Category: The Front Line

2016 – A Turning Point For Television

In a few short weeks, I (and hundreds of my colleagues in the press) will dutifully board planes for Las Vegas to once again spend a week walking the show floor at International CES. We’ll listen to PR pitches, grab fast-food meals on the fly, show up late for appointments, have numerous ad hoc discussions in hallways and cabs, and try to make sense of all the new technologies unveiled in the Las Vegas Convention Center and nearby hotels.

As usual, many of us will want to focus on televisions – or more specifically, what televisions are becoming. TVs have always been an important product category at CES, and that was particularly true with the introduction of digital, high definition TV in the late 1990s, followed by plasma and then LCD display technologies in the early to mid-2000s.

Today, the bloom is largely off the rose. TVs have become commodities, thanks to aggressive pricing and distribution by Korean manufacturers that have largely driven the Japanese brands out of the business. And we’re seeing that cycle repeat itself as China becomes the nexus for TV manufacturing and prices for 1080p sets continue in free fall.

But something new is here – Ultra HD (a/k/a 4K). And the transition is happening at a breathtaking pace: The first 4K / UHD sets appeared on these shores in 2012 with astronomically high price tags. Four years later, you can buy a 55-inch Ultra HDTV with “smart” wireless functions for less than $800, a price point that has forced same-size 1080p sets below $500.

And it’s not just more pixels. High dynamic range (HDR) is coming to market, as are new illumination technologies that will provide much larger color gamuts. LCD and OLED panel manufacturers are now able to address at 10 bits per pixel, breaking past the now-inadequate 8-bit standard that has held back displays of all kinds for over a decade.

Chinese manufacturer Hisense now owns the Sharp TV brand, and will bring a line of quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs to market in 2016.

Chinese manufacturer Hisense now owns the Sharp TV brand, and will bring a line of quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs to market in 2016.

Screen sizes are getting larger, too. Ten years ago, a 42-inch TV was considered “big” and anything larger was a home theater installation. Today? Consumers are routinely buying 50-inch, 55-inch, and even 60-inch sets as prices have fallen. That same 42-inch set is often consigned to a bedroom or kid’s room, or maybe a summer home.

Back in September of 2008, I bought a Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma TV for about $1,100. It had two HDMI 1.3 connections, three analog composite/component video inputs, and no network connectivity of any kind. But wow, did it make great pictures!

Seven years later, that TV sits in my basement, unused. It was replaced by a price-comparable, more energy-efficient 46-inch LCD model after Hurricane Sandy killed our power for several days and I did a whole-house energy audit. (And no, the LCD picture quality doesn’t compare to the plasma.)

But that’s not all that changed. I picked up four HDMI 1.4 inputs along the way (yep, it was set up for 3D), plus built-in Wi-Fi and “smart” functions. And I added a sound bar to make up for the awful quality of the built-in speakers. Plus, I added a Blu-ray player to round out the package, although it hardly sees any discs these days – it’s mostly used for streaming.

So – let’s say I’d like to replace that TV in 2016, just five years later. What would my options be?

To start with, I’d be able to buy a lot more screen. Right now, I could pick up a Samsung or LG 65-inch smart 1080p set for what I spent in 2011. Or, I could bite the bullet and make the move to Ultra HD with a 55-inch or 60-inch screen, complete with four HDMI inputs (one or two would be version 2.0, with HDCP 2.2 support), Wi-Fi, Netflix streaming (very important these days), and possibly a quantum dot backlight for HDR and WCG support.

My new set should support the HEVC H.265 codec, of course. That will make it possible to stream UHD content into my TV at 12 – 18 Mb/s from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Vimeo, Vudu, and any other company that jumps on the 4K content bandwagon. I could even go out and buy a brand-new Ultra HD Blu-ray player to complement it. But it’s more likely I’d opt to stream UHD content over my new, fast 30 Mb/s Internet connection from Comcast.

Now, it might pay to wait until later in 2016, when I could be sure of purchasing an Ultra HDTV that would support one or more of the proposed HDR delivery standards for disc-based and streaming UHD movies. And maybe I’d have more “fast” inputs, like DisplayPort 1.2 or even 1.3 to go along with HDMI 2.0 (and quite possibly, superMHL).

And I might even swing back over to an emissive display, to replace the picture quality I got from my old plasma set. That would mean purchasing an OLED Ultra HDTV, which would also support HDR and WCG, plus all of the usual bells and whistles (Wi-Fi, multiple HDMI/DP inputs, streaming, apps).

