Category: The Front Line

It’s All About The Pipes

It has become increasingly clear that consumers are moving to streaming and cloud downloads to watch TV shows and movies at home. This trend, which has been documented by numerous research firms and news organizations, reached a “tipping point” in 2011 when more video was acquired via streaming and downloads than by the traditional method of renting or purchasing optical discs.

I’ve been staying on top of this phenomenon ever since 2005, when optical disc purchases began a slow, steady decline. A few years later, DVD rentals also turned south and have stayed there ever since. The blue laser format wars of 2005 – 2006 did nothing to reverse this trend: Blu-ray disc sales have not nearly made up for the fall-off in packaged media sales and rentals.

Netflix, of course, carries the blame (or credit) for this reversal of fortune. The company now has over 50 million subscribers worldwide, with over 30 million of them stateside. Their clout has increased to the point where agreements have been negotiated with Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and other MSOs to ensure Netflix can stream its movies and TV shows with minimum guaranteed bit rates.

At the receiving end, we’ve seen increasing competition by Internet service providers to boost their download speeds. Although Verizon’s FiOS service lies buried in my front yard, ready for tapping, I still rely on Comcast for video, VoIP, and broadband. (For now, Verizon is a “useful idiot” when I complain to Comcast about ever-escalating costs.)

A quick check with the CNET Broadband Speed Test shows my download speeds at 10 AM average 17 – 20 Mb/s, which is certainly faster than they were a year ago. But they’re not nearly as fast as those encountered in South Korea, Zurich, Brussels, Hong Kong, or even Chattanooga, Tennessee.

An article in Friday’s New York Times explores why the U.S. has fallen behind in providing faster Internet service and offers up some intriguing data from a group called the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. In many countries, governments regulate or control telecommunications services and have made the necessary investments to upgrade their broadband networks.

In contrast, broadband delivery in the U.S. is largely dominated by Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon, who appear to be motivated solely by the bottom line. There are exceptions, such as the aforementioned Chattanooga, where the city offers service through a publicly-owned and operated fiber optic backbone, and Kansas City, where Google took over an existing ISP and has been upgrading to fiber with haste.

What about the rest of Americans, particularly those in areas limited to DSL or even satellite broadband (always unpredictable?) Some hope may lie in the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC), a.k.a. MPEG-H H.265. This codec promises to reduce bit rates by 50% over H.264, allowing delivery of 1080p/60 content to homes with adaptive bit rates in the vicinity of 1 – 2 Mb/s. Not coincidentally, that is the average download speed found in a majority of U.S. homes between 9 and 11 PM at night, when video streaming is heaviest.

Hand-in-hand with improved broadband service comes cord-cutting, or dropping pay TV channel packages in favor of streaming. A recent report by The Diffusion Group shows that 14% of all broadband homes don’t subscribe to pay TV, up from 9% in 2011. The report states that about 75% of U.S. households now have broadband service, so 13 million homes are doing just fine without the likes of DirecTV and Comcast.

I’ve written previously about the growing outflow of pay TV customers and how the pay TV industry saw its first net loss in subscribers in 2013. This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed by media companies: HBO announced last month that it would launch a streaming service for $15 per month that would reach a large, younger population of viewers who have no interest in cable subscriptions.

CBS followed suit the next day, announcing an “all access” subscription for $6/month to all its owned stations, current programming (viewed a day later), and an enormous archive of older yet still popular TV shows such as Star Trek and Cheers (two shows that, ironically, originally ran on NBC!). And yes, there are mobile apps for all of this.

The convergence of cord-cutting and improved broadband connections has economists wondering if we are finally reaching the era of “a la carte TV.” In an intriguing paper posted on the Knowledge@Wharton Web site, the author ponders if consumers would be better off with a la carte (pick your own channels) services, or if costs would skyrocket and diminish the value of choice.

One thing is for certain: Speed drives need. Just as improvements to the highway system in this country led to bigger, faster, and more comfortable cars, faster broadband access (no matter where it comes from), coupled with more efficient video codecs, will lead to more cord-cutting and a shift in video content delivery and consumption online at the expense of conventional TV channel viewing.

