Category: The Front Line

Samsung was King of the CES Hill

Let’s not talk about director Michael Bay’s meltdown at Samsung’s huge CES press event. Okay, let’s, but just for a moment. Bay, a featured guest (presumably because his explosion-filled action films look really good on Samsung large-screen TVs) came down with a severe case of stage fright when the teleprompter stopped showing him the words he was supposed to say. Bay attempted to soldier on, but couldn’t, and left the stage saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.” If you must, you can access the video that appeared on You Tube within minutes of the event. By now, there may be more than one because the room was filled with cameras. This was, after all, a press event.

But the real point of this story is what happened next. Joe Stinziano, Executve VP of Samsung Electronics America, who was hosting the segment that included Bay, gracefully fielded the hot grounder hit to his corner. With complete professionalism, he quickly got the event back on track and continued delivering Samsung’s TV-related message. And that message was, “UHD will drive the next change in the television industry.”

The camera-wielding press corps at Samsung's CES press event.  (Photo:  Ken Werner)

The camera-wielding press corps at Samsung’s CES press event. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Unlike Bay, Mark Cuban performed as intended during his celebrity walk-on by amplifying the message: “UHD is incredible. It will help turn the TV into a unique multimedia platform.”

Joe Stinziano, man of the hour at Samsung's press event. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Joe Stinziano, man of the hour at Samsung’s press event. (Photo: Ken Werner)

The Bay espisode may have been embarrassing for Bay, but not really for Samsung. They hunkered down and got the job done, which is what they almost always do. They lead the world in TV sales, LCD panel sales, and smart phone sales. They popularized the phablet, a category that the allegedly creative Apple completely missed, and they kept their noses to the grindstone when small and medium OLED displays were an embarrassing failure and then made them a huge success.

Stinziano said Samsung is leader in UHD-TV, and that the company expects to sell 60 million UHD sets in 2017. “UHD,” he said, “will drive TV growth for Samsung.” Samsung’s UHD sets for 2014 will have screen sizes ranging from 50 to 110 inches, will feature a technology call PurColor that extends color gamut and purity (but was not described in more detail than that), and will embody UHD upscaling that provides near-native-4K image quality. The sets will accommodate Samsung’s “Evolution Kit,” which will allow UHD sets to receive electronic and firmware upgrades without replacing the set.

Although high-quality upscaling really is good enough to provide enjoyable UHD viewing without native 4K media, Samsung isn’t stopping there. Some native-4K movies will be pre-loaded in their UHD sets, and a 4K streaming service is being developed with Amazon. The sets also contain a faster quad-core processor.

Since Samsung does not have a dedicated game platform, as does another leading consumer electronics company whose name also begins with S, Samsung is including the intelligence so the TV set can serve as a sophisticated game platform.

At the Technicolor Press Breakfast two days later, Samsung and M-Go announced it is an M-Go core embedded in the Samsung chip that will deliver 4K native and up-scaled content. The Samsung sets will presumably earn Technicolor certification. At the press breakfast, M-Go and Technicolor provided a side-by-side demonstration of up-converted vs. native-4K video. Experienced viewers were largely unable to tell the difference between the two at distances much less than typical living-room viewing distances. John Batter of M-Go noted that native-4K programming requires a bandwidth of 15Mb/sec, while upscaled programming optimized for streaming requires as little as 3Mb/sec. Streaming service providers will have some interesting choices to make as time goes on.

At the press event, Samsung described its new 105-inch as “the world’s largest curved UHD TV” and also showed “the world’s first curved UHD TV.” Of course, LG Display also showed “The World’s First 105 inch Ultra HD Curved TV,” which had an aspect ratio of 21:9. For now, let’s agree that both of these Korean competitors make very impressive large curved UHD displays.

Samsung's curved 105-inch display at CES. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Samsung’s curved 105-inch display at CES. (Photo: Ken Werner)

The claim made by both Samsung and LG that 55- and 65-inch TVs with screens having a radius of curvature in the vicinity of 15 feet provide “a more immersive experience” for viewers is not supported either by geometry or personal experience. However, when the screen has a 105-inch diagonal and a 21:9 aspect ratio, the claim for curvature offering a more immersive viewing experience has more credibility. Samsung also increased the “immersiveness” of moderately sized curved displays by tiling a bunch of them side to side. The result was impressive, and this approach should have significant appeal for digital signage.

