Category: The Front Line
Sharp Makes a Big Play for Ultra HDTV
- Published on Friday, 12 June 2015 17:50
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
Last Wednesday, Sharp held a TV showcase in Lower Manhattan and showed that they’re still committed to the North American television market. Said commitment came in the form of nine models of Ultra HD (3840×2160) sets, ranging in size from 43 inches to a wall-sized 80-inch model.
Some background is useful before I proceed. Nine years ago, Sharp was the #1 retailer of LCD TVs in the world, commanding a 21% market share and leaving Korean competitors LG and Samsung eating their dust.
But time changes everything. Since then, Sharp’s WW market share has steadily declined to the point that the brand is usually classified with “other” when analysts release their quarterly and annual rankings for shipments and revenue share. Part of that is due to the guerilla marketing and sales strategies employed by both Samsung and LG: The first company remains comfortably in 1st place with a 27% market share, while LG is a distant 2nd with 15%.
Many of the once-famous Japanese brands have fallen by the wayside since then. Hitachi abandoned the U.S. TV market several years ago, and Mitsubishi had no choice but to get out as its rear-projection designs fell out of favor. Toshiba announced last year it would retreat to Japan, and Panasonic seems to have shifted its corporate focus to more profitable commercial products and solutions. (How many Panasonic TVs have you seen in stores lately?)
That leaves Sony and Sharp, and I’ve documented in great detail the former’s legendary missteps with consumer products and televisions. Indeed; Sony still has an 8 % WW revenue share in TV, but that number has been in slow decline for some time and the red ink continues to pile up in Sony’s TV (and mobile phone) business units.
So, back to Sharp. Unlike other Japanese brands, Sharp stands alone in having a completely vertically-integrated TV business: They manufacture the LCD panels at their world’s-largest Gen 10 facility in Sakai, Japan. They were the first company to master high yields on the all-important faster and energy-efficient IGZO TFT technology, which is used widely on their TVs. And they can still make larger cuts of LCD glass cheaper than anyone else – for now.
But Sharp has had a bad stretch of fiscal years, losing over a billion dollars just a few years ago and almost going bankrupt. Their lender banks are getting weary of issuing IOUs and even the assistance of both Qualcomm and Samsung were needed a couple of years ago to keep the doors open. (Both companies are now minority owners.)
The Gen 10 Sakai fab itself is nearly half-owned by Hon Hai Precision Industries, owners of Foxcon and manufacturers of Apple’s iStuff. And the chairman of Hon Hai, Terry Gou, wants to put more of his money into Sharp, but wants a seat on the board – something that is being met with less than enthusiasm in Osaka.
The company really is at a crossroads with respect to their consumer TV business. Sharp has been around for so long in the U.S. that some readers may remember owning a Sharp LCD calculator, or fax machine. And the brand has a perception of being “old school” and stodgy. (Witness their use of Baby Boomer idol George Takei, famous for his role in the 1960s TV series Star Trek, to promote the company’s Quattron technology a few years back.)
Unlike Samsung and LG, Sharp doesn’t have a presence in tablets, and is a very minor player in smartphones. Sharp also sold lots of appliances back in the day, but not that long ago a sales associate for a major brick-and-mortar chain located near me said, “No one comes in asking for Sharp products anymore.”
Nevertheless, the company continues to push forward. They made a bold but perhaps wise move in bringing back industry veteran Peter Weedfald to try and shake things up. Weedfald is now senior VP for sales, and he’s got quite an obstacle course in front of him to return the company to a competitive position.
The new Ultra HDTVs may help, if Weedfald is successful in generating “buzz” about them. There are three series: The Aquos UB30 sets are value-priced Ultra HD models, and include 43” (42.5” diagonal), 50” (49.6” diagonal), 55” (54.6” diagonal) and 65” (64.5” diagonal) Class screen sizes, with the 43” and 50” offerings priced at $799.99 and $999.99, respectively. The 55” model will retail for $1,299.99 and the 65-inch version will be ticketed at $2,399.99.