It’s all about the pipes…

Ultra HD: A Race To The Bottom?

On September 23, Vizio rolled out its new line of Ultra HD TVs at an art gallery in lower Manhattan. We’d been expecting these to show up ever since pricing was announced way back at CES in January, and there weren’t any real surprises in the lineup: Five models, ranging in size from 50” to 70” with 5” (diagonal) increments.

Unlike recent Ultra HD product launches from Seiki and TCL, the Vizio lineup sent a few tremors through the industry – in particular, at Samsung, LG, and Sony. Consider that each one of the Vizio TV models is a “smart” TV, and each uses full-array LED backlighting. You’ll find a bevy of HDMI 1.4 connectors on all of them, along with a single HDMI 2.0 interface. And the sets support HEVC H.265 decoding, too. (Can you say “Netflix 4K streaming?”

In other words, these aren’t bargain-basement models, like the aforementioned Seiki. But what will raise a few eyebrows is the retail pricing: The 50-inch P502ui-B1 retails for $999, while the 55-inch P552ui-B2 goes for $1,399. The 60-inch P602ui-B3 is ticketed at $1,699, while the 65-inch P652ui-B2 will cost $2,199. And the “top of the line” 70-inch P702ui-B3 will be available for just $2,499. (All prices are in $ USD)

To see exactly what impact that could have on the market, look at current prices for Samsung and LG 55-inch Ultra HDTVs. The current HH Gregg sales flyer for October 5 shows Samsung’s UN55HU6950 55-inch Ultra HD set for $1,599, and that represents quite a drop in price over their previous 55-inch model – about $1,400.

LG also started lowering prices on its Ultra HD sets in the late spring. Their 55-inch 55UB9500 Ultra HD set is now listed at $1,999, which is also a big markdown from earlier this year. How about Sony? The HH Gregg flyer shows the 65-inch XBR65X850B with Triluminous quantum dot backlight (by QD Vision) for $2,999, which (according to the flyer) represents a $1,000 discount. That’s still $800 more than the comparable Vizio model, which uses conventional LED backlights.

So why should any of this matter? Simple: Vizio is an established national brand that has enjoyed strong sales in large LCD TV screen sizes for several years. And they’ve expanded from their original bases in Costco and BJs to Wal-Mart, Sears, and now Best Buy.

That latter brick-and-mortar chain is where Samsung, LG, and Sony have been running an aggressive in-store promotion for Ultra HDTV since early August, playing back clips of 4K footage and raffling off Ultra HD TVs in an attempt to stir up business. TV sales have declined worldwide for the past two years and the major TV brands are clearly hoping that Ultra HD will re-start the engine.

The decline in Ultra HDTV prices has been breathtaking, to say the least. One year ago, you could expect to shell out upwards of $4,400 to buy a new Samsung or Sony 65-inch Ultra HD set. 55-inch models were retailing for about $1,000 less. And now Vizio has pulled the rug out from under its competitors with a line of 4K sets that looked impressive at the NY event.

What does this mean for Ultra HD TV pricing down the road? Given the scramble to find any profit in manufacturing 2K LCD glass – a challenge even for the Koreans – and the determination of China to be a major player in 4K glass manufacturing, we can expect prices to drop even lower by next year’s Super Bowl. Right now, you can buy a nice 55-inch 2K LCD TV for $600, and I’d expect a 4K version to sell for just under $1,000 by late January.

Long term, the profit in manufacturing 2K LCD glass will mostly evaporate, leading fabs to switch to 4K glass for larger TV sizes. As a consequence, you will see most TVs larger than 55 inches utilize 4K resolution glass in a few years, just as the industry shifted from 720p and 768p panels to 1080p glass in the mid-2000s.

According to NPD DisplaySearch, more Ultra HD sets were sold in the second quarter of 2014 (2.1 million) than in all of last year (1.3 million). But we’re still talking about a small percentage of all TVs sold worldwide in 2013 (208 million). So it is surprising to see price wars already starting up this early in the game.

