Category: The Front Line

CES: The Chinese Electronics Show?

In just a few weeks, I’m off to the International CES, or Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. CES is one of the world’s largest conventions and last year’s event attracted over 140,000 visitors, according to official CES PR.

I’m not sure how true that was – severe winter weather caused all kinds of flight cancellations in the Midwest and some folks never made it out in time. Still, “the joint was jumpin’!” as Fats Waller used to say. The aisles were certainly packed full of attendees and there were plenty of exhibits to take up my 3.5 days in Vegas.

One thing really stuck out this year. In recent years, more and more Chinese CE brands have been expanding their booth space, but this year featured some booths that were as large if not larger than those of more established Japanese brands like Toshiba, Panasonic, and Sharp.

Microsoft, who used to exhibit at the show, pulled out for 2013 and ceded their booth to Hisense, an industrial manufacturing giant in China. In 2014, the enormous Hisense booth featured TVs in all sizes and resolutions (including 4K), major appliances, computing products, and demonstrations of gesture and voice control.

Behind the LG booth, Changhong and Konka had large booths. The Changhong booth had a miniature city created in detail as the centerpiece of an exhibit of televisions and appliances. One of the latter featured a contemporary multi-range stove/oven combination with built-in LCD TV. In another section of the booth, Changhong showed a simple gesture control system, using a game of virtual darts.

Konka’s booth was distinguished by quantities of 2K and 4K TVs using both LCD and OLED technology. Curved televisions were quite the newsmaker in the Samsung and LG booths last January, but Konka had a few of them, too.

So did TCL, another Chinese conglomerate that manufactures RCA and Sanyo TVs sold in the United States. (They license the Sanyo name from Panasonic.) In addition to OLED and curved LCD displays, TCL showed a 110-inch behemoth with finger-tip gesture control and TVs with Roku functionality built-in.

Other Chinese brands that made the trek to Nevada included Haier (everything from televisions to microwaves and washer/dryer combos), China National Corporation (CNC, again a player in entertainment and white goods) and Skyworth, who showed a full range of TVs; flat and curved.

None of these companies was even on anyone’s radar a decade ago. (Well, maybe a few importers.) But the rise of Chinese manufacturing has led to unprecedented drops in the prices of consumer goods.

A good example would be the LCD TV market. A year ago, Chinese manufacturers determined that gearing up for Ultra HD TV production was a smarter move than chasing such high-priced exotic technologies like OLED TVs. Not surprisingly, they captured considerable domestic TV market share from CE giants Samsung and LG by doing so.

Now, we have multiple sources for various sizes of 4K LCD glass coming out of China, and the pricing we’re seeing on Ultra HD sets through December reflects the impact these 4K panels have had. It wasn’t difficult at all to buy a 55-inch 4K TV for less than $1,000, a price point that last year would buy you a 55-inch 2K TV.

Vizio, a major player in consumer TV, brought out a line of 4K TVs in September and by late November had implemented major discounts. Their P-series 65-inch Ultra HDTV had a list price of about $2,200 when it was announced in January, yet several brick-and-mortar retails stores had it for $1,500 with a bonus soundbar around Black Friday.

It might surprise you to find out just how many electronic devices are manufactured in China, from iPads and iPhones to Android tablets and phones, televisions, so-called wearable fitness electronics like wrist heart monitors, headphones and earbuds, and a plethora of wireless gadgets.

I was initially taken aback to see a large booth in the lower South Hall featuring a full range of commercial AV HDMI matrix switchers, distribution amplifiers, and signal format converters, manufactured by Shiny Bow, an obscure Chinese brand. Then I thought, “Why not? A lot of the stuff we use every day in commercial installs is made in China or at least assembled stateside from components and parts manufactured in China.”

The 110-inch LCD TV I mentioned earlier actually comes from a factory in the province of Shenzen, China, and is a joint venture between Samsung, TCL, and the local government that is formally known as China Star Optoelectronic Technologies, or CSOT. (Samsung also makes a TV that uses this large LCD panel.)

I  think you get the point: China Inc. is becoming a serious player in consumer (and commercial) electronics, and their expanding booths at CES drive the point home. In contrast, some of the brands whose booths used to dominate the Central Hall are shrinking, like Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba. (Mitsubishi is gone completely and Hitachi showed more commercial products than consumer last January.)