All four models support 4K streaming and have built-in HEVC H.265 and VP9 codecs and Sharp’s Revelation 4K upscaling engine. HDMI 2.0 inputs with HDCP 2.2 are also standard, although I couldn’t tell how many. Stepping up one level finds the UH30 series of Ultra HDTVs. The UE30 series includes models in 60” (diagonal.), 70” (69.5” diagonal) and 80” diagonal screen sizes. MSRPs are $2,099.99, $2,899.99, and $5,599.99, respectively.
These models also come with HEVC / VP9 streaming support and Revelation upscaling, and the press release states that “…Easy connectivity is at your fingertips in both the UH30 and UE30 series with four HDMI® inputs equipped with the latest 4K specs.” That would seem to indicate four HDMI 2.0 input ports, which may be more than any other manufacturer at present.
The top-line models (UH series) are the 70-inch LC-70UH30U ($3,299.99) and 80-inch LC-80UH30U ($6,299.99) and include all the bells and whistles of the UB and UE series TVs, plus something Sharp calls SPECTROS Rich Color Display. This is a color-enhanced image that also shows some signs of supporting high dynamic range (HDR) content, but it’s not using quantum dots. Nor is it firing additional adjacent sets of color pixels to improve saturation, something Sharp called “3K” at CES 2013.
There is a marked improvement in color quality from a conventional TV to one equipped with SPECTROS. And with Samsung, LG, Sony, and others showing quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs, Sharp had to offer something to keep up with the Joneses.
All of the UE and UH-series TVs also support Android TV, unlike Samsung’s Tizen and LG’s Web OS. That means you have a search engine that is similar to Google on your smartphone or tablet in operation. We tried it out to locate programs as well as the score of the Yankees afternoon game, but weren’t as successful with other searches through the voice-activated remote.
There you have it. Sharp certainly has the know-how and supply chain to build and market the latest in TV technology, and their build quality has always stood up well to any other manufacturer. Given the rapid fall in TV prices, it might even be prudent for Sharp to abandon the 1080p TV market and toss all of their eggs into Ultra HD going forward, where I think they’d have a much easier time carving out a niche.
After all, it’s not like the company doesn’t have any experience with ultra-high resolution imaging. They’ve shown an 85-inch 8K TV for several years now at CES, and the NHK 8K broadcasts in Japan make extensive use of Sharp displays – all the way down to a 13-inch 8K OLED TV, shown at the NAB expo back in April.
Now, they just need to get some “buzz” going….
Xfinity: The Future Of Confusion (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Tried To get Along With Comcast)
- Published on Monday, 08 June 2015 17:27
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
It all started innocently enough a couple of weeks ago, when I started experiencing issues with Internet connectivity. And it turned into a circus of confusion.
First, some background: I’ve had Comcast service at my home address for close to 18 years now, and there have definitely been some ups and downs in my relationship with the company over the years.
At one time, I taught some classes on HDTV to installers and even salespeople at Comcast University. That was back in the day when HDTV was still largely a black art to everyone, and I had a good relationship with a lot of the technical people and even some engineers at “the Big C.” Those were the halcyon days of plasma TVs, big set-top boxes, rear-projection TVs with CableCARDs, and rudimentary Internet service. (Sorry, no voice over IP back then!)
Today, aside from an annual presentation to the local chapter of the Society of Cable and Telecommunication Engineers (SCTE), I don’t have any real contact with Comcast anymore. So if I am experiencing some strange service issues, there aren’t any shortcuts I can take to get to a knowledgeable technical support person.
HOW THE TROUBLE STARTED
Back to my problem: After trying to figure out why my modem seemed to be dropping connections, I placed a call to Comcast customer service. And got caught in automated voice hell. It took some time, but I finally got through to a live agent who informed me that my modem was “outdated” and that I should upgrade to a newer DOCSIS 3.0 model. Fair enough. She also said that an installer could come by and check everything (neglecting to tell me that there would be a $40 service charge for doing so). So I agreed to that, too.
The next day, said installer showed up with a new modem and went about getting it wired into place. He also took it upon himself to replace a two-way splitter I had installed near where the drop comes into my house (one leg goes to the modem, and the other to a 15 dB inline amplifier for driving multiple cable outlets). And then he proceeded to replace all of the associated connectors, saying that the splitter and connectors I had used were inadequate.
