout 2022. Virtually all TV models sold in North America measuring 60-inches and larger are now 4K as are 95% of models measuring 50 to 60-inches. Not surprisingly, then, U.S. consumers are buying larger and larger screen sizes every year, with the 55-inch screen size becoming one of the hottest segments.
In prior years many of these lower-priced 4K televisions advertised “HDR capability” but actually failed to present sufficiently high peak brightness levels or deep enough black levels to expand the contrast range wide enough to make HDR highlights pop. Typically, such TVs would get by as “HDR displays” by simply playing back an HDR-supported signal displayed at the maximum capability of the set. This in some cases is not great.
This year, however, consumers will have some real HDR options to choose from in a good, better, best sort of way. We saw sub $500 50-inch full-array models with up to 700 nits of peak brightness that looked very good on the show floor. The back lighting system helps to both boost brightness and produce nearly pure blacks in localized areas of the picture. This gives pictures punch with more visible detail and vibrant, realistic colors. Importantly, it also produces truly bright specular highlights that give images more of a 3D feel with points of brightness that stand out from the surrounding picture the way they do in the real world. The amount of brightness and color gamut coverage a television can produce determines its performance rating. From what we saw, consumers in 2019 will have some really good HDR televisions to choose from at very good price points. For great values this year, keep an eye on rapidly growing companies like TCL and Hisense, which seem to have upped the game appreciably in models that should hold up for a number of years.
Ready Or Not 8K Is Here
On the heels of Samsung’s launch of the first 8K TV in the United States (the 85-inch 85Q900) late last year, the rest of the industry is preparing to get into the game. In addition to Samsung, manufacturers including LG, Sony, TCL, Hisense, Skyworth, Changhong and others had at least one 8K TV model in its booth. On top of this, a new 8K Association was announced with the goal of advancing the benefits of 8K display technologies and to assist with the advocacy of production and distribution of native 8K content.
Among the new 8K displays at CES 2019 from LG were both OLED and LED-LCD technologies. These included an 88-inch OLED and a 75-inch 8K full-array LED-LCD using a NanoCell color filter technology. Similarly, Sony showed a pair of LED-LCD full-array backlit models topping Sony’s new Master Series (85- and 98-inches).
Some of these 8K LED-LCD TVs featured smaller (mini LED) back lights to improve the control of lighting for the more densely packed pixels across the LCD back plane .
Another 8K demo was shown in Sharp’s booth, demonstrating what the company is doing on the global scene, under the control of Taiwan-based Foxconn. This strategy will leverage both 8K displays and emerging 5G wireless connectivity to facilitate the use and distribution of native 8K content. Unfortunately, there won’t be much news on new Sharp-branded 8K TV front for the United States for at least two years, as the license to the brand is still controlled here by Hisense, and that company isn’t likely to invest heavily in newer technologies for a lame-duck trademark.
The 800-pound-gorilla concerning 8K televisions is what connector these early sets will employ to import 8K signals from future outboard signal source, if they ever materialize. Content one day produced in 8K at 60 fps or higher, for example, is going to require more bandwidth than the current HDMI 2.0b connector in use right now can support. The new HDMI 2.1 specification will afford 48 Gbps throughput and high frame rate features, among others, but the HDMI LA told us that testing procedures and scheduling are still not in place to facilitate market introductions.
They assure, however, this will be taken care of in time for the promised deliveries of HDMI 2.1-supporting products, probably later in the second half of the year. In addition to compliance testing, the full HDMI 2.1 specification will require physical silicon in the product, and only one chip maker, Japan’s Socionext, is currently shipping this. Samsung, of course, will be able to upgrade its 8K televisions by swapping out the One Connect box its 8K Q900 displays use to carry outboarded circuitry and connectors. For other manufacturers, the upgrade solutions are less clear, and probably means delivery will be tied to how quickly the specification certification processes come together.