My point? We’re going to see some amazing technology in the next generation of televisions at ICES. And consumers are apparently warming up to Ultra HD – while sales of 1080p sets continue to decline, Ultra HD sales are climbing by double-digit percentages. I expect that number to accelerate as we near the Super Bowl, even though it won’t be broadcast in 4K (yet!).

If you are thinking about upgrading your main TV, 2016 could give you plenty of reasons to do it. My advice? Wait until all the puzzle pieces are in place for delivery of HDR and WCG to your home, and look into upgrading your Internet connections – streaming 4K will be here faster than you realize. And if you can live with your 1080p set until the fall of 2016, you’ll be amazed and likely very pleased at the upgrade…

More Pixels + Bigger Screens = More Power Consumption

I don’t often hear the words “National Resource Defense Council” and “Ultra HDTV” in the same sentence. But the NRDC just released a report stating that power consumption in Ultra HD (4K) TVs is about 30% higher than same-size 1080p TV sets.

The NRDC report goes on to say that one-third of all new TV purchases are for screens 50 inches and larger, which should come as no surprise given how dramatically TV prices have dropped in the past three years. And the NRDC calculates that, if Americans were to replace their older 1080p sets with Ultra HDTVs in screens sizes from 36 inches and up (who has a 36-inch TV??), the additional power consumption could amount to $1 billion dollars annually, equivalent to three times the annual residential power consumption of San Francisco. (I love it when press releases come up with offbeat statistics like that one.)

The substance of this argument should come as no surprise to anyone: An Ultra HDTV has four times as many pixels as a 1080p set (which is why it was originally called Quad HD). So it stands to reason that an Ultra HDTV would use more power, although a 30% increase seems on the low side.

The NRDC apparently tested a few models of TVs and found “…there were dramatic differences in the power consumption among UHD models of the same size, indicating the technology already exists to make energy-saving improvements to the most inefficient UHD televisions.”

The report went on to state that “Consumers can cut several hundred dollars off the lifetime energy costs of a new UHD TV by a) buying models with the ENERGY STAR® label, b) ensuring Automatic Brightness Control is enabled, and c) avoiding the quick start feature on Internet-connected televisions that results in significant amounts of wasted standby power.”

Graphic from NRDC report

Graphic from NRDC report

Most LCD TVs use amorphous silicon (a-Si) or low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) thin-film transistors to switch the pixels on and off. These technologies have been around for some time, and they have their disadvantages – high leakage current is one. But the yields are good and predictable.

A solution to the power consumption issue us waiting in the wings. Oxide TFTs, or more accurately, indium gallium zinc oxide TFTs, look like the logical replacement for a-Si and LTPS. IGZO, in development for over 30 years and first commercialized by Sharp, promises low leakage current, a smaller size (more light passes through the pixel as a result), faster on/off switching times, and lower power consumption.

That last attribute alone makes IGZO attractive as we move into the worlds of 4K / UHDTV, 5K, 6K, and even 8K displays and TVs. My guess is that most of that 30% power consumption increase would be rolled back by moving to IGZO TFT arrays.

The catch is cost – IGZO is expensive to implement in a consumer television that might sell for all of $700 – $800. Right now, Sharp is implementing IGZO in their line of Ultra HD desktop monitors, small multipurpose displays, and possibly their large (104” and 120”) Ultra HD commercial monitors.

They’re not alone. I was told by LG Display at CES a couple years ago that their OLED TVs also used IGZO TFTs to switch pixels. Given the price of those sets, the added cost of IGZO isn’t as much of a problem: LG’s 55-inch Ultra HD OLED TV currently retails for about $3,000.

The NRDC report didn’t state which models they tested. Were these conventional edge-lit, or full array LED models? Were any quantum dot Ultra HDTVs tested? How about Samsung’s S-series UHDTVs? What picture mode was tested – Dynamic? Standard? Movie/Cinema?

As for the NRDC’s recommendations; all TVs come with Energy Star ratings, so it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out which models are the best penny-pinchers. However, turning on ambient light sensors to dim the screen depending on room light does funny things to picture quality, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Instead, simply set the contrast to about 80, brightness to 40 – 50, and color temperature to “warm.” (This presumes you’ve already taken the TV out of “dynamic” mode). If you can adjust the backlight levels, crank them back to about 60 – 70 and see if they are bright enough for everyday viewing. (Turn OFF all of the other image/picture enhancements found in basic and advanced picture menus, too.)