Now, I’m not a dummy, and I’m one of a handful of Comcast customers who has and knows how to use a spectrum analyzer. So, I connected said analyzer to one of the cable feeds from my amplifier and saw a nice, flat response for all QAM signals up to 800 MHz – above which no signals were present, even though the tech told me that Comcast uses that spectrum, too.
I showed this to the tech and assured him that all cable boxes would get plenty of signal (at least 40 dB S/N at each input) and that there was no noise in my system. Off he went on his merry way, and our Internet connection was one again perking along nicely.
INTO THE ABYSS
So here’s where it starts to get weird. The next day, another brand-new modem shows up from UPS with a self-install kit. On top of that, I get several emails saying that I had updated my account and that I was also eligible for a “free” Xfinity upgrade. And of course, I clicked “yes.” Hey, it was free, right?
My current cable setup in my family room consisted of a vintage-2006 TiVo HD with a dual M CableCARD. Yes, it was a bit of a fossil, but it still worked like a champ. And for my upstairs bedroom, I had a Motorola RNG-110 set-top box. Simple, but effective.
When the Xfinity “free” upgrade kit showed up a couple of days later, I opened it to find two identical Samsung RNG150 Xfinity set-top boxes, along with self-install instructions. Okay, I can do this. So I took the boxes to my basement lab, where all of my test equipment resides. I pulled out my old Panasonic 42-inch plasma TV, hooked up a couple of HDMI cables, and attached a feed to the cable system.
The first box booted up, went through some machinations, and then displayed an error message. I was advised to pull the power plug, wait 10 seconds, and reconnect and try to initialize again. Sure enough; about 3 minutes later, I got the same message. And rebooted. And got the same message. And rebooted again.
After four tries, I put the first box aside and repeated the exercise with the second box. Same results! So I installed a two-way splitter on the line and hooked up my older RNG110 box to see if it was also having problems. Nope! Worked like a champ at the same time the Samsung boxes were failing.
In the meantime, my TiVo HD stopped working and brought up a message saying that it could no longer recognize the Western Digital expansion HDD I had connected to store more programs. And that it would not work at all unless that drive (which was still connected and powered up) was reconnected. Yikes! (And my wife says that at the same time, the TiVo master remote stopped working and she couldn’t turn the TV off.)
So I disconnected TiVo and rebooted it. That took some time, but eventually it did come back online. And I went back to my self-install exercise in my basement lab.
After trying a third time to get one of the two Samsung boxes to initialize, I gave up and went back upstairs to find that the TiVo HD had crashed again, displaying the same error message. Time to call tech support! (And get caught in automated voice response hell again.)
“IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO PRESS TWO NOW, PRESS TWO”
After being punted around to various departments the next day, I found someone who advised me to remove completely the TiVo system and my older RNG110 set-top box before attempting to initialize. Hey, why not – I’d already wasted several hours and an evening trying to get all of this stuff to work, right?
Finally, the two Samsung boxes initialized. Except that they were not receiving all of the channels for the package I subscribe to: Only free, off-air channels were coming through, along with those home shopping channel abominations. One again; back to the phone.
This round of calls put me through six different agents (including dedicated Xfinity tech support) and no one had a real answer as to why I wasn’t getting the channels I paid for, even though I could stream all of those same channels to my Samsung Galaxy tablet. A real head-scratcher!
Finally, the sixth agent told me that he would reload the required channels, one by one, into each box, and he advised me in the interests of my mental health to take some time off and get away from the TV and phone for the next half-hour while he was doing so. I decided to stop by the nearest Comcast Xfinity “store” to return my old box and M card, as it was a nice day for a drive.
The “store” turned out to be a rather dingy-looking local office and dispatch center, with a tiny waiting room, a counter, and three customer service agents. After dropping off the old equipment, I discovered that neither of the Samsung Xfinity cable boxes I had received had DVRs in them. Whoops! I had already disconnected my old TiVo DVR.
So one of the agents promptly brought out a brand-new “All Room DVR” to take care of that situation. More importantly, he apparently noticed something on my account that was the culprit behind my inability to watch channels I had paid for, and fixed it just like that. Hooray!