Given the growing market share of China in CE manufacturing and their ever-larger booths at trade shows, maybe referring to CES as the “Chinese Electronics Show” isn’t as facetious as it sounds…

Best Buy’s Bharp TV: Turkey Most Foul

The fourth Thursday in November was Thanksgiving in the United States, as it has been since Abraham Lincoln made it so in 1863.  This quintessentially American celebration was created as a national holiday not by Act of Congress but by Presidential Proclamation, which is worth pondering given our current debate concerning the proper limits of presidential power.

Politics aside, Thanksgiving is the day on which we travel long distances to have overly large family dinners with people we don’t like. The traditional main dish is roast turkey, and turkey is also our slang term for a fool or failure — as in, “It’s hard to fly with the eagles when I’m stuck down here with all these turkeys.”

It's hard to fly with the eagles... (Photo:  Ken Werner)

It’s hard to fly with the eagles… (Photo: Ken Werner)

Sitting down with strange companions to consume a turkey describes the agreement Sharp has made to license its brand to Best Buy “for use on an exclusive line of LED TVs that the retailer is direct-sourcing elsewhere,” as Gret Tarr and Alan Wolf described it in TWICE.

This may be foul for Sharp, but it may be filet mignon for Best Buy (BB). After all, the retailer gets to slap a tier-one label on low-end TVs, while Sharp gets to devalue its brand. Can the the Japanese manufacturer possibly make enough money from this deal to compensate for the brand devaluation?

There is a kinder way to parse this deal. My friend and colleague Pete Putman sees it this way: “This is what Sony should be doing for 2K TVs, instead of manufacturing/distribution/marketing/advertising. So far, that has been a money losing proposition.” In other words, Sharp gets to make its high-end, large-screen TVs, on which it may actually make some money, and at least gets to make something as it off-loads the small-screen, low-resolution cheapy business.

Best Buy Insignia 32-inch TV, currently on sale for $199. 99.(Photo: Best Buy)

Best Buy Insignia 32-inch TV, currently on sale for $199. 99.(Photo: Best Buy)

Sharp 32-inch TV available “only at Best Buy.” On sale now for $219.99. (Photo: Best Buy)

Sharp 32-inch TV available “only at Best Buy.” On sale now for $219.99. (Photo: Best Buy)

Whether you choose to look at this from my perspective or from Pete’s, the deal still leaves BB with the interesting problem of differentiating its Sharp-branded sets — initially 32-, 42-, and 50-inch 2K sets currently selling for $200, $330, and $430 — from its house Insignia brand. And Sharp has to differentiate the cheapies from Sharp’s AQUOS line of premium small and mid-sized sets. Your heart has to go out to Jim Sanduski (acting president of Sharp Electronics Marketing Company of America and Senior VP for product marketing) as he tries to dance on this tightrope.

As Sanduski put it in an email to Tarr and Wolf, the TVs are being produced to Sharp’s “exacting quality standards” and are separate from, though complementary to, the Sharp Aquos line of small- and mid-sized premium LED TVs. Quoting Tarr and Wolf, “Sanduski said his company is involved in the Best Buy program end-to-end, from developing the models and ensuring they meet Sharp’s quality requirements to creating in-store and online marketing materials to support them.” And, “Sanduski emphasized that Sharp remains fully committed to the open Aquos line and its national and key regional customers, including Amazon.com, hhgregg, P.C. Richard & Son, Sears and other dominant dealers.” Sanduski added that the products are produced specifically for Best Buy’s Sharp line and “are not simply rebranded Insignia products.” You see Sanduski’s problem.

Now, Jim Sanduski is a complete pro and I genuinely sympathize with the marketing problem he faces. In his comments, Sanduski simultaneously tries to protect Sharp’s brand value, assure BB customers that BB Sharp (Bharp) bare-bones TV sets sets will somehow be better than Insignia bare-bones TV sets, and assure his key customers for premium sets that they still have Sharp’s full support.

If that’s not a rotten turkey Sanduski was given to eat this Thanksgiving, I don’t know what is.

