From the perspective of new 8K Ultra HDTV introductions, CES 2020 provided some interesting tells on the future direction of 8K big-screen entertainment for the home. Unfortunately, from a premium-tech perspective, 2020 models from virtually every brand still leave some open-ended questions to be answered when hedging big-screen hardware investments for the next several years.

The following five key takeaways from CES 2020 focus on the latest television offerings from the 8K resolution perspective, to give early adopters some considerations to ponder when deciding whether or not to plunk down thousands of dollars this year. In short, if you can afford them, we think 8K TVs represent the best in class, and as such will present the best experiences, regardless of the native resolution in the content being watched.

Takeaway No. 1: 8K Ultra HDTV Continues Slow Proliferation

Despite a consensus thumbs down to 8K TVs from many TV reviewers, most of the major TV market share leaders continued to slowly push out new model series with next-level 8K Ultra HDTV resolution. For 2020, advances in 8K picture performance were modestly incremental, with manufacturers including Samsung, Sony and LG all showcasing series of 8K TVs with new cosmetic designs, sound improvements and potential price reductions. TCL, meanwhile, showcased its forthcoming 8 Series 8K “Vidrian” Roku TV series that is based on MiniLED full-array backlighting with many more LED dimming zones for greater local control of brightness and black level for better contrast in both HDR and SDR content.

For 2020, the message behind 8K Ultra HD resolution is that it can make sense for very large screen sizes — especially those above 80-inches, although the companies offered models smaller than that.

Sony introduced a new Z8H 8K Series as a step-down from its Master Series models that will presumably offer lower price points when they arrive. The series includes a new speaker system with bottom and side-mounted speakers that vibrate the frame and screen surface to produce sound that appears to follow objects on screen.

Samsung introduced in its 8K models its “Quantum” video processor that allows for more powerful upscaling and a new algorithm for video compression called AI Scalenet that will enhance 8K picture quality. Samsung said AI Scalenet is capable of delivering 8K video within the bandwidth of 4K signals today. The company also has improved its neural network models to improve performance while getting the best use of underlying hardware components. This means the system will be better at local learning without depending on delivery of cloud-based image models. The company’s new top of the line Q950TS 8K TV series features the company’s new “Infinity Screen” design that significant narrows the border trim around the picture, making the set appear nearly bezel-less from a distance.

That’s because blown-up upscaled content will continue to appear sharp and colorful when supported by advanced picture processing algorithms tied to advanced artificial intelligence (AI) systems. These promise to deliver “deep learning” characteristics that continually evolve and self-adjust to different content sources via image sampling from the cloud, firmware and chip-level libraries.

However, it looks like it will be some time before the Holy Grail of native 8K content sources arrive in a meaningful way from production studios or “NextGen” over-the-air TV broadcasts. What is benefiting this trend is continuing demand at the higher end for larger-and-larger flat-panel TV screen sizes that really benefit from a wide color gamut performance and high dynamic range (HDR) in streamed content. It appears we can put a fork in any hope for a next-generation physical media format for 8K content, but the promise of next-generation 8K video cameras and smartphones should help to prime the 8K content pump in short order.

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LG continued to stake an 8K position in both LED-LCD and OLED TVs behind its “Real 8K” claims with superior “Contrast Modulation” claims pointed at rival Samsung. Samsung appears to have dodged this with its own resolution criteria and performance enhancements in its 2020 8K models. Most of the 8K LCD TV makers continued to champion the ability to deliver the highest levels of peak brightness needed to reproduce images of objects that appear to look “more real” to life. For the time being, LG remains the only manufacturer of 8K OLED TVs, which looked very compelling in the manufacturer’s booth, despite limitations in getting picture brightness to exceed 1,000 nits as the content and electronics manufacturing industries strive to attain the sought-after 4,000 nits threshold target. Ultimately, that achievement may have to come from direct view MicroLED or Mini-LED back-lit and Dual Cell LCDs. At this point, it seems unlikely in the near term that OLED technology will be able to get there using the WRGB OLED technology that prevails today, given limitations with image retention and other challenges. But for now, LG’s 88-inch 8K OLED looks pretty darn good and is worthy of consideration for any recent lottery winners looking for the biggest TV they can find.