In addition to the problem with 8K connector solutions, another hurdle facing TV makers and potential native 8K content providers is how to transport these massive video streams over typical broadband bandwidth. For the introduction of 4K Ultra HD, the HEVC H.265 digital compression scheme was selected to double the efficiency of H.264. At this time, HEVC, or an improved version of it, will likely continue to be the compression scheme of choice at launch. However, a few others may be contending soon. At CES, Fraunhofer discussed development work on a new Versatile Video Codec (VVC), which is based on the unit structure of HEVC H.265 but may require significantly more processing power. The eventual goal of the scheme is to achieve another 50% reduction in bitrate. Other possible solutions include AV-1, developed by a consortium of companies including Netflix. This will warrant watching as 8K advances in the market.
Display Technologies Take On New Form Factors
Aside from TV screens getting bigger, brighter and sharper, one of the more compelling new trends of CES 2019 were new shapes, sizes and configurations of TV screens.
Probably the biggest news of the CES 2019 was the LG Signature 4K OLED TV R — a 65-inch inch rollable OLED display that can be retracted from a rolled up state in a short long cabinet box using a motor drive. The implementation dazzled showgoers with its versatility and design styling. Will this be the future of television? It will certainly be part of it, but it’s hard to say at this time if it will remain a high-end niche item or a mainstream value one day. We weren’t given a price on the product and we’re sure it’s going to be pricey when it’s first released. The possibilities are certainly intriguing, however, considering where curved-screen OLEDs were when they were first introduced just a few years ago. But for the Jetson’s factor alone, this is a homerun.
OLED, and all display technologies, will eventually have to contend with Micro LED displays. The technology promises to eventually develop into a highly efficient technology to mass produce with yield rates expected to quickly surpass those of OLED panels today. It will also be highly power efficient and delivers some of the best picture quality characteristics of any display technology to date.
Samsung showed the first implementation for the well-heeled consumer market last year in its 146-inch version of “The Wall.” This year it expanded that to 219-inches with what is believed to be greater than 4K resolution. Samsung also showed “The Window” Micro LED concept which leverages the modular panel nature of Micro LED to let consumers custom build displays to their own sizes, shapes and aspect ratios. It also demonstrated how quickly the capabilities of the technology are improving by the day, showing a 75-inch prototype 4K Micro LED TV with Micro LED panels offering a reduced pixel pitch from The Wall versions. This allows shrinking the screen to a more traditional TV size while still offering 4K 3840 x 2160 pixel resolution.
The technology is rapidly transforming into a product for a wider audience and could give LED LCD TV technology a challenge for market supremacy one day. For now, it remains another “wow” product. Although Samsung is the first to market it for home use, Sony has its own version for commercial products now, and LG is also known to be advancing the technology for its own future plans.
On the LCD front, Chinese TV makers Hisense and Skyworth demonstrated televisions based on so called Dual Cell technology. This is a new spin on LED-LCD. The new approach uses one monochrome 2K open cell structure from an LCD panel, bonded to a full color 4K Ultra HD panel to produce an image with a wide contrast range including deep OLED-like black levels and very bright specular highlights from HDR sources.
Smart TVs Get Artificial Intelligence
The term Artificial Intelligence (AI) TV took on new dimensions at CES 2019 with most manufacturers incorporating powerful processors to run picture and sound processing systems and algorithms designed to make both 4K and 8K TV screens look fantastic, even when running sub-native 4K and 8K source material. Running so-called AI tech, some of the platforms (Sony, Samsung , LG) use data bases of images and algorithms to rapidly compare against incoming source signals and make adjustments. This is said to produce the cleanest possible images. Because some of these system tie into remote servers, these databases can be continuously changed and updated to make the televisions look better and better into the future.
These same powerful processors are tapped to run advanced new smart TV and IoT platforms. Where AI in recent years has been applied to the use of voice-controlled interfaces allowing users to speak commands to control the television, these systems are now programmed control compatible smart home appliances and devices around the house using verbal cues. This year, the overwhelming trend was television brands throwing in with multiple AI voice-control partners, to add on compatibility with very popular established platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Implementation varies from brand to brand and even in some cases from model to model, but in general more televisions in 2019 are building the voice collection end of the AI platform right into the TV or its remote. This eliminates the need to link to an outboard smart speaker or hub. More typically, televisions incorporate one of these platforms and extend compatibility to others through apps like “works with Alexa” to let the smart speaker or hub collect the voice commands and relay them to the appropriate device.