So I Bought A New Camera…

Yeah, I know. Camera sales are in decline (even digital SLRs), thanks to smart phones that can hit nearly 20 megapixels, have digital zooms, accessory telephoto lenses, and instant connections to Instagram and other photo sharing sites.

Still, there are a lot of things smart phone cameras don’t do well. Like shooting sharp, correctly-exposed images under low lighting levels. Or zoom optically over ranges of 15x, 20x, and even 30x. (Plus you don’t need to enter a password or swipe your fingerprint to turn on a camera.)

I shoot lots of photos every year, mostly for my articles, classes, and trade show coverage. In 2013, I probably captured well over 10,000 images and videos. My CES 2014 images alone totaled 1500 with an additional 100 videos, and it looks like it I will also break the 10K barrier by the end of December.

At one time, I did a lot of commercial photography, using Nikon F2s, Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras, and even view cameras. But those days are long in the past – I sold off everything to do with film starting a decade ago, and finished the job when point-and-shoot cameras exceeded 10 megapixels, supposedly equaling the resolution of 35mm Kodachrome 25 film.

I’ve been 100% digital for many years, relying on small cameras to grab product shots, shoot videos of trade show demos, and even capture a product shot here and there. My cameras have mostly been Nikon CoolPix models in recent years, as they are a lot smaller than DSLRs and easier to truck around convention centers. Plus, they don’t give up much in picture quality for their compact size and ease of use.

What’s funny about these cameras is how fast they depreciate in value. I beat the heck out of a CoolPix 8200 for a couple of years, only to discover its lens had a scratch. After bringing it to the local camera store (now gone), I was told it had a used value of $30 and would cost at least $200 to fix.

I was also told that I could pick up a brand-new Nikon P310 for just $229, thanks to a special instant rebate. So I popped out the SD memory card and battery from the old camera and left it there for recycling, walking away with the P310.

That was two years ago. As much as I like the P310, its 4:1 zoom ratio just wasn’t cutting it for my needs. Last Saturday, I hopped in the car and drove to one of the very few remaining camera stores in the area, Cardinal Camera, to see what my upgrade options were.

Cardinal sells all the big brands – Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Nikon, and Olympus – and this would give me the chance to play around with a model before I committed. (Yep, I could buy one online, but I needed to shake it out in person first.)

What caught my eye right off the bat was how little merchandise was on display in the store. Clearly, retail camera and accessory sales is not a growth business these days! Cardinal seems to do better with photography classes and quick color printing than offering much of the pro gear they used to, like studio lighting packages.

The second thing that caught my eye was the preponderance of Sony digital cameras and the scarcity of Canon and Nikon models behind the counter. Sony really has some nice models that use “mirrorless” technology with rangefinders and interchangeable lenses. The salesman brought out a Sony A6000 Cyber Shot model with combination LCD screen and viewfinder – 24 megapixels, 15-50mm interchangeable zoom lens, 23.5 x 15.6mm sensor, and 1080p/60 video capture.

I have to admit, I was impressed. The standard viewfinder activates when you raise the camera to your eye, and the 3” LCD screen was super-sharp. But the price was $700, and I just wasn’t interested in spending that much money on something I’d likely recycle in two years, given the depreciation and heavy use. (Plus, it wouldn’t fit in my jacket pocket.)

After checking out a few other models, I ultimately decided on a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS40 point-and shoot. If you haven’t tried out a Panasonic camera lately, you will be in for a surprise – they’re every bit as good in build quality and performance as the Nikons I’ve been using, and the better models use Leica lenses exclusively.

The Leica DC lens on the ZS40 isn’t removable, but does have a 30x zoom range, and the camera’s 2/3 CMOS sensor is good for 18 megapixels, Plus, it has both an LCD display screen and viewfinder, selectable with a small button. And it slides easily in and out of my pocket, great for traveling light when traversing the Las Vegas Convention Center for four days.

This image was captured in "intelligent" mode (read: "I don't know anything about cameras, so just take the picture for me"). Macro turned on with auto flash.

The Lumix DMC-ZS40 captured this image in “intelligent” mode (read: “I don’t know anything about cameras, so just take the picture for me”). Macro turned on with auto flash.