Granted; turning off the quick start feature will reduce power consumption when you’re not watching. I don’t mind waiting a few seconds for my 46-inch 1080p set to turn on, but it only uses 160 watts to begin with.

Here’s one last recommendation: Don’t buy a new TV on Black Friday, or even before Christmas. Wait instead until the two – three week period before Super Bowl 50 (Sunday, February 7, 2016) to make your purchase, and you should score a great deal on a new Ultra HDTV. (And don’t forget to check the Energy Star tag!)

How to Make a TV Look Better

It is a retailing insight that dates back to an ancient time, the time of CRT TV sets: “The way to make a TV look better is to connect it to a really good loudspeaker.” Sounds like a recipe for an analog, standard-def, monophonic home-theater system, doesn’t it? Some of those old TV salesmen may have been rough around the edges but they weren’t dumb.

A small, highly unscientific survey I performed recently — it was yesterday — indicates there still quite a few people who are only dimly aware of the advanced audio technology that is (or soon will be) our version of that “really good loudspeaker.” The technology is “immersive sound,” and it goes considerably beyond the 5.1-channel surround sound with which we are all familiar.

A Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 setup, with the sound pattern of the up-firing Atmos channels highlighted. (Figure: Dolby)

A Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 setup, with the sound pattern of the up-firing Atmos channels highlighted. (Figure: Dolby)

An immersive or 3D sound system adds one or two layers of height speakers above the ear-level speakers of 5.1 or 7.1 to create a three-dimensional sound field, but it can do even more. Like conventional 2-channel stereo, 5.1 surround sound is channel-based. That is, each source is assigned to a channel by the audio engineer, each channel is assigned to a specific speaker in the listening room, and that is what determines the source’s apparent location. That means that for the audio engineer’s intentions to be realized, the integrator or user must place the speakers where the engineer anticipates they will be placed.

Dolby Atmos, the most widely implemented immersive system for consumers, adds an object-based technology that uses metadata to place a sound anywhere in the sonic field independent of speaker location. These sonic objects are placed top of the 5.1 “bed channels,” which still perform their traditional function. Let us note that DTS MDA (Multi-Dimensional Audio) and the soon-to-appear DTS-X also use object-based technologies, although Dolby and DTS use different coordinate systems for defining the sound fields.

If you are able to precisely locate the speakers in the listening space, the object-based technology is not necessary. AURO technologies offers a high-end (that is, very expensive) approach that creates a very convincing 3D sound field with 11.1 channels in 3 levels: the base ear-level, the elevated level, and a speaker in the ceiling that AURO calls the
“god speaker” — because it is well-suited for deleivering “the voice of god.” I auditioned an AURO 3D system at CE Week in New York last June. The mandatory sonic demonstration of an airliner approaching from your rear and flying low over your head to land in front of you had some people ducking, but more subtle demonstrations were actually more impressive.

The playback of Bach organ pieces recorded in a cathedral convincingly reproduced the sense of soaring space, and the AURO 3D sound track that accompanied an urban street scene produced precise sonic placements of many simultaneous conversations and activities. As is true in life, you could consciously change your focus of attention and listen in to one conversational fragment or another. The sense of place was remarkable.


Pioneer Dolby Atmos enabled add-on speakers. The speakers were disigned by Andrew Jones, who has since moved on to ELAC America. Among Jones' first products for ELAC is an Atmos add-on speaker that looks very similar to his earlier effort for Pioneer. (Photo: Pioneer)

Pioneer Dolby Atmos enabled add-on speakers. The speakers were designed by Andrew Jones, who has since moved on to ELAC America. Among Jones’s first products for ELAC is an Atmos add-on speaker that looks externally very similar to his earlier effort for Pioneer. (Photo: Pioneer)

When Dolby, DTS, or AURO equips a cinema for 3D audio, many speakers are used at different levels. The largest of these installations can support 128 simultaneous objects and 64 speaker channels, according to Film Journal International. Dolby, which has the largest presence in cinemas with immersive systems, was first into the consumer space last year. Clearly, most consumers would not be interested in installing a dozen (or even four) ceiling mounted speakers. So, although an Atmos system can be implemented with ceiling speakers, several manufacturers are making upward-facing speakers intended to be placed on top of the left and right front channel speakers and also (optionally) on top of the surround or rear speakers. Dolby says that such add-on speakers can be very effective for ceiling heights from 8 to 12 feet. A small but increasing number of manufacturers are also incorporating the upward-facing speakers into otherwise traditional left-right speakers.