Who will blink next?

Gaming Monitors that Don’t Tear or Stutter

At PEPCOM’s Holiday Spectacular, a press-and-analysts-only show held last month at the Metropolitan Pavilion on New York City’s West Side, I came across the new ASUS PG278Q 2560×1440 gaming monitor. In discussing the monitor with ASUS personnel, and then with nVidia’s Bryan Del Rizzo, I learned things about the way high-performance games present their imagery to monitors I didn’t know before, and how nVidia’s G-Sync technology solves the long-standing problems of tearing and stutter that have beset gamers and their fixed-frame-rate monitors.

“The source of [these problem]s is that modern games don’t deliver a consistent frame rate due to the complexity and richness of the scenes being rendered. Some frames take longer to render than others. Frames that are rendered in 10ms will push the [frames per second (FPS)] in the game higher, while frames that take longer to render will reduce the overall FPS in the game,” according a reviewer’s guide Del Rizzo sent me.

“Currently, gamers have few options when it comes to how frames are delivered. Most gamers disable V-Sync to get the best input response they can, but this introduces some serious visual ASUS G-Syncartifacts:  Tearing and Stutter. With V-Sync enabled, you eliminate the tearing, but introduce input delay and inconsistent frame delivery as the GPU will rarely generate frame rates in perfect sync with the refresh rate of the monitor,” the guide says.

With G-Sync, a G-Sync controller built into the monitor receives a signal from the graphics processing unit (GPU) in the computer. (Currently G-Sync is supported by nVidia Series 7 and 9 GeForce graphics cards.) When the GPU has finished rendering a frame, no matter how long it takes, it sends a signal that tells the monitor to update the display. The result is a variable-rate monitor that solves the problem of tearing and stuttering. Lag between a user input and screen updating based on the input is reduced compared to V-sync.

ASUS advertises its PG278Q as the first 1440p monitor to feature G-Sync technology. Acer advertises its XB280HK gaming monitor — an example of which was in the nVidia booth — as the world?s first 4k display featuring nVidia G-Sync technology. Del Rizzo told me that G-Sync is currently available, or will soon be available, in gaming monitors from four or five different brands.

Del Rizzo said nVidia  has been developing G-Sync for several years, and that this is serious technology developed to allow gamers to have more fun. But that should come as no surprise. Gaming is a very serious business.

The 800-pound gorilla just bellowed…

On Tuesday, September 23, Vizio officially launched its new P-Series of 4K (Ultra HD) televisions at an art gallery in Chelsea, NY.

These televisions weren’t a secret to anyone who attended CES w-a-y back in January. Vizio caused a bit of a stir by announcing five “smart” LCD TVs with direct LED backlighting that would retail at prices considerably lower than Sony, Samsung, LG, Sharp, and pretty much anyone else except the Chinese brands (TCL, Hisense, etc.)

But whereas those selfsame Chinese TV brands don’t get much respect from the general public and big box retailers, Vizio is different. They’ve been around for over a decade, and they have a track record of market disruption. Vizio has done so well selling TVs in the U.S. that they sponsored the Rose Bowl this year and also had a crew go out and shoot original 4K footage on a Red camera to be used for demos. Vizio is also going to license Dolby’s high-dynamic range process for upscale monitors and TVs.

Vizio's event was staged in a gallery and featured "moving art" by Louie Schwartzberg.

Vizio’s event was staged in a gallery and featured “moving art” by Louie Schwartzberg.

 

The New York City event was minimalist, consisting of demos of each model hanging on the wall like artwork and showing 4K clips. In three back rooms, Vizio demonstrated (a) its superior motion blur-correcting technology compared to a Samsung 4K TV, (b) its lower black levels compared to the same Samsung TV (and lack of color tint artifacts by using full array, direct backlight illumination), and higher contrast ratio and improved shadow detail.