Also new in this regard, were announcements from multiple TV brands that their televisions are incorporating some form of compatibility with Apple’s AirPlay 2 or HomeKit, enabling access to an Apple mobile device to access iTunes libraries, tap into Siri and run smart home products based on the HomeKit platform. In the case of Samsung, the iTunes app was extended directly to the televisions, so viewers can access their iTunes video, photo and music libraries right from their screens.
In all cases, these voice control platforms are becoming easier and easier to use, with the interactions becoming more natural and less glitchy. Smartly, manufacturers are using these platforms to tie in with and sell additional products in their portfolios, like smart refrigerators, smart air purifiers, smart lights, etc., all accessible in some way through TVs, smart phones, and smart speakers/hubs. The future of this trend should be very intriguing indeed.
Taking Back TV Sound
For the past few years the trend in television audio development has been to add on sound bars or home theater systems for an immersive sound experience that punctuates the action on the screen.
With the development of very thin-panel OLED displays, TV sound systems have started to come back into the set. Sony started the trend in its OLED TVs two years ago, introducing the Acoustic Surface technology that uses actuators attached to the OLED panel to vibrate the large-screen surface, creating a giant stereo speaker. The approach helps sound seem to come directly out of the mouths of on screen actors or follow noise-generating objects around the screen.
At CES 2019, Sony introduced the new flagship A9F 4K OLED TV series featuring an Acoustic Surface+ audio system featuring a new stand/mount design with a redesigned support leg that becomes part of the wall mount configuration when collapsed against rear of the panel. This adds two side-firing subwoofers this year, up from one in previous models.
Sony also adds a center-positioned actuator to the OLED panel that enhances dialog and the perceive location of sound on the screen.
At CES 2019, LG Display got into the act by demonstrating an 88-inch 8K OLED TV equipped with what it calls its Crystal Sound system. Similar to Sony’s Acoustic Surface technology, this uses the giant thin OLED panel surface as a giant vibrating 3.2.2 sound system embedded directly into the display, and like Sony’s approach, the sounds and dialog come off of the picture surface itself.
As for more traditional LED-LCD sets, Sony introduced a pair of flagship Master Series Z9G 8K TVs, in the 85- and 98-inch screen sizes, that take the Acoustic Surface concept to thicker screens. Unlike OLED, LCD panels don’t vibrate in a way that produces great sound, so Sony has develped a new speaker system embedded in an unusual frame design surrounding the screen. This utilizes four thin forward-facing speakers that places two drivers at the top of the screen and two at the bottom.
The arrangement creates a similar effect to the Acoustic Surface OLED TVs, where vocals and sound are centrally localized and seem to be coming directly out of the screen. In Sony’s case, both the OLED and LED-LCD approaches can be setup to serve as a self-contained sound system or to serve as a center-channel speaker in a full home theater surround sound package. This is important, because at these price points, it’s unlikely many customers are going to rely solely on a TV sound system to handle the surround sound entertainment. But it will be interesting to watch how quickly this sort of innovation migrates down into more affordable products, where customers are harder pressed to add on elaborate sound bars or home theater packages.
Fast on the development of emerging trends, China TV manufacturing giant Hisense showed a prototype 4K LED-LCD television with an ultra thin-screen equipped with Piezo-electric speaker technology. Like Sony’s Acoustic Surface OLED concept, this is said to help the TV’s sound seem to come directly off the screen. In Hisense’s case, the concept was demonstrated in its “Sonic One TV” design concept. The design creates a super-thin screen, measuring just 1.1 inches at its thickest point, and less than a 1/4-inch at the top and sides. Hisense calls this “the world’s thinnest self-contained LCD TV.” The demo featured a 65-inch screen size, in a model currently planned to reach the China domestic market in the second half of 2019. Exact marketing plans and timing for the U.S. are to be determined, Hisense said.
The Sonic One Design involves a near “bezel-less” TV with an edge-to-edge screen. This makes the LCD itself appear to have no margin or bezel around it. The traditional built-in speaker system is replaced with Piezo-electric drivers placed on the panel to transform it into a stereo speaker system. The TV supports Bluetooth wireless technology to supplement the Piezo-electric drivers with a wireless subwoofer.
By Greg Tarr
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