Category: The Front Line

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.

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?