TVs in 2014: Let the battle begin

Smart, curved, Ultra HD and OLED – we're at a technological crossroads as several television advancements compete for our big screen dollars.

Samsung, Sony and LG unveiled their latest widescreen masterpieces at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. These entertainment giants are jostling for pride of place in our lounge rooms, but each vendor is fighting the television war on a different front.

The stars of the show at CES were the 105-inch curved monsters from LG and Samsung. These televisions stood an impressive eight feet wide thanks to ultrawide 21:9 aspect ratios, designed to completely eliminate letterboxing (the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen when you're watching a movie).

Curved is the new black

Curved might be the new black when it comes to televisions, but this year the main focus is on the super-sharp resolution of 4K "Ultra HD" and the rich colours of OLED. The two technologies have triggered an unofficial format war as early adopters decide where to focus their attention, even though they relate to very different aspects of the screen.

Ultra HD refers to the number of pixels in the screen, which at 3840 x 2160 makes it four times sharper than the 1920 x 1080 Full HD resolution utilised by Blu-ray movies. Meanwhile, organic LED refers to the technology behind those pixels. OLED eliminates the need for a backlight, allowing televisions to produce deeper blacks and more vivid colours than traditional LED LCD screens.

Shoppers looking to invest in a top-shelf television will currently get more bang for their buck from Ultra HD, which is expected to take off in 2014, while OLED is likely to remain a niche product for several more years. Sony laid claim to unveiling the first Ultra HD OLED television at CES in 2013, but this year the technology is missing from its new TV line-up and was nowhere to be seen on Sony's CES stand.

"When a product like OLED has such little market penetration the expenses are huge and yields are very low," says Brian Siegel, vice president of Sony Electronics’ television business.

"Right now our core focus is on leveraging all of our knowledge and investment in LED and 4K. With technologies like X-tended Dynamic Range Pro we're pushing new boundaries in terms of contrast."

Over at the Samsung stand the 2014 line-up sees a choice of either Ultra HD or OLED in the top-shelf models, with some curved screens thrown into the mix. While Samsung has displayed Ultra HD OLED televisions Samsung Australia director of AV Brad Wright says "it's not a commercial product that's on the roadmap".

"The realities of the OLED manufacturing process mean that it's going to be a little while before those price points reach something which your average Australian consumer is going to adopt," he says.

LG is the first maker to combine the two technologies in a commercially available television, unveiling a 77-inch, curved Ultra HD OLED television at CES. It's set to hit US shelves later this year, with a hefty $US29,999 ($33,176) price tag to keep it in early adopter territory.

"There's certainly been a divide in the marketplace. Choosing between OLED and 4K has depended on where your priorities lie," says Lambro Skropidis, ‎marketing general manager at LG Electronics Australia.

'It's exciting for us to see OLED and UHD combined in some premium products. That could be the catalyst that gets some people off the fence and into the shop."

Regardless of their position on OLED, all three television vendors view it as a sleeper technology. They're much keener to talk up Ultra HD, which arrived in Australia last year but is expected to go mainstream in 2014.

It could also be argued that Ultra HD presents more business opportunities for the industry, as it brings with it a new generation of Ultra HD content – which they're hoping will trigger a lounge room hardware refresh as well as drive customers to new services.

The Ultra HD equation

The shift to Ultra HD also presents serious challenges as the industry contemplates new video formats and delivery models. As you'd expect, there's a format war brewing behind the scenes between the licensed HEVC H.265 video codec and Google's open source VP9 codec.

Ultra HD movies weigh in at around 100 GB, making them too large to fit on standard Blu-ray discs and presenting challenges in terms of broadcast or online delivery. At CES both Sony and LG announced Ultra HD streaming partnerships with Netflix using H.265. YouTube's Ultra HD content, using Google's VP9, was also on show at the Sony, LG and Panasonic stands.

In the US, Sony has the upper hand in terms of Ultra HD content thanks to its "Video Unlimited 4K" movie download service offering 140 titles. At CES it unveiled an Ultra HD media server, designed to download 4K movies as well as store clips transferred from 4K camcorders.

Of course this is of little consolation to Australians who are waiting for Netflix to officially offer any content in Australia, let alone Ultra HD. We're also waiting on Sony Australia to deliver an Ultra HD media player, which was expected to arrive last year.

Samsung put its cards on the table at CES, promising an Australian Ultra HD player by mid-year – pre-loaded with five Hollywood movies and three documentaries. More content will come each quarter but "we're still working on a delivery method and pricing model", admits Samsung's Brad Wright.

"Hollywood studios are already capturing content in Ultra HD and some UHD content is certainly coming this year, but the real breakout year for content will be 2015," he says.

"Australian TV shoppers buy televisions to last them for at least the next five years. While there won't be a significant amount of UHD content available in 2014, if you're buying a TV today you really need to be thinking about whether it's going to be right for you in the future."

Ultra HD broadcasting trials are underway in South Korea using HEVC H.265 but it's difficult to see Australian broadcasters jumping on the bandwagon when they've clearly lost their taste for Full HD broadcasting. LG's Australian televisions included the H.265 decoder, which LG's Lambro Skropidis expects would be the format of choice should local networks go down the Ultra HD path.

"At the end of the day, the broadcasters will adopt a new technology format if it brings them bigger audiences. The feedback that we've had to date is that there's an on-cost to them with Full HD in terms of cameras and broadcasting," Skropidis says.

"If they invest in a new technology and audiences stay the same, then really they're just picking up cost in order to give you a better quality service. They're a business, they've got to translate the cost of Ultra HD broadcasting into returns."

Adam Turner travelled to CES as a guest of LG.

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