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Tiling moderately sized, curved displays side by side can provide an impressive experience for digital signage. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Both at the press event and in its large booth on the show floor, Samsung showed a moderately sized OLED display that could be bent from flat to gently curved by small motors whirring away inside the case. Since I’m not convinced that moderately sized curved displays make any sense, I’m even less convinced that it makes sense to bend such a display from flat to curved and back again. But the gadget drew lots of attention, and that was probably its main function. Besides, we all need an extra button on our remote controls.

Samsung's bendable TV with the corner pushed out into the screen's curved configuration. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Samsung’s bendable TV with the corner pushed out into the screen’s curved configuration. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Market share produces industry influence, along with resources for R&D, product design, marketing, elaborate exhibits at CES, and huge press events. Samsung has that, and has made the most of it with steady, professional management; talented engineering; good product management; and the patience to allow long-term projects to come to fruition. And they can also indulge in the whimsy of whirring motors bending OLED displays. Samsung is truly king of the TV hill, which doesn’t mean that aggressive competitors aren’t trying their best to scramble up it.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Consumer Television: It’s Business As Usual (Or Maybe Not)

The official numbers haven’t been released yet, but a report in The Korea Herald, dated January 22 says that the final data will show Samsung dominated the global television business in 2013.

According to the story, Samsung was estimated to have sold 49 million units of flat-panel TVs last year. DisplaySearch had the totals at 32 million from January through September (the final DisplaySearch numbers for 2013 haven’t been compiled yet) and Yoon Boo-keun, Samsung’s consumer electronics division chief, stated at CES earlier this month that the company sold around 15 million TVs in Q4.

That’s an impressive number by anyone’s standards and reflects the complete dominance Samsung has in the television business. Think back 20 years to when Samsung was an afterthought; perceived as a 3rd-tier “bargain” brand for electronics.

Now, they’re on top of the heap, and have been so for eight consecutive years. In the meantime, LG looks to maintain its grip on 2nd place, with a varying market share number in the low to mid-teens throughout 2013. Between the two companies, they control over 40% of the worldwide television business.

The Japanese, on the other hand, will no doubt be disappointed by the final numbers for ’13. In the third quarter; Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp were hovering around 8%, 6%, and 5% market share respectively – and those numbers are expected to drop when the final tally comes in.

As I noted in my last DD, Panasonic seems to be charting a course away from televisions, based on what they didn’t show at CES (a full line-up of 2014 models) and their emphasis on commercial sales of everything from cameras and storage devices to digital signs and batteries. And of course, Panasonic pulled the plug on plasma panel and TV manufacturing at the end of December.

The other remaining player in televisions – Toshiba – took a similar approach to their CES booth, choosing to show a wide variety of 4K (Ultra HD) display applications for home and office and skipping the TV line-up. Toshiba has already shut down two manufacturing plants and laid off over 3,000 employees because of continued losses in television and computer manufacturing.

That leaves Sony and Sharp. The former continues to stay the course in sales and marketing of consumer TVs, but I’d be surprised if they don’t turn in yet another year of red ink – the ninth in a row. Sharp, meanwhile, has chosen to emphasize their super-sized lineup of TVs, plus clever engineering tricks like the Quattron+ line and their ability to manufacture IGZO TFTs with decent yields.

The problem for both companies is their uninterrupted slide in television market share that has been going on for eight years. With a 5% share worldwide and 3% in the United States as of Q3 2013, Sharp can’t afford to stay in this game for much longer. Neither can Sony, if they are serious about returning a profit to shareholders.

It doesn’t help matters that television sales are expected to have declined worldwide by 2.2% from 2012 when the accountants are done. The double-digit boom in TV sales in China kept that number from being a lot worse.

Amid the flurry of post-CES news stories about curved, super-sized UHDTVs was another item that went almost unnoticed, except for the sharp eyes of analyst Paul Gagnon of NPD DisplaySearch. In his blog post of January 17, Gagnon revealed how three retailers in the United Kingdom are already discounting LG’s “first to market” 55-inch curved OLED TV (55EA980W) by £3,000 ($4,910).

This product, which launched on these shores in July of 2013 for nearly $15,000, saw its price drop in the U.S by nearly $6,000 one month later when Samsung rolled out their own curved 55-inch model for about $9,000. And now – just seven months later – the LG model is selling in the U.K. for £4,999 ($8,178), almost one-half of its original sticker price. (Perhaps they overestimated demand?)

