The futures of TV

Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

Admittedly, that headline sounds syntactically suspicious. But the plural, given what is happening — or is about to happen — to TV, is appropriate.

Historically, TV has been dominated by one technology — mostly CRT (with a little bit of rear projection) in the 20th century, and mostly LCD (with a little bit plasma) thus far in the 21st. But there are multiple TV new display types getting close to market today, any one of which could be the new "modern" TV technology.

Early last month at the annual IFA electronics show in Berlin, I viewed the widest variety of TV tech ever presented at one trade show — standard LED LCD (what you're probably using right now), UHD LED LCD (UHD meaning televisions with resolutions of 3,840 × 2,160 pixels or better), plasma, 2K OLED (organic light-emitting diode displays), 4K OLED, dual view 3D OLED, glasses-free 3D, curved LED LCD, curved 4K UHD, curved OLED, curved 4K OLED — even transparent 3D. No kidding.

Since the next big screen TV you buy will be your big screen TV for the next decade or so, maybe you want to hold off buying any big screen TV until one of these technologies comes out ahead of all the rest.

TV Futures 1: UHD/4K

Currently all the rage, every major TV maker has (and will early next year roll) out fancy 4K Ultra High Definition TVs. 4K, of course, offers four times the resolution of current two million pixel resolution HDTVs. UHD's future, however, is cloud by overwhelming cynicism surrounding their mere existence.

As I've previously ranted, current UHDs lack three essential new standards: HDMI 2.0, H.265/HEVC compression, and 802.11ac gigabit Wi-Fi. All three likely will appear in next year's UHD models, and LG's newest UHD sets already include HEVC/H.265 decoding. But even with these three modernizations, UHD 4K is, to quote esteemed display reviewer and ISF-trained Geoff Morrison, stupid. Why stupid? Because it's nearly impossible to see the difference between 1080p "standard" HD, and 4K UHD, especially in the 55- and 65-inch UHD sizes, unless you use a jeweler's loupe or a pair of binoculars.

"You have to sit unrealistically close to see the full detail" of 4K, agrees Carlton Bale, an Indianapolis-based engineer and home theater enthusiast. According to Bale's distance/resolution calculator, you have to sit three feet or closer to a 55-inch UHD to see the difference between it and standard HD, or less than four feet from a 65- or 70-inch UHD. It's a good bet that you sit at least six feet away from your big screen TV, likely farther, completely washing out any UHD resolution advantage until you get to UHDs 84 inches or larger — assuming you have 4K material to watch, which you don't and won't for quite a while.

No 4K Content, No 2K Margin

You see, there is no 4K content to view (unless you buy a Sony UHD) and there won't be any for many years. Instead, we'll just be getting up-converted 2K. Sony and Panasonic are reportedly working on a 4K Blu-ray standard, which even under most optimistic forecasts won't be available for at least another two years. And broadcasters, having finally finished million dollar HD upgrades, are in no mood to spend more millions so soon to upgrade to 4K. Most observers believe broadcasters will buy time and wait for 8K, as NHK in Japan has already announced. So if UHD and 4K is stupid, why are TV makers pushing them?

Greed.

You've seen the vicious price cutting on TV as retail. You can now buy a 60-inch 1080p HDTV for less than $1,000. At that price, TV makers can't make any money. So, they've created UHDs which have wonderful profit margins — and no purpose. Which leads us to a more desirable TV future.

TV Futures 2: OLED

Another reason why the UHD future is cloudy is the birth of OLED.

Standard 2K HD OLED is the real deal, its advantages readily observable when compared side-by-side with any current 2K or even 4K display, including plasma. OLED's blacks are positively Stygian and colors pop brighter than those in old Technicolor films. OLED TV looks astounding. What makes images on OLEDs so spectacular? Unlike a backlit LED LCD, each pixel in an OLED is self-illuminating. Each OLED pixel can be completely turned on or off or individually lit in one of the three primary colors, creating a ridiculously deep and customizably colorful image. The aforementioned Mr. Morrison also provides a more detailed explanation of OLED's greatness. And did we mention that OLED HDTVs are really skinny — just 4mm, they're as thin as a pencil.

So if OLED is so great, why isn't it the future of TV?

It's because right now, the largest OLED HDTVs are stuck at around 55-56 inches in size (although LG has announced a 77-inch 4K OLED). Paul Gray, director of European research for market research company Display Search, doesn't believe we'll see 60-inch OLEDs for sale until at least 2016. Worse, OLED HDTVs are hard to make. Gray estimates that only 20 percent of OLEDs that roll off the production line are usable. As a result, the first commercially available OLED HDTVs, the curved LG 55EA9800 and the similarly curved Samsung S9C KN55S9CAFXZA, are both list priced at $10,000 (Samsung has lowered its price by $1,000), nearly twice as much as 55-inch UHD/4K models.

Throwing An OLED Curve

And what's with this recent trend towards curvature? For one thing, it's one way to differentiate OLEDs from existing flat LED LCDs. Execs from LG and Samsung have presented me with explanations of why curved TV is more enveloping, but I have been unable to discern these supposed experiential advantages. Plus, a curved TV cuts down on off-angle side viewing. And what's the advantage of OLED's being pencil-thin if you curve it?

Eventually, OLED sizes will grow, yields will improve, hopefully screens will flatten and prices will drop (as they are already thanks to competition), and OLED will replace plasma as the videophile TV technology. Eventually. Maybe. But the OLED makers may be mucking up OLED's future prospects. At IFA, several TV makers displayed 4K OLEDs. Since we've determined 4K's stupidity in sizes below 84 inches, and there won't be OLED anywhere near that size until the end of this decade, and OLED is super bright and crisp without 4K, 4K OLED is doubly stupid.

TV Futures 3: More Of The Same

Or, maybe what's going to happen is that we'll look at all these next-gen UHD and OLED TVs and begin to drool with desire, and then we'll get a gander at the price tags, and immediately think better of it. In that case, the current batch of LED LCD TVs, or even plasmas, are looking pretty good, thank you.

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