But that wasn’t the end of my problems. I logged into my online Xfinity account to check my statement, where I was notified that I had yet to activate my Internet service. (Some irony in that, eh?) Not only that, I now had a $40 charge for installation of the new modem – something I could have done myself, if I had been informed that (a) it would cost $40 and (b) that a new modem had been shipped to me for self-install anyway.
Finally, I received an email update today that my current charges had increased by a hundred dollars! Apparently, about the time the new Xfinity boxes showed up, the “special” deal on my cable bundle (which I had long forgotten about) had run out and that my monthly charge would increase by $30. (You’d think that with the blizzard of emails I was getting from Comcast that they’d have sent one alerting me to the expiration date. It would have been nice…)
So, it was back to the local Comcast Xfinity office to return an extra cable box. According to the email I received this morning, I now had five cable boxes activated. I also asked why my bill had gone up so much. One of the line items in the online statement read (and I kid you not), “Customer Discount, $30.92.” So I got charged more as a discount?
Apparently that’s how Comcast tells you your promotional price ran out. They hit you with a $30 charge and call it “customer discount.” Nice, guys. Even better: I logged into my online Comcast account and my Internet service is still “awaiting activation.” (I’m not sure how that logical paradox plays out…) And, the $40 charge for the service call, which the CSR at the Comcast Xfinity store assured me was reversed, is still on my statement…for now.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
So now, seven days later, I do have a working DOCSIS 3.0 modem with (supposedly) 25 Mb/s download speeds. I have a new splitter and shiny new connectors in my basement, none of which were necessary. I have a new Xfinity DVR that works (and streams HD video), and a satellite box in my bedroom. I am getting all of the channels I’m supposed to get, and my statement now shows that I have only two boxes – not five. (And I finally returned that superfluous modem.)
To get here, I’ve gone through almost a dozen different customer service reps on the phone and in person over a four-day period, including two tech support specialists – neither of whom could really help me much. As a result, I would advise Comcast customers to go to one of the Xfinity stores or service centers like I did, and deal with an “in the flesh” CSR – it’s a lot faster, and these folks were by far the most helpful of anyone I talked to. (Plus, and I hate to say it, they speak better English and were a lot sharper.)
In contrast, some of the phone CSRs seemed to stumble with relatively easy technical questions, and they wanted to spend more time reading from “the script” than letting me cut to the chase and try and solve the problem. It is amazing how much time you waste on the phone just navigating menus and trying to get past the automated “let me help you” voice. (Hint: Repeat the word “agent” several times to skip all of that nonsense!)
Aside from the cost of cable service today, I can understand why so many cord-cutters just reach their breaking point with cable companies and opt to stream 100% of their TV shows. Just connect a fast Internet port, fire up your Apple TV, Roku, or smart TV, and away you go. Even the new crop of off-air DTV receivers like Channel Master’s DVR+ and Mohu’s Channels is a lot easier to get up and running.
So we’ll stick with Xfinity for now as it does give us four DVRs instead of two, and is a definite improvement over the nearly 10-year-old TiVo HD in many ways. One catch, though: You can’t stream Netflix through any Comcast box, the reason for which I suppose should be obvious. So we’ll get our fix of “House of Cards” through either our Samsung smart TV, Samsung connected Blu-ray player, or stream directly to our tablets.
Isn’t television fun?
Waiting for Godot
- Published on Friday, 29 May 2015 17:45
- Ken Werner
- 0 Comments
It takes a long time to develop novel display technologies. As a result, product designers sometimes express a desire for display characteristics that the industry cannot supply — at least not yet, and maybe never.
It can work the other way, though. Candice Brown Elliott’s brilliant Pentile Display architecture was initially developed to improve efficiency, effective pixel density, and battery life in laptop PCs using LCDs. Instead, the industry found ways to use a brute-force approach and create LCDs with more and more physical pixels, along with sufficient energy savings from improved backlights. Pentile waited for years to find its killer app: allowing Samsung to make larger OLED subpixels for a given pixel format, thus reducing current density and improving lifetime.