And the cannibalizing of TV prices continues unabated. On the last day of CES, Vizio announced its prices for a line of full-array LED 4K (UHDTV) “smart” LCD models – and they aren’t much higher than conventional LED “smart” TVs from LG and Samsung.

Case in point: The 50-inch P502ui-B1 will retail for $1,000, while the 55-inch version will have a sticker price of $1,400. The P602ui-B3 is set at $1,800, and the 65-inch model will command $2,199. Finally, a 70-inch skew (P702ui-B3) will be offered at $2,600. Consider that Samsung and Sony are trying to peddle 55-inch 4K LCD smart TVs for about $2,900 right now and you can clearly see the train wreck coming.

Summing up: Samsung dominates the consumer television world – business as usual. Panasonic and Toshiba de-emphasize TVs at CES – maybe not. Sony and Sharp keep pouring money into consumer television manufacturing and marketing, even though they are incurring substantial losses – business as usual. LG and Vizio slashing prices on OLEDs and 4K TVs – definitely not!

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article mistakenly quoted the discount applied to the LG 55EA980W as the actual selling price. The article has been updated on January 29 to reflect the correct selling price and discount of this TV.

Quantum Dot Makers Defy Conventional Wisdom

It has become conventional wisdom that the two major quantum-dot display-enhancement approaches — the flattened glass cylinder of QD Vision and the polymer sheet of Nanosys/3M — have there own natural market segments, and this conventional wisdom has been supported by statements from the two camps.

QD Vision’s “Color IQ” glass element, which is incorporated in Sony’s Triluminos color-enhancement system, grows linearly with screen diagonal. 3M’s Quantum Dot Enhancement Film, which can be substituted for the diffuser film in an LCD backlight, grows with the square of the screen diagonal. It seems logical that at a certain point the cost of QDEF for larger screens would significantly exceed that of the Color IQ element, so the natural market segment for Color IQ would be large screens and the natural segment for QDEF would be small and medium screens.

And that’s how things started out. QD Vision’s first major design win was in high-end Sony Bravia TV sets, and QDEF’s was in the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7.0 and 8.9 inch tablets, in which the QDEF increases the color gamut from 60% to 72% NTSC and enables a significant improvement in battery life.

But at CES HiSense introduced a UHD-TV quantum-dot “Wide Gamut TV,” which uses QDEF film rather than Color IQ. These sets, with a maximum size of 85 inches, will enter the Chinese market in March and the U.S. market this summer.

Vaio Pro Ultrabooks TriluminosThen, if you looked closely in the Sony booth, you could see VAIO Pro Ultrabooks and Flip PCs with Triluminos displays So much for conventional wisdom. Sony wasn’t making much fuss about the Triluminos displays in its high-end notebooks at CES, but the opposite is true on the Sony Store website. The Triluminos displays appear to be available on the 11.6- and 13.3-inch VAIO Pro Ultrabooks and on the 13.3-, 14-, and 15.5-inch Flip PCs. All of these displays are Full HD.  By the way, in addition to having a FHD Triluminos display, the Sony VAIO Flip sports a very clever slide-and-flip mechanism for converting between PC, tablet, stand, and easel configurations.

So, what has happened to change the conventional wisdom? Nanosys tells me that if all things were equal, the conventional wisdom might apply, but that QD Vision has to use a greater density of QDs than 3M does, so the cost difference in large screens is less than was originally anticipated. I do not yet have an answer for the opposite question: Why is it economical to use the Color IQ element for smaller screens? I hope that QD Vision’s Seth Coe-Sullivan will be answer that question at the SID Los Angeles Chapter’s One Day Symposium on Advanced Television Technologies being held February 7 at the Costa Mesa Country Club (http://www.sid.org/Chapters/Americas/LosAngelesChapter/Symposium.aspx). 3M’s Eric Joste will also be speaking. Gentlemen, now you know some of the questions we will be directing your way in Costa Mesa.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

The RCA Brand Prospers

RCA, the iconic company that — more than any other — brought color television to the consumer mass market was dissolved years ago. But its brand has survived and sometimes prospered. The brand is owned and licensed by Technicolor. After some mis-steps in years past, Technicolor is now managing the brand in an intelligent and unusually hands-on fashion.

