Posts Tagged ‘4K TV’

Mixed Signals about UHDTV

Earlier this week, there were a few “coincidental” press events and trade shows, all in New York City or just across the river in New Jersey. And all of them featured discussions about or demonstrations of UHDTV technology.

First off was the CES 2014 Unveiled event, held at the Metropolitan Pavilion. The morning and part of the afternoon were taken up by an Ultra HD Conference, which featured several panel discussions and a keynote address during lunch. The first panel, titled “Ultra HD: An Evolution, or Revolution?” featured executives from LG, Sony, Toshiba, and Sharp, and set the table for many ad hoc discussions later on in the day, such as (a) does the public REALLY want or understand UHDTV, and (b) will UHDTV stimulate a stagnating market for televisions?

The second panel, moderated by Deborah McAdams of TV Technology, was called “Native Ultra HD Content: Where’s The Beef?” and addressed the elephant in the room; namely, where is 4K video content going to come from, and how will we get it into the home? Panelists from the ATSC, the Digital Entertainment Group, and Rovi tackled those questions, while yet another group discussed “Taking Ultra HD to Retail” later in the day.

LG's 77-inch 4K curved OLED TV wowed attendees at the CES event.

LG’s 77-inch 4K curved OLED TV wowed attendees at the CES event.

 

Given that this was a CEA event, we did hear a lot of positive spin and wishful thinking about Ultra HD (UHDTV). And that’s not surprising, considering that the actual outlook for television sales for the upcoming holiday selling season isn’t all that wonderful. According to Shawn DuBravac of CEA, consumer spending on technology gifts is expected to increase in 2013 by just 2.6% over 2012, with tablet (14%) and notebook computers (12%) leading televisions (11%) as the most desired gifts on holiday wish lists. (Smartphones tied with videogame consoles at 7%.)

More tellingly; when survey participants were asked why they would adjust their holiday gift expenditures lower, 67% replied that they already have what gadgets they need and 68% said they had concerns about the economy. An additional 66% said they didn’t have the money, while 64% cited the increased cost of living as a reason to cut back on spending. None of that is good news for a new class of 4K televisions that retail for about $65 per diagonal inch, quite a premium above the $15 per diagonal inch that 2K LCD and plasma TVs sell for.

The following day, across the reviver at the Meadowlands Convention Center, I taught a class on HDMI troubleshooting at the Almo E4 Expo. This show, which is focused on the commercial AV industry, featured plenty of large screen displays from Sharp, Panasonic, Samsung, and others. And the discussions largely focused on the challenge of moving 4K content around a facility.

Would HDMI 2.0 be good enough? (Not for high frame rate 2160p content with deep color.) How about DisplayPort 1.2? (Yes, it is fast enough to handle 2160p/60 with 10-bit color, but needs to get faster.) Who is using DisplayPort? (Not enough manufacturers to date, although it appears to be the interface of choice for a growing number of digital signage media players.) Are there 4K media players available? (Yes, but in very limited quantities from a handful of manufacturers.)

Panasonic's first-in-class 4K Toughpad will be yours for all of $6,000.

Panasonic’s first-in-class 4K Toughpad will be yours for all of $6,000.

 

One day later, the CCW / SATCON show at the Javits Center had several panel discussions and presentations focused on the nitty-gritty of capturing, editing, and distributing 4K workflows. Several booths featured 4K monitors (Panasonic had both their 4K Toughpad tablet and 31.5” 4K reference LCD monitor at the show), plus 4K encoding/decoding solutions and camera interfaces. Once again, the biggest challenge appeared to be moving enormous amounts of data around reliably and quickly.

I had an interesting sidebar discussion with veteran journalist Stewart Wolpin at the CEA event. I stated that the Chinese are going to wreak havoc on the UHDTV market as they ramp up glass production and slash prices. Wolpin replied that he didn’t see it as a problem: “Who is going to give these brands (TCL, Haier, ChangHong, etc.) any shelf space? They don’t have much if any presence in the U.S. now and just won’t be competitive with the established TV brands. They’re really more concerned with making tons of money selling TVs in their own country.”

