Innovative Smart TVs, 4K, and Curved Mark CES Opening Press Day

Here are the CES Ultra HD TV highlights from LG, Sharp, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony.

Oh, yes, this is going to be an interesting year for new TV technology and a year when manufacturers are either carefully or recklessly placing their bets on what the next big thing is going to be.

What it certainly isn’t going to be, at least in the new TV category, is anything at all about 3D. Yes, most manufacturers will include 3D in their 2014 TV lineup, but you’ll be hard-pressed to get them to admit it. 3D has now be relegated to one of those extra features, like picture-in-picture or a virtual surround mode that every TV has but no one uses.

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Today what’s new and trending in TVs is sort of all over the place. The dominate message from the big Japanese and Korean TV companies is 4K (Ultra HD—there still isn’t industrywide agreement on what to call it). Beyond that we also have OLED, curved screens (a trend I still can’t figure out), flexible TVs (yes, they’re bendy) and ultra wide (21:9 or CinemaScope).

The opening Press Day of CES is generally a pretty good time to guage the overall trends of the show. Manufactures don’t always reveal everything they’ve got going on—some tidbits they prefer to reveal in their exhibit booths—but it’s a good place to start.

LG

This day started out with LG. 4K was a big deal in the LG press conference. 105-inches big, to be exact. The company showed off a 105-inch CinemaScope-style Ultra HD TV with a 21:9 aspect ratio, making it particularly suited to those widescreen movies that still create pesky black bars on your TV (projector users with masking systems have been able to avoid that problem for years).

The 105-inch LED LCD TV is fun to look at and consider the possibilities, but it’s unlikely to actually show up in very many homes. The size, shape and curve make it impractical for anything but a home theater setup, and for that use, a projector would probably provide a more appropriate solution. Still, it’s one of those interesting concepts that you only see at CES.

Another one of those interesting concept products is flexible television. LG didn’t have this product at the press conference, but at the company’s booth they’re showing a 77-inch curved and flexible OLED TV. The user can control the amount of the curve with a remote. If you want the TV to curve, press a button and the ends start bending forward. If you want it flat, press a button and the TV flattens out against the wall. The curve is slight, and you can’t roll it up (the TV sits in a frame which houses the motor). Like the ultra wide TV, this is probably more likely to fall into the because-we-can category, but perhaps there’s promise for further development in the future.

The 4K TV parade continued at LG with the UB9800 series 4K ULTRA HD TV lineup comprised of 65-, 79-, 84- and 98-inch units. Prices weren’t mentioned.

In addition to the bendable OLED, LG announced curved OLED 4K TVs in 55-, 65- and 77-inch sizes. Also a 55-inch flat OLED model, called the Gallery OLED, it is a TV built into a frame that doubles as a 100 watt speaker system. It looks like a framed piece of art, and it should, because the TV sports a gallery mode that turns the TV into a picture frame displaying works of art.

All of LG’s 4K curved OLED TVs come with HDMI 2.0 capability and decoding for both H.264 and HEVC H.265 formats, at 30 or 60 frames per second.

LG also noted that its new 4K TVs will be able to stream 4K content from Netflix when that company begins to launch 4K movies and TV shows (including the new season of House of Cards).

Sharp

Sharp was interesting both because of the new technology it showed and the technology it didn’t show.

Last year Sharp made a big deal over several new panel technologies, particularly Moth Eye and ICC Purios. While I remember them looking very good at last year’s CES, neither of those technologies actually made it into consumer TVs and neither were mentioned at all in this year’s CES press conference.

Instead, Sharp was very excited to talk about Quattron+, a feature on the new Q+ line of TVs. Quattron+ LED LCD TVs are not 4K, but Sharp considers them a bridge between standard 1080p and 4K Ultra HD TV. Sharp says Quattron+ takes existing pixels and divides them into subpixels, creating a higher resolution 1080p TV—sounds weird, I know. They’re also able to accept 4K video images and show them on the 1080p Quattron+ panel. Sharp says this makes for a less expensive, but future-proof TV for the 4K era. The Q+ TVs are also THX certified.

Sharp is also offering 4K TVs in 60- and 70-inch sizes with HDMI 2.0 and THX certification.

Sharp isn’t going along with the rest of the TV makers by offering any curved TVs or OLED, though there is an 8K glasses-free 3DTV at the company’s booth.

Panasonic

The Panasonic CES press conference comes at an odd time for that company. Just a few months ago Panasonic, which last year earned praise for making some of the industry’s best-looking TVs (The ZT60 line), decided to stop making those TVs because apparently plasma is harder to sell than LCD (even though plasma sets tend to cost less and look better). And then a couple weeks ago the company announced the end of its partnership with Sony to develop OLED TVs.