Sometimes, the app never comes and what once seemed a golden window of opportunity slams shut, never to re-open. That is more or less what happened to field-emission displays (FEDs). When development work began in earnest, the color gamut, brightness, power efficiency, and viewing angle of LCDs for laptops PCs was — how can I say this politely — “sub-optimal.” There was a real problem and reasonable people convinced themselves that FEDs could be the solution.
But FEDs simultaneously required vacuum, high voltage, and a rather complicated internal structure both to provide the electron-emitting tips and to support the glass substrates against atmospheric pressure. Molecules stripped from interior surfaces compromised the vacuum, and charges on the supporting walls produced display artifacts.
Around 2000, Candescent Technologies was showing decent-looking prototypes at the SID show, each of which was displayed on a table with a skirt hanging down to the floor. There were persistant rumors that behind each skirt was a large container of getter attached to the prototype FED with a tube to continually remove the contaminants from the evacuated interior of the display. Whether these rumors were true or not, Candescent gave up manufacturing plans by the end of 2001. Even if FED’s problems could eventually be solved, performance of LCDs for laptops had already improved to the point that FED’s window of opportunity had closed. Subsequent efforts by Sony to apply the technology to television seemed to solve the technical problems but could not make the technology cost competitive. And by that time, OLED was promising to do everything FED could do without vacuum and without high voltage.
What new technology might products designers be waiting for today? A reflective display with good color in phone or tablet sizes would probably find takers. E Ink’s color electrophoretic display has a specialized niche, but since it uses a matrix color filter in front of a black-and-white reflective imaging film, it produces images that are rather dark and have a limited color gamut. At one time, E Ink was working on a version that used red, green, and blue reflective particles for a filterless display, but I haven’t heard anything about that recently (which may mean that it’s proceeding very well or not proceeding at all).
Qualcomm’s reflective mirasol technology never produced sufficiently good color for tablets or phones, but has recently established a niche in smart watches, where wide color gamut and color fidelity are less important that low power and sunlight visibility.
Finally, little has been heard from Liquavista since it was purchased by Amazon about two years ago. But the creative Liquavista team is still laboring away somewhere in the dungeons of Castle Amazon. Will they emerge someday with a Kindle Liquid eReader? Time will tell.
There are other novel display technologies we could talk about, including Sharp’s “free-form” displays with gate drivers at each pixel site and the Pixtronix in-plane MEMS technology with IGZO backplane, also being made by Sharp.
But finally, at least as far as this column is concerned, the one new technology that could really change things in the future is micro-LEDs. Apple and its recently acquired LuxVue are not the only players, and I suspect there will be lot to talk about in the coming year. Although the obvious short-term application is smart watches, developers are thinking about larger applications. They’re thinking hard.
The Amazing, Shrinking LED Pixel Pitch
- Published on Wednesday, 20 May 2015 14:37
- Ken Werner
- 0 Comments
Not many years ago, if you went out to buy an LED sign you could choose between a pixel pitch of 6 mm (for viewing at large distances) and a pixel pitch of 12 mm (for viewing at very large distances).
But over the the last few years, as seen at trades shows such as Infocomm and Digital Signage Expo (DSE), the minimum pixel pitch has been shrinking steadily. At the latest DSE, held March 11-12 in Las Vegas, Panasonic was showing signage modules with a pixel pitch of 1.1 mm, and other leading manufacturers were not far behind. For perspective, when plasma television sets first came on the market they had this same pixel pitch: 1.1 mm. LED signs are now suitable for a widely expanded range of applications — and viewing distances far less than half the length of a football field.
Most manufacturers build up signs from seamless or near-seamless modules measuring measuring between 12 and 24 inches on a side, although they are not necessarily square. Depending on size, pixel pitch, and manufacturer, modules cost between $2000 and $6000 each. These are expensive signs, but all of the manufacturers I spoke to at DSE said there is substantial early demand from high-end retailers.
As attractive as the current products are, it’s clear that lower cost and/or even smaller pixel pitches would greatly increase market size. Is this possible? LED chip-maker Osram Opto Semiconductors thinks so. Osram Opto recently announced it will be coordinating the new InteGreat Project, whose other participants are Osram GmbH, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, LayTecAG, Würth Elektronik GmbH, and Mühlbauer GmbH. The project is supported by the German Ministry for Education and Research.