True, China is the only part of the world where there is growth in TV sales Y-Y right now. But they have become a presence to reckon with, if for no other reason than they can make inexpensive 4K TVs with all of the bells and whistles that sell for about as much as a 1st-tier 2K TV. TCL has shipped a 50-inch 4K TV that will retail for $999, and Seiki is also raising eyebrows with their recent announcement of a 65-inch 4K TV for $2,999.

It would be a fool’s errand to predict just how fast UHDTV will be embraced by consumers. Not all parts of the ecosystem are in place yet (HDMI limitations and the lack of H.265 encoder chips are just two stumbling blocks), and there’s still the issue of content delivery to be addressed.

Even so, the trend towards using 4K glass in larger LCD (and eventually, OLED) TVs is pretty clear. Remember the days of 720p and 1080p TVs? The move to 4K will follow a similar pattern, especially where LCD panel manufacturers are seeing little or no profit cranking out 2K glass.

So – UHDTV is definitely coming, from this analyst’s perspective. How fast is still hard to tell. Check back in a year!

Tough Times Ahead For Toshiba

Toshiba, that industrial giant and manufacturer of everything from notebook computers to copiers, lighting equipment, and electronic components, is shutting down two of its overseas television manufacturing facilities and laying off about 3,000 employees worldwide from its “visual products businesses” (their words).

While we hear almost weekly about the struggles of Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic to attain profitability in the TV business, we don’t hear much about Toshiba. Given what we do know – they source their LCD panels from other manufacturers and have a worldwide market share below 5% – it should be no surprise that the company is struggling to make ends meet with televisions.

Last August, Toshiba’s CEO Hisao Tanaka stated in a Wall Street Journal interview that he would not “…pull the plug on the company’s unprofitable television and personal-computer operations, shunning the “easy option” of exiting cutthroat competition for a chance to reclaim its former prominence in the businesses.”

Another quote from the story is apt: “There’s a perception that a conglomerate with a lot of businesses may cancel out the benefits [of size],” said Mr. Tanaka, explaining the so-called conglomerate discount. “I think we can use a lot of the technologies that we as a conglomerate have by integrating or merging them and turn the discount into a premium.”

The WSJ story detailed how Toshiba had been profitable overall the past three fiscal years, lifted by sales in flash memory and power equipment. Those profits must have been substantial to overcome losses exceeding ¥50 billion ($512 million) at its TV operations in each of the past two years.

Tanaka’s plan in August was to move 400 Japanese employees out of the TV and personal computer operations and cut back on the number of TV models in the line. Well, it looks like things took a bit of a turn for the worse since then.

Toshiba’s 9/30 press release states that the company will “…increase products from original design manufacturers (ODMs) in the global market from the current rate of about 40% to 70% by FY 2014. The company further plans to reduce fixed costs and improve productivity by reducing the number of ODMs and models, and by integrating manufacturing facilities.”

Translation: Toshiba will out-source manufacturing of what remaining LCD TVs it sells to the tune of 70% of its product line, and it’s a good bet most of those TVs will come from Chinese factories. Toshiba also plans to merge its television and CE operations with its appliance operations, creating a new entity known as Toshiba Consumer Electronics Corporation.

Intriguingly, it also appears that Toshiba is going all-in with UHDTV. “Toshiba will allocate resources to large-screen Ultra HD (4K) LCD TVs, where growing demand is expected, to differentiated functions for viewing and recording…the company will also reinforce development of visual products for business applications, including digital signage, another area where demand is growing.”

More intriguingly, the press release stated that “…Toshiba will focus on emerging markets including Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, where growth in demand is expected. In addition, Toshiba will end sales in unprofitable regions.” Hmmm…could one of those “unprofitable regions” be North America?