I’ve been to enough side-by-side demos that I’ve learned not to believe anything I can’t verify on my own, but the Vizio sets did look impressive. What was even more impressive, however, were the prices: The 50-inch P502ui-B1 retails for $999, while the 55-inch P552ui-B2 will sell for $1,399. That’s $600 less than the current price for a comparable 55-inch LG Ultra HD TV.

Vizio also has a 60-inch model (P602ui-B3) for $1,699 and a 65-inch version (P652ui-B2) for $2,199. The line is rounded out with a 70-inch Ultra HD set, the P702ui-B3 for $2,499. That last price is $500 lower that what I heard at CES, so there’s already been some market-tweaking.

All of the P-series Ultra HD TVs use full array LED backlighting.

All of the P-series Ultra HD TVs use full array LED backlighting.

 

At least one Vizio model P552ui-B2) uses IPS LCD glass, while the rest employ MDA LCD. Vizio claims this provides better black levels than Samsung's PVA LCD panels.

At least one Vizio model P552ui-B2) uses IPS LCD glass, while the rest employ MDA LCD. Vizio claims this provides better black levels than Samsung’s PVA LCD panels.

 

Readers with reasonably long memories will recall that Sony’s and Samsung’s inaugural Ultra HD sets were priced close to $3,400 for 55-inch models and $4,400 for 65-inch versions. (Sony’s sets also use quantum dot backlights, something Vizio is not pursuing at the moment.)

But if you pull out the latest Sunday paper inserts from Best Buy and HHGregg, you will see that Samsung and LG have both slashed their prices considerably, perhaps in anticipation of Vizio (who, ironically, is now a featured brand at Best Buy!).

The Vizio sets are already designed to support 4K streaming from Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, and customers of the latter service will be able to buy or rent 4K content from UltraFlix for streaming. As for inputs, all five TVs come with four HDMI 1.4 connections and one (just one) HDMI 2.0 port. That last one is a puzzler, since the HDMI 2.0 standard has been out for a year already.

I was told by Vizio that these new sets support HEVC H.265-coded material, but I’m not sure if they are decoding in hardware or their own software. The lone HDMI 2.0 port is also fully compliant with HDCP 2.2, a controversial amendment to the HDCP standard that will cause some serious backwards-compatibility problems with older TVs, 4K models included.

So – here we go with the Ultra HD price wars. Samsung, Sony, and LG are nearing the end of an intensive 4K education campaign at their stores (which, I must say, the majority of salespeople I encountered did a very good job with), timed perfectly with the fall college and NFL football season.

Now, here comes Vizio to steal their thunder and benefit from this campaign without having contributed a dime to it. Research by Nielsen and other companies has consistently shown that Americans just want “big, cheap TVs.” I’m not sure if that applies also to 4K, but if so, Vizio is ready and willing to deliver. It will be very interested to see how the “Big 3” TV brands respond to this challenge and what price cuts will result over the next couple of months. Stay tuned…

 

There’s fast…and then there’s FAST.

There’s Fast…and then There’s FAST.

A little over a year ago, Silicon Image announced the latest version of HDMI – 2.0. Among the other enhancements to this interface was an increase in the clock rate to 600 MHz, allowing data rates as high as 18 gigabits per second (GB/s).

Good thing, too, with Ultra HD televisions coming to market. The previous iteration of HDMI (v1.4) had a capped data rate of 10.2 Gb/s, which was barely fast enough for Ultra HD signals (3840×2160 pixels) refreshed at 30 Hz, with color depth not to exceed 8 bits per pixel.

By boosting the speed to 18 Gb/s, HDMI 2.0 can now pass a 60 Hz Quad HD signal – but only with 8-bit RGB color. (If you’re willing to cut the color resolution in half, you can increase the bit depth.) To me, that’s not enough of an improvement: If you’ve seen what it takes to shoot, edit, and post 4K content, you’ll realize why 10-bit and even 12-bit encoding is the way to go. But HDMI 2.0 can’t handle that with high frame rates.

