Panasonic OLED

Surprising no one (or at least, no one who was paying attention), the big news at CES 2013 was the resolution formally known as 4K: Ultra HD.

Big screens, bigger screens, and even some not-so-big screens all sported the new fancy buzz word.

Of course, no one was talking about the real issue…

No, I’m not talking about the lack of content. That’s fixable, and Sony even announced an upcoming 4K download service.

No, I’m not talking about the inability to stream 4K or anything like that, as Samsung showed off a demo of streaming 4K video.

I’m not even talking about the inability to distinguish 4K from 1080p in smaller screen sizes, because despite the science and physics, there’s always some fanboy who screams “but my Retina iPad looks amazeballz!”

No, I’m talking about HDMI. Getting 4K from a source to the TV. Current HDMI spec maxes out at 4096×2160 at 24 fps. Is this enough? Maybe, probably, but who knows. The next HDMI spec will likely allow even higher resolutions and framerates. Will you need that? Who knows… and that’s the problem. We don’t know. You can’t do a firmware update to make HDMI 1.4 hardware work with higher data rates. So the risk with any of these TVs is like the early days of 1080p TVs where many only had the ability to accept 1080i. A huge deal? No, but if you just spent $20,000 on a TV, wouldn’t you want it to work with the next generation of hardware? I know, it’s asking a lot.

4K and stuff

I was just kidding before. Let’s talk about resolution and viewing distance. As one of our colleagues at CNET pointed out: “4K makes for a great demo.” This wasn’t a statement of the obvious, but a shrewd observation of one of the reasons why TV manufacturers are pushing 4K. In a store, where you can walk right up to the screen, 4K is amazing. It, like LCD, makes for an easy sale on the salesfloor (yes, I know the price is crazy right now, but skip ahead a few years).

It’s also important to point out that 4K televisions are easy. It’s effectively just a piece of motherglass. So instead of 4, 42-inch 1080p LCDs, you have 1, 84-inch 4K TV. There’s no significant change to manufacturing. This is something the TV makers can do now, charge a premium for, and it makes for a great demo. DONE and DONE. The technical term for this is “no brainer.” Yes there can be issues with yields and other manufacturing problems, but these are nothing compared to OLED.

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Ah OLED. So much promise. The biggest issue with OLED right now is getting the manufacturing yields up. What this means is there are too many failures in manufacturing to make a profitable product. If you make 100 and 10 don’t work, that’s a lot of time and labor spent on 10 things you can’t sell. No one (outside of LG) knows what the yields are with OLED right now, but LG pushed their launch back to March, so hopefully production is getting up to speed. Remember, this is a completely new technology, there were growing pains with LCD and plasma too.

And what’s all the fuss about OLED? Well, it’s got a better contrast ratio than anything ever made. It’s draws less power than any modern TV. It’s thinner than a pencil. It’s scalable in size and resolution, so you could have wall-sized ultra-high resolution screens. But in the near term, it’s because they look amazing, and way better than anything currently on the market.

I stand by my assertion that if you put a 1080p OLED next to a 4K LCD, sat someone at a normal viewing distance, they’d pick the OLED. Not only that, I’d bet most people would say the OLED looked sharper (because of the better contrast ratio). How do I know this? Well, a few years ago I did a similar test with the high-contrast-but-720p KURO against multiple 1080p displays. The KURO won hands down, and no one said it looked soft.


So you’d expect, with all my annoyance with 4K, I’d be torn on the idea of a 4K OLED. Nope, not at all. Here’s the thing: Resolution is not in the top 3 things we need to improve about TVs as a whole. As I tweeted, “4K is new tires on an old car. OLED is a new car.” Since 4K is inevitable, my concern is that it would be in place of worthwhile improvements in picture quality (like contrast, or in the case of LCDs, motion resolution). A 4K OLED may have a superfluous amount of pixels, but it’s still OLED. Panasonic and Sony’s 4K OLEDs looked amazing.

What percentage of the “amazing” was contrast and what was resolution I’ll leave to your imagination. I certainly have my ideas.

Next Year

Here are my predictions for CES 2014: More 4K. Hopefully a real OLED product from Sony and Panasonic.

And speaking of Panasonic, many in the press espoused disappointment that Panasonic didn’t announce a 4K plasma. Because plasma’s light output is largely related to the size of its phosphor sub-pixel “buckets,” shrinking these buckets to fit more on the screen (higher resolution) means a drop in light output (generally). It would take too much engineering effort (i.e. $) to get them bright enough without drawing tons of electricity. This is why you don’t see many 42-inch 1080p plasmas since that tiny bucket design would be unique to that 42-inch panel.

At CES, Panasonic announced its first 42-inch 1080p plasma in many years. Interesting. Why would they do that? There’s no money in low-end TVs. There is money in huge TVs though. Especially of the 84-inch, 4K variety…

Just a thought. Maybe it’s just a 42-inch plasma.


Geoff Morrison @TechWriterGeoff
Geoff’s book is now in paperback!


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