In summary, another venerable Japanese TV brand has been decimated by the brutal economics of the 21st century, where Korean TV brands are playing Family Feud with curved OLED TVs while the Chinese are quietly but aggressively establishing a beachhead in 4K LCD TV manufacturing.

Toshiba sure talks a good game. Now, can they “walk the talk?”

Who ARE Those Guys?

A recent article on the Reuters Web site details how Chinese LCD TV manufacturers are quickly gaining ground on Korean TV heavyweights LG and Samsung – and they’ve used UHDTV, a barely-hatched technology, to do it.

According to the Reuters story, LG and Samsung were so focused on one-upping each other in the still-gestating OLED TV business that mainland brands like BOE Technology and TCL and Taiwan-based Innolux and AU Optronics managed to sneak into the party and capture significant sales of 4K UHDTV sets using conventional  LCD technology.

Until last year, a paltry 33,000 UHDTV sets had been sold worldwide (200M 2K and 720p LCD TVs were sold during the same time period). But shipments of 4K TVs have since multiplied by 20 times, based on data from IHS. And the Chinese are a big reason why.

In a rare moment of candor, LG Display’s CEO Han Sang-beom was quoted as saying, “…I have to admit that we hadn’t fully appreciated the potential of the UHD market. We assumed it’ll be too early for this type of display to take off, and thus didn’t think much of having diverse UHD product line-ups, especially in the low end. But I think we are not late just yet and we are working hard to lead the market here.”

In Q2 ‘13, BOE Technology reported an 8.9 percent operating profit margin, while China Star Optoelectronics Technology (CSOT), a unit of TCL Corp, achieved a 9.6 percent margin. LG Display, the world’s No.1 LCD maker, posted a 5.6 percent margin, while Samsung Display, a unit of Samsung Electronics, had a whopping margin of 13 percent. But take out the OLED business and Samsung’s LCD margin drops to somewhere between 3 and 7 percent.

To show you just how severely the winds have changed against Japanese TV manufacturers, Sharp Corporation – the company that basically invented the LCD TV – reported a 0.5 percent profit margin for Q2 ’13, after several quarters of red ink.

Can the Chinese do to Korea what the Koreans did to the Japanese? It’s entirely possible: During the same Q1 ’13, global TV shipments grew by 4% Y-Y, according to NPD DisplaySearch. But all of that growth was in mainland China, where TV shipments ramped up an astonishing 28% Y-Y. Take out those numbers from the overall worldwide shipments total, and LCD TV shipments actually declined almost 4% Y-Y.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a flurry of 4K and UHDTV announcements from Panasonic, Sony, and now Sharp. The latter, which unveiled a 70-inch 4K set (LC-70UD1U) at CE Week back in June, is now shipping it and the SRP (so far) is $7,500. Keep in mind that Sony brought out its LGD-manufactured 84-inch 4K LCD TV for $25K a year ago; LG dropped that price by $5K not to long after, and JVC’s 4K monitor version (also using the same LGD panel) is available for $15K.

Samsung and Sony both have 4K LCD TVs in the 55″ – 65″ range that are retailing for about $90 – $100 per diagonal inch. That’s quite a drop from the nearly $300/diagonal inch that Sony started out with in 2012!

There’s no question that everyone is jumping the gun on pricing, and it’s most likely due to worries about the new crop of UHDTVs from from what is becoming the world’s fastest-growing market for consumer electronics devices.

It took over a decade for 2K HDTV to really get established in the market. Then, prices collapsed, and with them, operating margins. Will 4K follow that same timetable, or will it make even faster inroads?

Fans of the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid will recall how those two fled the U.S. for supposedly safer quarters in South America. And yet, their pursuers stayed doggedly on their trail, following them all the way to Bolivia. “Who ARE those guys?” asked Robert Redford, over and over as they were flushed from yet another supposedly-secure hiding place.

