The 2016 UHD TV State of the Union

Fresh on the heels of the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, we've gotten a good look at what 2016 has in store for Ultra-High-Definition flat panels. Most TV manufactures use the annual convention to showcase their latest technology, and this year was no exception. A look at the various TV strategies of what I'll call "the Big 4" (Sony, LG, Panasonic, and Samsung) paints an accurate picture of the UHD-TV State of the Union as we enter a 2016...

Sony

Excitement about High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology is at an all time high, so no self-respecting manufacturer can put out a flagship TV without supporting it. The folks in Sony's marketing department are capitalizing on this trend by emphasizing Sony's deep roots in the next-generation technology. Given the importance of HDR to Sony's camera division, as well as in the content production taking place at Sony Pictures, their tagline practically writes itself: "Sony knows HDR from the lens to the living room". Take one look at their high-end XBR series TV's and it's hard to argue. Sony does HDR very well. 

Sony's twist on HDR is called "X-Tended Dynamic Range Pro". Using highly sophisticated backlight control, called Slim Backlight Drive, Sony claims their LCD's can create black levels on par with OLED (more on that in a minute), alongside eye-popping peak brightness levels. As the name implies, Slim Backlight Drive can be placed into a very thin displays, a characteristic not usually associated with ultra-precise backlight control.

Their new XBR-X930D series will boast this slim backlighting technology, while the 75" X940D will sport full array direct backlighting (Videophiles rejoice! A full array panel!).  Both models will also sport Sony's color enhancement technology, known as Triluminous, which broadens the range of colors their displays are able to reproduce. Pricing was not announced for their new flagship models. They are expected to start shipping in early 2016.

The Takeaway

  • Sony is betting big on HDR and is innovating new methods of backlight control which allow them to deliver this technology in a very thin form factor, and for less money than comparable OLED displays. 

LG

With a couple of nods to OLED technology already behind us, now would be a good time to discuss LG. OLED is an exciting technology capable of producing stunning images. But, although prices have started to come down, it's still prohibitively expensive for many. In what's been a sort of catch-22, OLED TV's are expensive to make because hardly anyone makes them, and hardly anyone makes them because well...they're too expensive to make. 

In spite of the challenges, LG continues to drive OLED innovation. These TV's use an entirely different approach to picture reproduction than LCD-based panels. As such, manufacturing OLED's is a process that requires re-tooling entire factories, but LG believes the ends justify the means. OLED's are capable of producing literally perfect black levels (critical to HDR), fluid motion, and amazingly vibrant colors.

Another benefit of OLED is how remarkably thin the displays can be. LG's flagship G6 series, announced at CES, measures 1/10th of an inch thick! This new series will be available in 65" and 77" models.  Availability on the 77" was not announced, the 65" model is expected sometime in Q1 of this year. Details on pricing are sparse. The best we have to go on is that the 65" "should" come in at "less than $10,000". Sound pricey? It's a flagship OLED. What did you expect?

The Takeaway

Widely claimed to have stolen the show at CES this year, LG's OLED sets are coveted by videophiles. However it's anyone's guess if OLED will reach mainstream viability. But don't tell LG that, they just bet the farm on it... 

Panasonic

It's been said of CES booths that size matters. To which the folks at Panasonic might simply accuse their rivals of over compensating. Tucked into a small corner, of a relatively small booth at this year's show was the company's DX900 LCD. Staking it's claim as the world's first "Ultra HD Premium" certified display,  Panasonic is also touting 4K certification from the renowned quality assurance body THX. 

It wasn't long ago that videophiles the world over mourned Panasonic's exit from plasma manufacturing. Revered for their rich color reproduction, deep blacks, and smooth motion, plasma technology finally succumbed to the onslaught of lighter, more energy efficient, and (most importantly) cheaper LCD's.

Similar to Sony, Panasonic is looking to recapture that plasma-magic from an LCD based display by utilizing innovative backlight control. They're calling their version "honeycomb structure", and pitching the technology in the all important context of HDR. The claim is that this super precise dimming enables the TV to produce extreme brights without any light bleeding into the dark areas of the screen. This problem, known as the halo effect, is common in traditional LCD based TV's.

Expected to be available in Europe by the end of this month, we're told the DX900 won't ship stateside until Spring of 2016. Pricing was not announced. Panasonic is clearly trying to craft a message of premium quality with this new series, claiming only their TV's show you the image exactly as the director intended it. All reports from CES this year appear to indicate that they have hit the mark. 

The Takeaway

Although they did show one OLED model at CES, slated to arrive later this year, Panasonic is entrenched in the LCD camp with pretty much everyone else. With impressive certifications, and premium branding, the message from Panasonic at CES was clear: quality over quantity.  

Samsung

As the number 1 TV manufacturer in the world for 10 years running, Samsung always comes out swinging for CES. Their messaging this year was all about "innovation that matters most", which left me scratching my head given their insistence on shoving curved TV's down our throats. Case in point, their flagship KS9500 series, a curved, bezel-less line coming in 65", 77", and 88" models. Details on pricing and expected availability were unclear. 

One thing that was clear, the KS9500 is seriously bright, reaching a peak output of 1,000 nits, roughly double the brightness of a high end OLED. In an attempted jab at OLED's inability to compete in the category peak brightness, Samsung placed a lot of emphasis on a recent study which revealed that we rarely watch TV in complete darkness. Who knew?

Samsung is placing big bets on a technology known as Quantum Dots, a backlighting method which made a big splash at CES 2015 but was surprisingly quiet this year. Producing quantum dot TV's requires no retooling of existing LCD factories, which makes the technology economically appealing to Samsung. And the claim is that this technology can deliver many of the benefits of OLED for a fraction of the cost. In an effort to position against the perfect blacks of OLED, Samsung announced Ultra Black Technology, which confusingly purports to "absorb natural light the same way that a moth’s eye enables it to see better at night". You just can't make this stuff up.

More than any other TV manufacturer, Samsung is pushing the idea of Smart TV, touting features such as improved built-in streaming apps and console-less gaming. Much was also made of the new SmartThings Extend, a USB dongle which turns any Samsung SUHD into the hub of a SmartThings connected home. Samsung acquired SmartThings  for $200M back in August of 2014, so it's no surprise to see them making the smart home a key part of their TV strategy. The real question is will the average consumer find this compelling? But that's another topic for another post. 

The Takeaway

Samsung will remain a serious contender in the high-end LCD market. The question is whether their insistence on the TV as a media and connected home hub qualifies as innovation, or simply a distraction from what consumers really want: a great looking display. And seriously... enough with the curved TV's already... 

Conclusion

 With 4K / UHD still evolving so rapidly buying a new TV last year was a little scary. 2016 feels like the year that things have finally stabilized. Standards like the UHD Alliance's Ultra HD Premium certification are making the waters a little less muddy. Prices on displays are coming down. And an ever increasing amount of UHD / HDR content is becoming available. So if you've been holding off on that TV upgrade, perhaps now is the time to pull the trigger! As CES clearly demonstrated, there are no shortage of great options coming to market.

That wraps my 2016 UHDTV State of the Union. Did I miss anything? Do you disagree with my outlook? Post a comment and let me know!

PS - If you're interested in learning more about any of technologies discussed here for personal or professional reasons I'd be more than happy to help, just shoot me a quick message.