 

This image was also captured in "intelligent"mode, using the macro function. Model was sitting in my desktop using a single Tensor lamp for illumination.

This image was also captured in “intelligent”mode, using the macro function. Model was sitting on my desktop and a single Tensor lamp was used for illumination.

Even better – the Lumix camera was discounted from $449 to $349, and Cardinal “ate” the 6% sales tax as part of a Black Friday weekend special. I added a couple of extra SDHC memory cards and a wall charger and was on my way. For that kind of deal, it wasn’t worth it to order online.

My point? There are some great deals to be had on cameras these days, thanks to competition from smart phones and a slow but steady decline in camera sales that started in 2010. If you know what you’re doing with lighting and composition, you don’t need to buy an expensive digital SLR to get acceptable image quality – $300 to $500 will do the trick.

While DSLRs are the way to go for high-end, museum-quality photography, point-and-shoots like the Lumix are a much better choice for everyday photos, especially if you need to get a quick shot unobtrusively under a wide range of good to poor lighting conditions.

And let’s be realistic – it’s hard to go wrong these days for a few hundred dollars. After a year, if you still aren’t in love with your camera, just buy a new one! They’re certainly cheap enough and their performance just gets better and better. (The same axiom holds true for televisions.) Just don’t be surprised when you see how little your camera is worth a year or two from now.

Welcome to the brave new world of consumer electronics…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Friday, In The Rear View Mirror

A story in today’s New York Times reveals that retail sales over the Thanksgiving / Black Friday weekend weren’t nearly as good as predicted, declining 11% Y-Y from 2013 according to the National Retail Federation. (That number includes both brick-and-mortar and online sales.)

To be sure, there is a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on as to why sales didn’t hit the NRF targets predicted for 2014. It could be that the average consumer is increasingly put off by the avalanche of Black Friday advertising (TV, radio, newspapers, online) and TV news footage showing shoppers slugging it out over $100 TVs.

Or, it could be that consumers, chastened by the 2007 – 2009 stock market crash and the Great Recession, are just reluctant to spend for the sake of spending. Perhaps would-be shoppers are fed up with big box store chains increasingly intruding on the one holiday that has largely managed to stay non-commercial – Thanksgiving.

Whatever the reasons, it was clear that people voted with their feet to stay home and skip the madness. Returning from a family get-together in New York, my wife and I stopped at a BJ’s in New Jersey to pick up a few sundry items and heck out the latest mobile phones for our upgrade in a few weeks.

The store was busy for a Friday afternoon, but not insanely so. There were about 10 people at the Verizon counter, scoping out the Samsung Galaxy 5, LG G3, Motorola Droid Turbo, and a few other models. We grabbed our paper goods and I wandered over to the TV section to see if there were any deals.

Not surprisingly, there were plenty. What did surprise me was the steep discounts on Ultra HDTVs, with some as steep as 50%. Samsung’s UN55HU6840 55-inch Ultra HD model was advertised at $899 through Saturday night, and there were plenty in stock. (Full retail is $1799.99.)

Samsung's entry-level 55-inch Ultra HD was marked down an astonishing 50% for the weekend.

Samsung’s entry-level 55-inch Ultra HD was marked down an astonishing 50% for the weekend.

Nearby, a Samsung 65-inch “loaded” 2K TV (3D, smart functions, Wi-Fi, the works) was marked down to $1169.99 from $2099, and this price was good through Sunday evening. Again, a huge discount, but there were plenty of them available with only a few tire-kickers spotted nearby.

Later Friday evening around 7:30 PM, we stopped by the BJ’s closest to home and saw the same TV deals there. The store was almost empty (you could hear the crickets chirping) and the Verizon stand was deserted except for three customer service agents. That, even though Verizon had some steep Black Friday discounts of their own, such as $250 off the price of a Samsung Galaxy 5 and “free” LG G3s after rebates (2-year activation required).

After several years of declining TV sales, manufacturers clearly want to bring back the good old days. The problem they’ve created now is that the average Joe isn’t going to understand with a TV with 10 additional inches, but half the screen resolution, sells for $250 more than a TV that’s 10 inches smaller but has four times the screen resolution.