Now, Samsung, LG, and Japan Inc. may very well be asking the same thing…

 

Guess What, LG? Samsung’s Got a 55-inch Curved OLED TV, Too.

Yesterday at the cavernous Cipriani’s Restaurant in New York City, Samsung let us in on what had to be the worst-kept secret of 2013: They’re bringing a 55-inch curved OLED TV to market.

By “worst-kept,” I don’t mean to imply that any Samsung employees or PR agency personnel broke any embargo rules. No, they did a fine job keeping mum until the noontime press conference.

But Samsung had previously shown this product at CES. And so had LG (three of ‘em, to be exact). When LG announced earlier this month that they had begun shipments of their $15K 55-inch curved OLED, you just knew that Samsung would answer in short order with not just one, but multiple volleys.

And answer they did! The KN55S9C is Samsung’s official entry into the OLED television market. Like the LG product, it has a slight curved screen. Unlike LG’s version, it uses RGB OLED emitters (LG employs a white OLED emitter design with color filters). And unlike the LG product, Samsung’s OLED TV will sell for less than $10,000.

In fact, the SRP for the KN559SC is $8,999.99 (OK, let’s round it up to $9,000), which should result in a price drop from the folks in Englewood Cliffs pretty quickly. Analysts have wondered just where the market for OLED TVs would start, and $10K is quite a bit below where I targeted.

 

Samsung sure knows how to stage a new product launch.

Samsung sure knows how to stage a new product launch.

Remember the Pioneer KURO plasma TVs? These look even better.

Remember the Pioneer KURO plasma TVs? The KN55S9Cs look even better than those. And they’re brighter, too.

One reason may be that Samsung is getting better-than-expected yields on their large OLED panels. (The company confirmed that, but would not be specific about actual yields.) I’ve heard that LG Display’s yields range anywhere from 10% to 30%, but would think the lower number is more realistic. So Samsung may be seeing yields in the range of 20% or so.

The pixel structure in the KN559SC is intriguing. There are actually two dark blue pixels for every single red and green pixel. (See photo.) And Samsung claims to have some sort of brightness compensation circuit to offset differential aging of the dark blue pixels. Well, running two of them at half-brightness would certainly extend their half-brightness lifetime. (The blue color materials are licensed from Universal Display Corporation in Ewing, NJ.)

This micro view of the KN55S9C shows the red, green, and blue pixel array. Notice that the blue pixels are twice the size of the red and green pixels.

This micro view of the KN55S9C shows the red, green, and blue pixel array. Notice that the blue pixels are larger than the red and green pixels.

One cool feature that Samsung showed was MultiView. OLEDs, being emissive devices like plasma display panels, have very fast on/off cycling speeds. So switching at high frame rates like 120 and 240 Hz is a walk in the park for them.

Samsung uses this characteristic to show two different video programs simultaneously, using 3D active shutter glasses to open on either the even or odd-numbered video frames (not fields). With MultiView, one person could be watching a basketball game while the other is enjoying a soap opera. Texas Instruments also showed this trick over a decade ago at CES and CEDIA Expo, using Samsung DLP rear-projection TVs.

Samsung's MultiView technology lets two viewers watch two different TV programs at the same time (even 3D) while wearing active shutter glasses.

Samsung’s MultiView technology lets two viewers watch two different TV programs at the same time (even 3D) while wearing active shutter glasses.

 

It would take a lot of upstage an 85-inch 4K TV...and apparently, a 55-inch curved OLED TV is "a lot."

It would take a lot to upstage an 85-inch 4K TV…and apparently, a 55-inch curved OLED TV is “a lot.”

Almost overlooked at the event were Samsung’s UHD TVs. In addition to 55-inch and 65-inch models, the new 85-incher took a bow (I saw it previously at NAB and CES). These sets have spectacular image quality, but you’ll pay about $1K per diagonal inch for the smaller sets and a cool $40K for the 85-inch version. Look for major adjustments on those prices as the Chinese TV manufacturers start pushing more 4K product into the US market.