The project’s objective is to develop new production processes for high-efficiency LEDs that “remove the boundaries between the individual value-added stages….” Project coordinator Jürgen Moosburger said “We will be researching completely new concepts for LED production and questioning the traditional paradigms of the manufacturing process. …With new production concepts, we expect to be in a position to develop both low-cost miniturized LEDs and highly itegrated modules.”
Those are goals that seem to include micro-LED displays as well as more conventional signage and lighting applications.
I hereby make a very safe prediction: LED pixel pitches will continue to amaze us and will continue to shrink.
Ultra HD Blu-ray: Getting Closer
- Published on Tuesday, 19 May 2015 16:56
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
On May 12, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced it had completed the specifications for Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and concurrently released a new logo to go with the format. UHD BD supports a maximum image resolution of 3840×2160 pixels, refreshed at a variety of frame rates (including 60 Hz) with a maximum of 10 bits per pixel coding.
The move to Ultra HD (or Quad HD) resolution is a big step forward for this optical disc format, which has been fighting to hold its place in the media landscape against video streaming and digital movie downloads, both of which can also handle 1080p/60 video with 8-bit color.
One key component of the new format is support for high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, being touted as the next big thing by the likes of Dolby and Vizio. HDR imaging represents about 15 stops of light from deep shadows to bright white, and is an impressive tool in the arsenal of next-generation television – which is essentially what Ultra HD (and beyond) represent.
Audio is getting a workout too, with the addition of object-oriented, multi-spatial playback formats that go far beyond Dolby and DTS 7.1 formats. (Anyone for NHK’s 22.2 surround format?)
Of course, all new Ultra HD Blu-ray players must be backward-compatible with older Blu-ray Discs. What’s not mentioned in the Blu-ray Disc Association press release is that your UHDTV must be compatible with HDCP (copy protection) version 2.2 to play back UHD content as it becomes available.
And if you do the math, you’ll realize that you’ll also need at least an HDMI version 2.0 interface (or DisplayPort 1.2, or superMHL) on your TV or projector to handle the much higher interface data rates that will result from 10-bit color played back from UHD Blu-ray discs. Every Ultra HDTV I’ve seen so far has at least one HDMI 2.0 input, and some are also including DisplayPort 1.2.
There’s another possible catch. The UHD Blu-ray standard supports HEVC H.265, a new video codec that is 50% more efficient than H.264 AVC, the current Blu-ray codec. H.265 is really a key part of the specification, considering there’s four times the image resolution in each frame of UHD video. So your UHD TV should also recognize and decode H.265 content, which may also arrive over streaming connections.
And “streaming” is the wild card here. There’s no question that Blu-ray provides the best at-home, near-cinematic experience of any playback format. However, the trend over the past half decade clearly shows more consumer dollars shifting toward streaming and downloads, often on smaller handheld devices like tablets which don’t need 2160p resolution. And with companies like Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and Cablevision worried about losing customers, more emphasis is being put on increasing broadband speeds to the home as a competitive marketing edge.
Add in a growing catalog of HEVC-compatible devices (TVs, set-top boxes, computers, gaming consoles) and it will be easier than ever to deliver UHD content to the home “on demand.” Maybe not next week, or even this year.
But it will happen: The blue laser optical disc format wars concluded about seven years ago, while video streaming was in its infancy. Today, we can stream 1080p video to just about any media device. Look at how many passengers on flights, trains, and buses now watch movies and TV shows on tablets and even smartphones. For the vast majority of consumers, the story is all about convenience and price in accessing and watching movies, and not so much about quality.
So – a new BD standard is a good thing, if for no other reason than to keep up with the shift to next-generation television. It will be a great format for those who simply have to own a movie, or who still want to rent one on disc. (I’m looking forward to finally seeing the burial and and reading the epitaph for 8-bit color!)
But the disc-focused segment of the market is becoming a smaller piece of the revenue pie for Hollywood with each passing year, and it’s not clear if the Ultra HD Blu-ray standard will have any impact on that trend. How fast will consumers embrace this format? What will movies cost, compared to today’s Blu-ray disc packages? How about the Ultra Violet registry, and cross-platform access to purchased content? Do we even need physical media any more?