For the last four years, the brand has been licensed to the ON Corporation of Seongnam, Korea, which will continue to manufacture RCA TV sets for the U.S. and some other markets until at least 2020. ON has the license for TV production and distribution only, with other companies having the licenses for “video tablets,” telephones, and accessories. However, an indication of the way Technicolor is managing the brand could be seen in the RCA booth, which combined ON Corp’s RCA TVs, Digital Stream’s mobile RCA TVs, and Telefield’s RCA business telephones. If you didn’t know better, you might think that RCA still existed as a company.

ON Corp US positions its TV models on the value end of the spectrum, but not at the bottom of it. The sets don’t look cheap, and the design of the higher-end sets, with ultra-thin bezels, is attractive. RCA is entering the 4Kx2K (or Ultra HD) TV market this year with three screen sizes: 55, 65, and 84 inches. These sets have LED backlights and smart TV functions. The Android (formerly Google) TV platform built into each of the sets provides an integrated on-screen interface with access to cable/satellite TV, apps and online content, including more than 100,000 on-demand movies and TV episodes, and thousands of YouTube channels. The UHD-TV sets all have a native 4K resolution of 3840 x 2160.

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The RCA 65-inch UHD-TV with smart functions provided by the Google TV platform. The set was described as having a “curved design,” which refers the the curved bar of the base, not to the screen being curved rather than flat. (Photo: ON Corp)

“Our first Ultra HD TVs are priced very competitively because we anticipate 2014 to be a pivotal year for this new class of TVs as more consumers become exposed to the striking picture quality that is possible with virtually any source material,” said Jonathan Zupnik, ON Corp US Executive VP of Marketing.

Smart features include the Google Chrome web browser; Google’s PrimeTime guide, which permits browsing channels while streaming or watching live TV and recommends shows based on personal preferences; Google TV Search for quickly finding shows by title, channel name, actor, or genre; and voice search.

RCA says the higher-end sets have a “curved design,” but that refers to the curved-bar base, not to the screen. Zupnik said he did not anticipate people might think RCA was referring to a curved screen. Indeed, all of the RCA models have flat, rather than curved, screens. Zupnik said that ON Corp has built curved-screen sets but decided not to make them part of the U.S. line-up or to show them at CES. “I’m very cautious about curved screens,” Zupnik said.

The less expensive tier of RCA sets are HDTV rather than UHD-TV, and implement their smart TV features with a Roku Streaming Stick, which provides access to over a thousand entertainment channels. Some of the sets simply provide an exposed MHL port into which the Roku stick is inserted, but some come with the stick already installed in an MHL port that is concealed behind a simple screw-on panel. Screen sizes for the HDTV line-up run from 28 to 65 inches.

RCA is doing well, said Zupnik, with sales up over 20% in the last year. For an old RCA hand such as yours truly, it’s good to see the old brand prosper. This is surely not what General Sarnoff had in mind for his legacy, but it’s not nothin’ either.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Display Surprises at CES 2014

Some of my fellow analysts have been bemoaning a lack of TV, tablet, and cell-phone innovations at CES 2014. Well, either I have lower standards than my colleagues or a keener eye because I saw quite a few things that surprised, delighted, and horrified me. Here are some of them.

3M’s Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF) using quantum dots from partner Nanosys is now in a high-volume shipping product. 3M was coy about identifying the customer, but partner Nanosys (which supplies the quantum dots used by 3M) didn’t hesitate. QDEF is being used in Kindle Fire HDX 7.0 and 8.9 inch tablets. The 8.9-inch has a 2560×1600-pixel display withg 339 pixels per inch (ppi), and uses QDEF to increase the color gamut from 60% to 72% NTSC. This is a noticeable although not extreme improvement, but Amazon asked 3M and Nanosys to optimize the system to significantly improve battery life, even if that meant only a modest improvement in gamut. They did. Battery life is substantially improved.

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Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 with QDEF (right) is tuned to give moderately better color gamut and much better power consumption. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Plasma is not dead yet, despite Panasonic pulling the plug.  ChangHong will sell plasma TVs in the U.S. this year in 43-, 51-, and 60-inch sizes. LG says it will continue to sell plasma in 2014. If Samsung said anything, I missed it.