Takeaway No. 2: AV1 Compression The Next Of Forthcoming New Solutions

One of the more common trends among the 8K TV manufacturers was to include decoding support for the new AV1 digital compression scheme from the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) that thus far is used primarily for 8K content, but can be applied to various resolution levels among content producers and supporting streaming services. One of those is NetFlix, an AOMedia member. The codec was intended to be more “open” and royalty friendly than established HEVC H.265 compression standard. AV1 has been used for 8K by YouTube, although it has some limitations of its own, like efficiency that can make some hardware implementations run hotter. It will offer some alternative solutions for streamers but doesn’t appear to be a threat to supplant HEVC. In the meantime, work proceeds on a next generation Versatile Video Coding (VVC) compression scheme being developed for finalization around mid-2020 by the Joint Video Experts Team (JVET) of the MPEG working group of ISO/IEC JTC and the VCEG working group of ITU-T. VVC is said to have a decoding complexity about twice that of HEVC. Thus, the future for how 8K video streaming will be delivered remains unclear, even with growing hardware support for AV1.

Takeaway No. 3: NextGen TV (ATSC 3.0) Arrives

One of the bigger stories of CES 2020 was the arrival of the first ATSC 3.0 “NextGen TV” tuners in select model televisions for 2020. Supporting associations announced manufacturers including LG, Samsung and Sony will have NextGen TV tuning solutions in total of 20 models this year and some 40 television stations are expected to have NextGen TV transmissions on the air around the country over the course of the year. Both LG and Samsung said that some or all of their 2020 8K TV models will include these tuners. Ironically, while the new broadcasting standard allows for many new features and capabilities, 8K resolution is not currently one of them, and even 4K resolution, which is covered in the specifications today, hasn’t been announced for voluntary support yet by any broadcaster. ATSC allows for numerous improvements and is expandable to include support for next-level technologies like 8K. However, broadcasters appear to be more attracted to features that will derive the most revenue, and these all make demands of available bandwidth, limiting the capacity available for 8K or even 4K signals. Some broadcasters getting into ATSC 3.0 are looking to transmit HDR along with 1080p Full HD images and more advanced surround sound, instead of with 4K images, as most streaming services and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs do now. As a result, don’t run out and purchase a 2020 8K TV with NextGen TV tuning if you intend to use it to watch over-the-air 8K coverage of 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. We’ll be lucky if its even available via any U.S. cable, satellite or streaming transmissions. Right now, the future of viewing live native 8K events seems to be linked to 5G wireless services, but none of the 2020 8K TVs announced at CES made and such capabilities in this year’s models. Stay tuned for development.

Takeaway No. 4: Chinese TV Brands Hang On To LCD Technology Relevancy

The production of large-format LCD panels used for television sets has shifted in a major way to new 10.5 Gen fabs in China, as South Korean and Japanese manufacturers begin looking to other display panel technologies like OLED and MicroLED to carry into their future product roadmaps. Not surprisingly, then, much of the news related to the evolution of LCD at CES 2020 came from the Chinese manufacturers including TCL, Hisense and newcomer to the U.S., Konka. Another newcomer, Skyworth, focused most of its news on high-end OLED and 8K LED-LCD TVs.

The overwhelming percentage of all televisions to be sold over the last decade have been LCD based, and although the technology appears to be in its declining years the emergence of some exciting new directions in Dual Cell LED-back-lit LCD TVs and models with Mini-LED backlighting is keeping it interesting.

