TV at CES 2019, The Sequel

With apologies to Samsung and a few others who haven’t made the OLED plunge, and show no signs of doing so, OLED remains today’s hottest flat screen technology. But the battle continues as UHDTV manufacturers scramble to take the next big technological leap. That will likely be Micro LED, which is currently in a hot stage of development. But it isn’t yet a “Thing.” You can’t pick up a Micro LEDTV at your nearest Best Buy and bring it home. That’s unlikely to happen for at least a couple of years, and probably closer to five before the average TV buyer can even think about affording one. That is, if it doesn’t turn into the second coming of SED (Google SED TV for that sad story).

The industry’s headlong rush toward the 8K cliff may also work against Micro LED. The limitation of Micro LEDs is the need to get them small enough to function as the actual pixels. That is, to act as a self-emissive display, as do OLEDs. Today’s “LED” sets still use the LEDs simply as the backlight for an LCD panel; the latter produces the actual image. And at today’s stage of development, the smallest Micro LED prototype shown to the public so far has been Samsung’s 75-inch (diagonal) design. But that’s for a 4K set. Use the same size Micro LEDs for an 8K display and we’re talking 4 times as many pixels, resulting in a 150-inch diagonal screen! So Micro LEDs will need to get even smaller, a lot smaller before you’ll see a 65-inch, 8K Micro LED set at any price.

Most of us would kill for that 150-inch, 8K screen, which would moot concerns about needing a really big screen to fully appreciate 8K! Goodbye projector, hello full wall image. But few could stomach the likely cost, or the resulting electric bills. And apart from those roadblocks, your live-in interior decorator might well balk at the impact on room décor. No more worrying about how to hide the TV in the room. It is the room! But even for the most picky decorator, the possibility of full wall, moving images of seaside or mountain views during movie down-time might be hard to resist.

A Vertically Integrated TCL Touts Mini LEDs
Hisense claims to be a vertically integrated TV maker. That doesn’t refer to hiring tall non-Chinese workers, but rather that it can produce all of the major components for its sets, from the backlighting to the LCD panels. In keeping with other TV makers at the show TCL announced few 2019 prices or delivery dates, But the company has been a low-price leader, so the announcement of a 6-series 4K, HDR, 75-inch LCD/LED model at under $2,000 (said to be available now) was no surprise.

TCL did muddy the Micro LED waters a bit by announcing upcoming sets using Mini LEDs, as if OLED and QLED technologies weren’t confusing enough for the average consumer. Mini LEDs are much smaller than the current variety, but not small enough to replace the LCDs as the actual image-producing pixels (as would Micro LEDs). Instead, the Mini LEDs (likely combined with Quantum Dots) will generate the backlighting for the LCD panel, much as in current sets. But they’re said to be small enough to allow for up to a thousand (or more) local dimming zones. While Mini LEDs will be employed mainly in TCL’s premier sets (they’re not used in the 75-incher mentioned above) they did announce an LCD/Mini-LED, full array local dimming (FALD), 75-inch, HDR, 8K, Roku TV with HDMI 2.1, for later this year.

Hisense Eyes 8K, Shows Intriguing Dual LCD Prototype
Hisense announced its H9F flat screen Quantum Dot 4K sets in 55- and 65-inch sizes with up to 132 FALD zones. The U9F 75-inch, 4K HDR model, forecast at $3,500, is said to have 1,000 local dimming zones (I could find no mention of its using Mini LEDs, though that’s possible) and up to 2,000 nits of peak brightness. Hisense also intends to enter the 8K sweepstakes with a 75-inch set later this year.

But perhaps the most intriguing Hisense display, shown in prototype form with no announced plans to actually produce it, was a set with a dual LCD panel. The first panel sits just in front of the backlighting, which is presumably FALD to improve basic contrast. That first panel produces a conventional 1080p, black and white image that acts as additional enhancement for dark and fully black areas of the screen, but this time in a manner more accurately replicates the image itself than can the conventional FALD backlighting. The second LCD panel in front of that produces the full color, higher resolution image — the image the viewer sees. This is a clever idea, but whether or not it will ever get to market with the current move to self-emissive displays such as OLED (today) and Micro LED (in the future) will depend on its potential cost relative to those technologies. But it reportedly looked impressive.