So, of what does a consumer Atmos system consist? Minimally, you need an A/V receiver that contains an Atmos decoder and supports 7.1 channels, the traditional 5.1 plus two height channels. Dolby designates such a system as 5.1.2, and says such a system can provide an impressive 3D audio effects. But for maximum drama (such as helicopter flyovers), you need two more ceiling or add-on speakers to go on top of your surround or rear speakers. That is, you need a 9.1 (5.1.4), Atmos-enabled receiver.

All of this comes in at substantially less than a small OLED-TV. If you already have a 5.1 system, you only need two more speakers and a 7.1-channel (5.1.2) Atmos receiver, which begin at less than $500. Receivers are available from the usual suspects, including Onkyo, Denon, Marantz, Yamaha, and Pioneer. There are already discontinued models for bargain-hunters, but newer models are more likely to have DTS-X decoding as well as Dolby Atmos.

I’ve just written a very few words on a very large subject, and I’ve just scratched the surface. But there’s one question I know I’d better answer: Is Atmos media available? Yes. list roughly 60 English-language BRDs that are currently available, and Dolby has a list of more than 50 movies that will be (or have been) released in 2015 and 2016, including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Martian, Sicario, The Peanuts Movie, and American Sniper. Standard BRD players support the Atmos coding, so there’s no new investment there.

Regular readers know of my deep skepticism concerning 3D television images. But 3D audio is something else entirely. It draws you into the story — and it does make the picture look better.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices and television.  He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies using displays in their products.  You can reach him at

By The Numbers – Or Maybe Not

Several news stories crossed my desk this morning that are each worth closer scrutiny. The first one comes from Reuters and says that Dish Network’s quarterly revenue missed forecasts as more customers disconnected their satellite antennas.

Dish stated that they had lost 23,000 subscribers on a net basis for the quarter ending September 30. In the same time period a year earlier, the net loss was 12,000 subs, almost half as many. And apparently the company’s new $20/month streaming service, Sling TV, isn’t proving to be as popular as expected.

The combination of DirecTV with AT&T also puts Dish at a competitive advantage, since AT&T can offer bundles of service (including mobile telephone) at competitive prices. Satellite TV has always been at a disadvantage to cable and fiber optic services due to issues with reception during inclement weather and the inability of some home and apartment sites to “see” the satellites, ruling out installations.

In my neighborhood, several folks canceled service from Comcast in recent years and picked up Dish and DirecTV as a cost-saving measure, only to drop both when Verizon laid fiber optic cables for FiOS and offered some low-cost, triple-play bundles that Dish and DirecTV couldn’t beat. (Internet service via satellite isn’t exactly fast and reliable.)

Right now, Dish’s most valuable asset is the UHF frequency spectrum acquired in FCC auctions- but it looks like that spectrum may go back for re-auction next February. And the DirecTV / AT&T juggernaut may force Dish into a merger to stay alive – or perhaps an outright sale.

So things aren’t looking too good for pay TV service providers? Not according to TDG Research. In a story on the Multichannel News site, TDG claims that “the percentage of adult broadband users (ADUs) who were moderately or highly likely to cancel their pay TV service in the next six months dropped 20% since last year.”

TDG went on to say that the group of consumers saying they “definitely will cancel” their pay TV service in the next six months has been cut in half — down from 2.9% in early 2014 to 1.4% in early 2015.” They cite the fact that Comcast only lost 48,000 video subscribers in Q3 2015, as opposed to 81,000 in the same quarter a year ago.

The problem with opinion surveys vs. market trends is that opinions can change abruptly. After a series of mishaps with Comcast’s Xfinity platform earlier this year (and well-documented on this site), I was about ready to throw in the towel and switch over to FiOS myself! But after my original complaint was resolved (replacing the buried cable from the drop to my house) and I wound up with a new modem (802.11ac 2.4/5 GHz), plus much faster Internet speeds and new Xfinity set-top boxes, I decided to stay with the devil I know – for now.

So the TDG data may reflect consumer preferences right now, but what will actually happen remains to be seen when the next set of quarterly data becomes available in January or February of next year.

There’s no arguing with numbers, however. From the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) comes a report that consumers spent more money on digital video downloads and video streaming through the first nine months of 2015 than on rentals and purchases of DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

According to a story on the TWICE Web site, consumers forked over almost $6.5 billion on downloaded and streamed videos. The “digital” category includes subscription streaming and video-on-demand (VOD), plus digital downloads such as movies to tablets and smartphones. (Like I do when I fly cross-country).