No, I believe that what will motivate buyers to whip out their credit cards over the next couple of months before the Super Bowl will be a simple screen size / price equation. If Ultra HD sets are already edging below $1K for 55-inch and even 60-inch sizes on Black Friday, that’s where they’ll be again in mid-January during the peak of the TV selling season. “Ultra” is better than “2K” or “1080p,” right? Whatever “Ultra” means, right?

The cat has been let out of the bag, and what that will do to 2K TV prices is depress them even further. 55-inch smart 2K TVs were widely available all weekend at big box stores for less than $800. Why buy one of those if you could pick up a 4K model for just $100 more?

I’ve predicted that we will eventually see all TVs larger than 55 inches migrate to Ultra HD resolution, thanks to an oversupply of LCD panels, China’s ramped-up production, and slackening demand for TVs. That day may be coming faster than you think, based on Black Friday and Cyber Monday pricing…

LG Display’s New Line for TV-sized OLED Panels to Ramp up this Year

LG Display will ramp up its M2 OLED-TV panel line next month, according to a report in South Korea’s ET News quoted in English by Amy Fan and Alex Wolfgram in Digitimes.

As prevously reported, the new $640-million line is expected to have a monthly capacity of 34,000 units, quadrupling the company’s current capacity. LGD will be producing 55-, 65- and 77-inch panels, at significantly higher yield — and therefore at lower cost — than has been possible in the past.

Digitimes Research reports that production concerns have caused LG Electronics to reduce its OLED-TV sales target for 2015 to 800,000 sets from 5 million. Digitimes Research expects OLED-TV prices to remain about double those Ultra-HD LCD-TVs through 2016, reported Fan and Wolfgram.

At Display Week this past June, Changho Oh, Senior VP for LG Display’s OLED TV Development Division 1, told me that the company’s Fab 1 was producing panels for LG’s 55-inch OLED TV at a 70–80% yield. That was a remarkable improvement from what was widely estimated to be a 10% yield in the middle of 2013 and 50% early this year. Manufacturing yields for 55-, 65-, and 77-inch panels will vary by size, Oh said. New-for-2014 OLED-TV models will all have curved screens.

The striking improvement in yield has been due to improvements in IGZO stability.

LGE's 55-inch EA9800 OLED-TV is now available for about $3000.  (Photo:  LGE)

LGE’s 55-inch EA9800 OLED-TV is now available for about $3000. (Photo: LGE)

Oh told me very openly that the oxide-TFT process has very narrow process margins and obtaining good yields was difficult in the development stage. It is necessary, he said, to understand all of the characteristics and to be able to control them precisely. The situation with the OLED frontplane, he said, “…is not so difficult because we use WOLED,” referring to the white OLED process LG uses for its TV panels. He confirmed that most of the yield issues were related to the oxide-TFT
process and the “very complicated backplane,” which uses four transistors per pixel in LGD’s design. As a result, an extra power line must be designed into the backplane.

Farther down the line, LG might consider using a different oxide. For now, the company has made its investment and is enjoying the fruits of its labors.

Oh agreed that the blue OLED lifetime remains on the short side. LGD specifies that the D6500 white point cannot vary by more than 500°C over 20,000 hours, which represents about 7 years of viewing for the typical consumer. Oh said this is a tough spec, but LGD is meeting it.

Oh also said speculations that the oxygen/moisture barrier is a problem for TV-sized panels are not correct. LG uses a 0.1-mm metal sheet and tests the seal by bending the panel 20,000 times without difficulty.

Although LGD has improved manufacturing yields dramatically, it is widely believed that solution processing — applying the OLED materials in liquid form with one of a variety of printing-like processes — is the way to make OLED manufacturing costs competitive with those of LCDs. Oh onfirmed that LG has a large research program in this area, and noted that equipment and development are expensive. LG’s goal is to have solution-based OLED panels available in 2018.

With Samsung having temporarily retreated to the sidelines as far as TV-sized OLED panels are concerned, development is in LGD’s hands. And LGD is committed to making the most of its lead. The company is making its OLED panels available to Chinese set-makers, so look for companies such as TCL and Hisense to lead the way with relatively low-cost OLED-TVs next year.