TCL made a splash for the second year in row by showing its aforementioned MiniLED back-light technology in a new 8 Series 8K Roku TV lineup called “Vidrian.” It also announced that it was moving MiniLED down into its popular 6 Series 4K Ultra HDTV line. TCL’s MiniLED implementation for both series uses full-array backlighting with many more tiny LED dimming zones. These produce bright and and colorful images with what appears to be OLED-like black reproduction. The 8 Series 8K Mini-LED TVs with quantum dot color expansion technology come in 65- and 75-inch panel sizes at prices to be announced later. The Vidrian Mini-LED 8K TVs will be TCL’s new flagship Roku TVs for 2020. In addition to upgrading last year’s Mini-LED system to 8K resolution, the Vidrian series introduces a new “glass on LED” Mini-LED panel technology. This places tens of thousands of very small LED backlights and circuitry directly into the glass substrate of the panel. The approach minimizes filters between the backlight and LED, boosting brightness and clarity in the process. The technology greatly increases the number of local dimming zones over traditionally backlit LED TVs for greater control over brightness and black level performance. In short, images just look more realistic. TCL says their Vidrian panels also create longer lasting performance. As for pricing, TCL assures the series will be priced competitively against other 8K TVs on the market. Other features in the series include “8K HDR” with Dolby Vision and HDR10+ video support, a very wide color gamut and high color volume from the combination of the Mini-LED backlight and quantum dot technology. For video gamers, TCL equips these models with an Auto Game Mode, a 120Hz Game input and variable refresh rate (VRR) support. They also carry the new Roku TV Ready certification for easy integration with conforming soundbars, AVRs and other certified home theater products.

Takeaway No. 5: HDMI 2.1 Connectivity Proliferates

To help support these new 8K TVs, work on adoption and implementation of the new HDMI 2.1 connection remained to be addressed to bring support for some of the new features the signals will required. The HDMI-LA (Licensing Administration) used CES2020 to announce the availability, at long last, of a new testing and certification program for new HDMI 2.1 cables (aka Ultra High Speed HDMI cables). The mandatory certification program was developed to ensure support for both 4K and 8K video, as well as 4K 120Hz, HDR, VRR, eARC, and all other HDMI 2.1 features. The new cable ensures ultra high-bandwidth dependent features are delivered correctly including uncompressed 8K video with HDR and backward compatibility with existing HDMI devices.

The group said all certified cables of any length must pass certification testing at an HDMI Authorized Test Center. The new Ultra High Speed HDMI cable certification also includes testing to meet current EMI requirements to minimize wireless interference. Properly tested and certified cables will carry an Ultra High Speed HDMI Certification Label for easy identification by consumers.

The new HDMI cable certification program is an expansion of the current Premium Certification Program, and will be available sometime in the first quarter, with the first certifications issued before the end of June.

Most of the 8K TV makers announced support for at least some of the feature components available through the HDMI 2.1 specification, with LG and Samsung offering some of the most robust packages for the second year in a row. Various hardware manufacturers, led by these two, began announcing support for certain HDMI 2.1 features last year, although they were prevented by the HDMI LA from aggressively promoting HDMI 2.1 inputs until testing and certification procedures were established and administered.

There are a number of features included in HDMI 2.1 which are not required as part of the certification process. These include; enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC) which enables transfer of uncompressed audio formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X; Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) which allows for a smoother game play, and Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM).

Last year, Samsung Electronics announced support for higher video resolutions and refresh rates covered in the HDMI 2.1 spec including 8K/60Hz and 4K/120Hz frame rates. HDMI 2.1 also supports dynamic metadata format HDR support, including HDR10+. HDMI 2.1 boosts the data transfer rate from 18Gbps in HDMI 2.0 to 48Gbps, which is necessary to carry the higher frames rates and increased resolution levels over the new Ultra High Speed HDMI 2.1 cables.

LG said its 8K TV’s HDMI ports in 2020 support Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) and Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM), which are both important to advanced video gameplay. Sony is placing HDMI 2.1 ports in its new Z8H 8K models and TCL said is supporting HDMI 2.1 features including 4K/120Hz (through firmware update) in select 2020 model lines. It is also supporting a new “THX Game Mode” this year.

By Greg Tarr

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