HiSense introduced a 4K quantum-dot “Wide Gamut TV,” which uses QDEF film rather than the QD Vision rail. It will enter the Chinese market in March; U.S. in the summer. Maximum size is 85 inches, and there is an H.265 decoder built in.

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Professional high-dynamic-range technology at consumer prices? Sharp is working on it. We could see an HDR TV in 2015, a Sharp booth rep said. (Photo: Ken Werner)

In addition to the impressive AQUOS Quattron+, which I described at some length in a previous post (http://www.hdtvexpert.com/?p=3517), Sharp showed a a high-dynamic range TV prototype using Dolby technology. What’s surprising is that the highly effective Dolby technology has only been used until now for very expensive professional monitors. It would be impressive if Sharp can bring the technology’s cost down to high-end consumer levels. A Sharp rep said products could appear in 2015.

Samsung showed an OLED display that could be bent from flat to gently curved by small motors whirring away inside the case. Lots of oohs and aahs from the assembled. Is this good for anything? Beats me, but I did say this was going to be a list things that were surprising. That doesn’t mean useful.

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Horizontal tiling of curved displays provides the immersive feeling that single curved displays of modest size do not. This has real applications for digital signage. (Photo: Ken Werner)

Samsung and others did find ways to do something (potentially) useful with curved displays. The radius of curvature for curved TVs is so large (roughly 15 feet) that it really makes little sense for 55- and 65-inch screens. But Samsung extended the curve by tiling a bunch of these curved screens side to side. Definite applications for digital signage. LG showed a 105-inch curved display. At that size, the claim for curvature offering a more immersive viewing experience has credibility.

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LG Display’s curved 105-inch OLED-TV is big enough to provide the immersive experience that smaller curved displays do not. (Photo: Ken Werner)

WebOS may finally have found a reason for living as the OS for LG smart TVs. Of the 25 new TV models LG will introduce this year, 56% will have WebOS. Research shows most people think smart TV is too complicated, which inspired LG to position WebOS as the “intuitive OS optimized for the Web.”

Pixelworks has taken its motion-estimation and motion-compensation (MEMC) chip, which burns 5 watts in TV sets, and produced a very-low-power version for mobile devices. The TV version of the chip is in some LG sets now, and Skyworth has announced another design win for the chip. The video processing chip takes 24 frame-per-second (fps) content and and converts it to 120, thus producing a major improvement in judder. As we spend more time watching video on our small personal screens, we are likely to get impatient with the motion artifacts that have already been dealt with on our living-room TVs. A side-by-side demo in Pixelworks’ suite was impressive.

It may not be a surprise in principle, but actually seeing the combination of OLED and 4K is VERY impressive.

Not all 4K TVs are beautiful. The 55-inch S1 model from New Century Optronics was truly terrible, with serious comb artifacts (when was the last time you saw a comb artifact?), bad judder, and resolution that looked more like 2K than 4K. At least the U13 model looked like 4K, but it too exhibited serious judder.

Chinese OLED TVs in 2014. Chinese TV giant TCL showed 30.5-inch and 55-inch FHD OLED-TVs. The sets will be launched in China next month, and in the U.S. in Q2 or Q3. The 55-inch has a color gamut of 100% NTSC. A TCL rep said the OLED panel in the 30.5-inch is manufactured by TCL and the panel in the 55-inch is manufactured by a partner. That probably means that the 30.5-inch is produced by China Star Optoelectronics Technology (CSOT), which is a business unit of TCL.

LG Display’s OLED manufacturing yield to rise sharply. It is no secret that the manufacturing yields of LGD’s OLED TV panels were so low last year — estimates were between 10% and 30% — that they severely impacted the number of panels that could be produced and kept their cost high. Now, LGD executives tell me the internal yield target for the new OLED plant opening in Q3 is 75%.

Panasonic Lumix “hybrid photography.” Now that digital “still” cameras also capture motion video, manufacturers are trying to figure out what what they can do with this combination of abilities. Nikon 1 cameras can bracket a still photo with a short video clip. Panasonic’s “hybrid photography” may turn out to be more useful. It produces a largely still image with moving elements: among the demos was a woman’s still face with softly moving hair. The file should be only slightly larger than a traditional still shot, but still provide motion. We’ll see how consumers respond.

Perhaps I’m easily amused, but I left CES 2014 not only exhausted, but also convinced that there were lots of entertaining surprises to be sniffed out by display bloodhounds.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.