Earlier this month, the Video Electronics Standards Association “officially” announced what we knew was coming for some time – DisplayPort version 1.3, which will boost its data rates to a mind-boggling 32 Gb/s – almost twice as fast as HDMI 2.0 – and also employ for the first time a form of visually-lossless compression, known as Display Stream.

Unlike HDMI, DisplayPort is a pure digital transport, using packet-based communication. It transports video, audio, metadata, and even Ethernet, using four scalable “lanes” to carry signals. In the current version (1.2), the capped data rate for each lane is 5.4 Gb/s, but with version 1.3, it will rise to 8 Gb/s.

DisplayPort’s architecture is designed to be flexible. There are full-sized and mobile versions of the connector, along with wireless and optical fiber interface specifications. Users of Apple MacBooks are familiar with the Mini DisplayPort interface, and a mobile version (Mobility DisplayPort or SlimPort) is available for tablets and phones and uses a single lane for 1080p/60 playback.

The maximum data rate for all four lanes is 21.6 Gb/s, which can accommodate a 3840x2160p/60 signal encoded with 10 bits per pixel in the RGB format. That’s considerably faster than HDMI 1.4 and one reason why a handful of TV manufacturers are adding DP 1.2 connectors to their new 4K TVs. The other reason is the lack of royalties (for now) to use the interface.

At CES, VESA announced DockPort, a multiplexed signal format that blends USB 3.0 connectivity with display signals in the standard and mini DP connectors. Now, there has been a major announcement by the USB 3.0 Promoter Group and the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) of something called “USB Type-C Alternate Mode.”

Drilling deeper, we find that the USB 3.0 Group has introduced a new variation of their interface, known as the Type-C connector. Unlike other versions (Types A&B and their more commonly used “full-size” and “mini” designations); the type-C connector borrows a page from Apple’s playbook and is reversible. That is; it makes no difference which way you plug it in – there is no right side or wrong side up.

There’s more: The Type-C connector (about half as large as a conventional USB Type-A connector) can carry serial data at speeds up to 10.2 Gb/s (USB 3.1 Gen 2). It can also deliver up to 100 watts of power (20 volts DC at a maximum of 5 amperes) so that a connected device could be operated while its battery charges.

There are 12 pins on a Type-C connector arrayed along both edges of the blade. Viewed from the end, the top and bottom pins are reversed from left to right, which is how you can plug it in either way and it will still work. Two pins (1 and 12) are used for ground. Pins 2 and 3 are reserved for a high-speed transmit (TX) data path, while pins 10 and 11 are reserved for a receive data (RX) path.

Pins 4 and 9 provide bus power, and pin 5 (CC) is used to communicate with the connected device to determine operating mode. Finally, pins 6 and 7 function as a USB 2.0 interface. Needless to say, the host and connected device need a USB 3.0-compatible connector switch to determine the operating mode and enable data exchange in 2.0 or 3.0 formats.

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DisplayPort can run over the new USB Type-C connector – with no in-between adapters.

What’s unique about Type-C cables is that so-called “full feature” passive cables will actually contain an internal ID chip that signals the source connection to turn on all USB 3.0 functions and enable high-speed data exchange. These cables will be able to transmit 10.2 Gb/s of data over 1 meter (3 feet) and 5 Gb/s over 2 meters (6 feet).

Using Alternate DisplayPort mode, a maximum of four DP “lanes” of display data can travel over that same tiny USB connector, providing all the resolution and bit depth of the full-size and mini DisplayPort connectors. Or, you can reserve two lanes for USB 3.1 operation and employ the other two for displays, something you might want to do in a docking station application. USB 2.0 data exchange is always available through the same connector.

As you can see, the USB connector has gotten a lot smaller. It’s also a lot faster, and is symmetrical (no more fumbling around trying to orient the plug the right way). And it can provide the primary display connection for any device while also sending and receiving high-speed data.

With this announcement, the USB 3.0 Group and VESA have shown that “less is more” when it comes to digital signal interfacing with Type-C Alternate operation. Oh, did I mention that you will be able to buy and use a cable with a Type-C USB connector on one end and a DisplayPort plug on the other? Can’t get any easier to use than that!