China-based Hisense also showed its line of Laser TVs or, more precisely, short throw DLP projectors using a single Texas Instruments 4K imager. Up to now, all of these designs used one or two lasers. But later this year Hisense will launch a genuine 3-laser (not laser+phosphors) 4K model, at a forecast price of $16,000. This should produce the enhanced color that triple laser illumination can offer. Lasers also have far longer life than conventional projection lamps.

Vizio Has Visions of Quantum-X
Vizio hasn’t had a press meeting at CES for a few years, but did show this year. A major player in affordable TVs, at least in the U.S., Vizio is a U.S.-based company (though its sets are made overseas) competing with traditional players such as Samsung and Sony as well as relative newcomers (to our market) TCL and Hisense.

The new Vizio D-Series, not shown at CES, will be limited to standard HD (2K) designs. But apart from them Vizio’s 2019 lineup is exclusively 4K HDR, all with FALD and Airplay 2. As you move up in the range you get further refinements such as more zones of local dimming. The new V-Series replaces Vizio’s E-Series at the 4K entry level, with models from 40- to 75-inches. The M-Series Quantum is said to offer up to 90 zones of local dimming with a peak output of 600 nits. Move up to the P-Series Quantum and you’ll get a 65-inch set with 200 zones of FALD and a claimed 1,000 nits of peak brightness.

Vizio’s flagship is the P-Series Quantum-X. Both here and above, Quantum refers to Quantum Dot backlighting said to offer nearly 100% of P3. Both 65- and 75-inch sizes are offered. An 85-inch P-Series Quantum-X was also shown, but while the latter is under consideration Vizio has made no formal announcement of it. The P-Series Quantum-X models are said to offer up to 480 zones of FALD and 2900 nits of peak brightness.

Though no prices or availability dates were announced at the show, given Vizio’s history of affordable sets I’d expect even the Quantum-X models to be highly competitive.

Panasonic Embraces OLED
Only a few years ago Panasonic was a major TV player here. It’s long gone as a maker of premier plasma HDTVs, the technology that made it a household name (or at least in videophile households!). But according to numerous reports (and awards), Panasonic now makes some of the world’s best OLED sets. But for a number of reasons they aren’t available in the U.S.

Panasonic did introduce a new OLED model at the show. But CES is an international event, with attendees from all over the world. You may see reports about the new set(s) online, but they’re likely not from a U.S. website. Memo to Panasonic: Please make your OLEDs available in the U.S. (they’re available in Canada, but from custom installers and not major retail chains). I have no idea if U.S. distribution would make commercial sense, but Panasonic fans here would appreciate the choice.

Random Ramblings
Do we really need 8K? Vizio doesn’t seem to think so, at least not for now, but all of the other TV makers discussed both here and in my last blog are going all-in on it. For now, it’s driven by competition and marketing. “They offer 8K, we need it too!”

There’s currently no true 8K program material available, and no reports of significant movement in that direction for the next year or more. Most (but not all) of today’s UHD Blu-ray (the best “4K” material available) is upscaled to 4K from 2K masters. UHD’s major advantages today are wider color and HDR, not resolution, at least on a 65-inch set at viewing distances rarely less than 8 feet. And while streamed 4K can look good, it’s arguable that it looks no better than 2K streaming, given the high compression that’s required to send it through the internet pipeline and into your home. The same is likely to be even more true of 8K.

For now, the benefit of 8K is mainly in the finer granularity of its smaller pixels. If the set is big enough (I’d argue that 75-inches is the minimum you should consider for 8K, which wouldn’t hurt for 4K either) and you sit close enough (no more than 8 feet) you might see an advantage depending on how skillfully the set upconverts current 2K and 4K material to 8K.

We do anticipate reviewing some of the new 8K sets when they become available, while not ignoring the more affordable 4K sets. But if you’re in the market for 8K, remember that early adoption is always a bit of a shell game. Choose the biggest screen size you can accommodate. Gravitate to the best program sources, which means Ultra HD Blu-ray; don’t expect to be blown away by streamed 2K or 4K material on that 8K set.

And be sure that the 8K set you choose offers HDMI 2.1, or that you have confidence the manufacturer will offer a free or fairly-priced upgrade, firmware or otherwise—an upgrade that can be done at home and not require you to haul that 75- or 85-inch set back to your dealer for the mod! HDMI 2.1 isn’t needed today, and will only be important for possible future 8K source material at frame rates of 60fps—another format unlikely to be important in the near future. But if you plan on keeping that set for more than 3 years, HDMI 2.1 would offer at least a minimum of future-proofing (there’s no such thing as total future-proofing!).