The first half of the Panasonic press conference focused not on consumer products (despite this being the Consumer Electronics Show) but on technology for the commercial market, including a 4K projector.

Eventually, though, the company got around to TVs, and focused mostly on a new concept the call LIFE+SCREEN. LIFE+SCREEN is an overhaul of the smart TV platform and is meant to integrate the user’s life closer with the TV. LIFE+SCREEN TVs employ gesture and voice control, face recognition and motion sensors to react or respond more naturally to the user. The system can be customized and used to automatically select content tailored to a user profile it builds of you.

The LIFE+SCREEN system will be found on both 1080p LED TVs and the new AX800 4K series. The AX800 series will be available in both 58- and 65-inch models. Panasonic promised plasma picture quality in LED TVs. To that end, the new models include a feature Panasonic calls Studio Master Color, which delivers 98% of the DCI color standard, helped by a new LED backlight for a wide color gamut. Local dimming is included for optimizing contrast and a 4K image processor scales less-than-4K images up to the panel’s full resolution. The AX800 series features THX certification.

Samsung

Unfortunately for Samsung, more people were talking about Transformers’ director Michael Bay than the company’s TVs after the press conference. That’s because shortly after he stepped onstage as a guest to talk about how much he loved Ultra HD, his teleprompter failed and he hadn’t memorized his lines. Instead of just winging it, he walked off.

Samsung’s new TV lineup more than made up for the flub though.

As is usual, Samsung and LG are frequently closely matched when it comes to new TV technology, as if they even share some of the same panel suppliers… hmm. Samsung also showed a 105-inch 21:9 aspect ratio, curved 4K TV. Samsung also showed a big bendable 4K TV. Something’s happening here.

Samsung introduced 3 4K TV series, the S9, U9000 and U8550, from 50- to 110-inches. Both curved and flat models are in the line. One of the interesting things about Samsung’s 4K TVs is the company’s promise to make them upgradable so the buyer isn’t frustrated when an important innovation comes out in another year. This is done with the Evolution Kit, an option Samsung has offered on 1080p TVs before. All Samsung’s 4K TVs support HEVC, HDMI 2.0, MHL 3.0 and HDCP 2.2.

The other important Ultra HD news from Samsung was on the content side. Yes, we’re always asking about the lack of content for these 4K sets, and again it looks like streaming is going to be the primary delivery model. The company’s new UHD sets will be able to stream 4K content from their respective apps on the Samsung Hub smart TV platform, from Amazon, Comcast Xfinity, DIRECTV, M-GO and Netflix. Samsung also plans to offer a UHD video pack in the form of a hard drive filled with movies from Fox Home Entertainment and Paramount Pictures. Additional movies will be available to download to the hard drive. Samsung says it plans to have about 50 movies available this year. The UHD video pack sounds very similar to the 4K video server Sony launched last year. No word on how much it will cost or if it will work with non-Samsung TVs (Sony’s server only works with Sony TVs).

Sony

The day of new TVs wrapped up as it always does, with Sony. Surprisingly, Sony didn’t bring out any music or movie celebrities this time, but the company did bring out Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix. He told the crowd to expect 4K versions of shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad this year.

When asked about the network speed needed to stream 4K video to the home, Hastings said that compression algorithms make it possible to stream 4K with as little as 15Mbps. Considering how much trouble Netflix has getting 1080 into my home over a FiOS network, I’ll be skeptical until I try it myself.

Sony announced three new 4K TV lines with sizes from 55- to 85-inches. The flagship line is the X950B, which sports a thin profile and full array back light with local dimming. The X900B series TV is designed in a wedge shape profile. When viewed from the side, the narrow top widens down to several inches at the bottom. The shape is meant to support the built-in side-mounted speakers. This line use an edge-lit LED system, rather than the better, and more expensive, full-array back-lit method of the X950B. The final X850B series is also edge-lit, but includes no local dimming.


Sony X950B 85-inch Ultra HD TV

Sony’s 4K TVs will be ready for streaming services like Netflix and others. The company is also upgrading its hard drive movie server and adding more titles to it.

If you want to make your own 4K movies, Sony announced a $2,000 Handycam 4K home camcorder, so you won’t have to wait for Hollywood to get 4K on your TV.

Sony did not show any new OLED TVs. Last year’s OLED came about as a partnership with Panasonic, which ended in 2013.

How does this year’s TV news compare to last CES? Read the 2013 TV roundup here.

As CES continues, we’ll get more details about these TVs and other developments.

For a look at the new TVs, check out the slide show here.

View Slideshow
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