All of these TVs come with Samsung’s Smart TV Smart Hub feature, and each is future-proofed with the Evolution Kit interface for OS and other updates. One trend we’re starting to see is exterior frames with suspended TV screens inside them, as the 85-inch and 110-inch LCD sets from CES were shown. Now, the KN559SC borrows from this styling with a glossy black frame surrounding the TV, giving the impression that it floats. Pretty cool.

Will we see comparable products from Sony and Panasonic? Both companies have shown 56-inch 4K OLED TVs, but these products aren’t anywhere near ready for prime time. And Sony’s introduction of quantum dot backlights on their Triluminous LCD TVs took color reproduction to a new level, probably extending the dominance of LCD technology for a few more years.

Keep your eye on both the LG and Samsung TV products to see if (a) market demand is there, even at these higher prices, (b) differential aging of the blue pixels manifests as a problem or not, and (c) 4K versions of these products are announced later his year, or at the 2014 CES. That will tell you how committed both companies are to the technology…

Is Toshiba Spitting Into The Wind?

Toshiba CEO Hisao Tanaka was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying he wouldn’t give up on the company’s money-losing television and computer business units.

Toshiba has lost over $500M in each of the past two years in its television business, and its personal computer operations are also coming up short as more consumers turn away from laptops in favor of tablets and large smartphones.

In terms of market share, Toshiba’s TV revenues definitely fall into the “other” category. NPD DisplaySearch’s final numbers for 2012 show Samsung with nearly 28% of worldwide TV shipments, followed by LG at 15% and the grouping of Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp combined making up 19%.

That leaves 38% for “other” and that group includes third-tier brands form China, which are growing rapidly and taking more market share every year. The last time Toshiba had any substantial market share was about two years ago when they captured 7% of the worldwide TV business. But they’ve fallen to #6 behind Sharp, who is barely hanging on to a 5% market share.

Tanaka told the Journal that Toshiba would shuffle around some employees and cut back on the number of TV models it produces. Readers may recall that Toshiba made a big splash a couple of years ago with autostereo 3D TVs at CES and continues to demo them, even though demand for 3D TVs has largely dissipated. Toshiba is also a player in 4K, with a 55-inch offering and a new 84-inch (LG Display) TV coming to market.

Many analysts (myself included) fully expected Toshiba to throw in the towel after Hitachi pulled the plug on its TV operations more than a year ago. You can still find Hitachi TVs in some retail chains, but these are merely OEM products made in Taiwan or China that have the Hitachi name slapped on them. Toshiba was expected to do the same since they do not manufacture LCD glass for televisions but buy it from various manufacturers.

What keeps the company going are profitable operating units that manufacture flash memory and power equipment, according to the WSJ story. You may recall that Toshiba did at one time manufacture small LCD panels and has also dabbled in SM OLED manufacturing, so the company is quite diversified and still able to overcome the losses from TV manufacturing and sales. And Toshiba even brought out a line of 10-inch tablets in 2011, named “Thrive.”

That’s not to say that the company is willfully stubborn. Not that many years ago, Toshiba did throw in the towel on front projectors. The company had a full line of home theater and business projectors as recently as three years ago, but couldn’t carve out enough market share to justify the expense and effort, so they simply walked away from the business.

Does Toshiba really have a trick up its sleeve? Can it become profitable again with televisions? That’s unlikely, as all of the major Japanese TV brands are trying to reverse flows of red ink, and some of them even manufacture their own LCD panels.

Tanaka said in the interview that he thinks TV sets and computers are an important part of creating “smart communities” and that health care will be a big part of the company’s focus in years to come. Toshiba certainly hasn’t given up on innovation (witness their autostereo and 4K projects) and they still have strong brand recognition worldwide.

Who knows? Maybe the winds will change direction?