In contrast, the dollar amount spent on rentals and purchases of optical disc media amounted to $6.3 billion – close, but still in 2nd place. From January through September, revenue from downloads and streaming rose by almost 16% Y-Y, while revenue from DVD/BD purchases declined by 14% and disc rentals dropped 7.1%.

Within the streaming/downloads category, the lion’s share of revenue (3.65B, or 57%) went to subscription streaming, while digital downloads captured 21% or $1.34B. The rest went to subscription video-on-demand ($1.41B, or 22%).

What’s interesting is that in 2014, the DEG states that “consumers spent more on physical media, about $6.93 billion, compared with $7.53 billion spent on digital downloads and streaming.” Overall, that means that in 2014, consumers whipped out their credit cards to the tune of $14.46B, or about $1.2B per month. Through September of 2015, that number is $12.74B total, or $1.42B per month – an increase of about 15%.

So there you have it. Cord-cutting (or “dish dumping”) is on the rise. Or maybe it isn’t, if we are to believe the preferences of consumers. Or maybe it’s the HDMI cable we’re cutting, preferring to stream and download videos as opposed to playing them back from optical discs.

One statistic I wish the DEG would delve deeper into concerns the installed base of Blu-ray players – almost 80 million households own one now, according to DEG. But how often are they used for playing movies, as opposed to streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other services? We just don’t know.


Dolby Vision Will Soon Be Available in a Consumer TV Set

In early October, VIZIO and Dolby Laboratories announced pricing and availability of the VIZIO Reference Series TV sets, which the companies described as “the industry’s first-ever complete High Dynamic Range solution with Dolby Vision™ playback technology.”

The series consists initially of two models, one of which you might be if you’ve had a good year, and one that Bill Gates might buy if he’s so inclined. The model you might buy is the RS65-B2, a 65-inch set with an MSRP of $5,999.99. The Bill Gates model, the RS120-B3, has a 120-inch screen and an MSRP of $129,999.99. Enough said about that one.

But even the 65-incher has very impressive specifications. Among them are:

VIZIO's RS65-B2 will be the first consumer TV to incorporate Dolby Vision. (Photo: VIZIO)

VIZIO’s RS65-B2 will be the first consumer TV to incorporate Dolby Vision. (Photo: VIZIO)

• Ultra HD
• Full-array LED backlight with “an uprecedented” 384 Active LED Zones®
• A quantum-dot panel that produces a significantly wider color gamut
• Peak luminance of 800 nits
• VIZIO V6 processor with quad-core GPU and dual-core CPU
• Integrated 802.11ac dual-band Wi-fi
• Integrated sound bar and sub-woofer and surround speakers.
• FHD-to-UHD spatial scaler

The knowledgeable readers of may guess that the quantum-dot solution that marries most obviously with a full-array backlight is the Nanosys/3M QDEF approach. VIZIO generally doesn’t reveal the identity of its hardware partners, but industry sources confirm that Nanosys/3M is indeed the supplier.

Although it was not included in the recent announcement, VIZIO has revealed separately that the RS65-B2’s color gamut is 120% of DCI-P3, which is also 87% of Rec.2020.

VIZIO is attempting to relieve the concerns many potential customers have with the lack of UHD media by immediately giving buyers of the RS65-B2 access to UHD content. “Customers will receive immediate access to certain Warner Bros. Home Entertainment 4K Ultra HD Dolby Vision mastered titles via the popular video on-demand streaming service, VUDU®. Additional Dolby Vision titles from other content providers will soon be available through Netflix®,” the company’s announcement said.

As an example, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment continues to introduce remastered Ultra HD Dolby Vision titles. The most recent are San Andreas, Mad Max: Fury Road, Magic Mike XXL, Jupiter Ascending, Man of Steel, and The Great Gatsby. An ongoing list of upcoming titles available for streaming in Dolby Vision can be found at

Netflix has also committed to remastering content in Dolby Vision and is expected to deliver season one of its adventure drama Marco Polo as its first Dolby Vision release via the Netflix app soon. Netflix will also offer the new season two of Marco Polo in Dolby Vision.

VIZIO’s Reference Series TVs aren’t available yet, but you can pre-order through the VIZIO website.

Just in case I’ve swamped you with details, let me emphasize that my take-away from all this is that Dolby Vision will soon be available in a consumer television at an unprecedentedly low price. And its easy to envisage lower-cost sets, perhaps with fewer LED zones, appearing in the not-too-distant future.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices and television.  He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies using displays in their products.  You can reach him at