Posts Tagged ‘4K TV’

The End Of One Era And The Start Of Another

Panasonic, a long-time leader in consumer electronics announced on Tuesday (May 31) that it would stop manufacturing large LCD panels for televisions at its Himeji fab in western Japan. Production will wind down this summer and stop completely in September, with the balance of IPS LCD panels going to transportation and medical markets.

Himeji was a relatively new fab, having come inline in 2010. This is where Panasonic’s IPS-Alpha LCD TVs were born even as the company’s plasma TV manufacturing business was going into a nosedive. And that line of TVs was well-received by the trade press and the general public.

But it turned out that LCD panel manufacturing in Japan is a costly effort, compared to manufacturing in Korea and China. Indeed; many Panasonic LCD TVs use glass that’s made across the China Sea, and that trend goes back a couple of years. According to a story on the Reuters Web site, “…the plant has never logged a profit during years of heavy price competition with South Korean and Chinese rivals.”

It doesn’t help that Panasonic has virtually no U.S. market share in LCD TVs, having fallen behind Vizio and Hisense even as competitors like Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, and Hitachi have all packed it in over the past decade. And with all of the company’s eggs in the plasma basket for many years, they were late to wake up and smell the coffee.

A quick online check of Best Buy, HH Gregg, and Fry’s Web sites showed no listings for Panasonic TVs – not even among Ultra HD models. So I went to the company’s U.S. Web site and searched again, finding six models of Ultra HDTVs ranging in size from 50 inches to 85 inches – and all of them carried the notation “Not available.”

I got the same results when I clicked on “View All TVs,” and actually got a smaller selection of Ultra HD models to peruse. So no major retailer carries Panasonic TVs now. (Not even Sears, which actually has a Kenmore line of HDTVs and even 4K TVs!)

Some really nice-looking Ultra HDTVs here...but ya can't buy them.

Some really nice-looking Ultra HDTVs here…but ya can’t buy them.

According to the Reuters story, “The decision to close the (Himeji LCD TV panel) business comes after Panasonic scrapped a company-wide revenue target of 10 trillion yen ($90.1 billion) for the year through March 2019 to focus on profitability.” Based on what I found out, it would appear that the entire TV business in North America (if not elsewhere) is also at an end.

Ironically, I just received an invite from Panasonic’s PR agency to come see their new Blu-ray player (DMP-UB900) at the company’s corporate headquarters in a few weeks. So my question now becomes, “Why are you showing me an Ultra HD Blu-ray player when you don’t seem to have any Ultra HDTV models to go with it?”

Puzzling indeed, especially in light of the rapid move away from 1080p (Full HD) televisions to Ultra HD models that’s taking place all over the world! And you need no further proof than to go on the aforementioned big box store Web sites and take a gander at the selection of Full HD and Ultra HDTV models.

A quick search showed that Best Buy currently has 108 models of 2160p (Ultra HD) sets for sale, compared to 58 Full HD models and 27 720p models.  The picture isn’t quite as clear at HH Gregg, as they show 133 “LED TVs” (presumably Full HD) and 78 Ultra HD models. And Fry’s shows two different categories for “4K TVs,” although those account for 173 models with Full HD showing 220 models.

As you can see in the left column, Best Buy now has about 50 more models of Ultra HDTVs for sale than Full HD set (they're just SO 2005!).

As you can see in the left column, Best Buy now has about 50 more models of Ultra HDTVs for sale than Full HD set (they’re just SO 2005!).

So what to make of this? Simple – the adoption rate for Ultra HDTV sets is accelerating to the point where (at Best Buy, at least) the offerings now exceed those with Full HD resolution. Keep in mind that the first Ultra HDTVs appeared on our shores not quite four years ago, used the LG 84-inch IPS LCD panel, and cost anywhere between $15,000 and $20,000.

Now, you can buy a first-tier 55-inch Samsung Ultra HD “smart” LCD TV for $700.  As I’m writing this, Vizio has a 50-inch “smart” 4K model for $499, as does Insignia. Westinghouse goes them one better with a 55-inch 4K set for the same price, and LG is clearing out a 49-inch Ultra HD set for $550.  And Hisense recently announced HDR models for less than $600! Mind-boggling.

So here we go at warp speed; zooming into a new world of 4K TVs as Full HD sets fade into the distance, having first appeared a little over a decade ago. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – your next big screen LCD TV is going to be an Ultra HD model, especially if you pick it up in December, or wait a little longer into 2017.

And your new Ultra HDTV will NOT be a Panasonic model, based on what my Web search revealed. In fact, there’s a good chance your next Ultra HDTV could be a Chinese brand, like Hisense or TCL, thanks to their very aggressive pricing. (But make sure your set supports high dynamic range to be future-proof!)

4K, Collapsing Prices, and the Declining Importance of Hardware

As I write this, the 2015 season of the National Football League is about to get underway, with last year’s Super Bowl champion New England Patriots taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers. If you’re not a football fan, why should you care?

Simple: Football, more than any other sport or event, drives the sale of televisions. And the TV business is in a major funk right now.

According to IHS’ latest survey of the global television market, worldwide shipments of TVs fell an astounding 8 percent Y-Y during the second quarter of 2015. Even though LCD TVs now account for almost 99% of all TV shipments, “…LCD TV sales have not made up for the lost volume of cathode-ray tube (CRT) and plasma televisions, which have largely left the marketplace.”

The one bright spot? 4K. The IHS report states, “4K TV was a bright spot in the global TV market, with unit shipments growing 197 percent year over year in Q2 2015, to reach 6.2 million units. The growth in 4K TVs is the direct result of increased price erosion and more affordable tiers of 4K models becoming available.”

I’ve written on numerous occasions that we’re on the cusp of an industry switchover from 1080p resolution to Ultra HD (3840×2160) for precisely this reason, plus the fact that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make any money on the manufacturing and sales of 1080p-resolution LCD panels. That’s part of the reason that Sharp – once the premier brand of LCD televisions – finally threw in the towel and exited the North American television business, selling their Mexican factory and “Sharp” brand to Hisense.

Need proof? Check out the most recent HH Gregg and Best Buy circulars. You can now buy a 48-inch Haier 1080p LCD TV for $298 or a 60-inch LG 1080p smart TV for $898. Want Ultra HD resolution instead? Samsung’s got a curved 55-inch smart model for $1198, and a 60-inch smart set for $1498.

Samsung has slashed the prices on its new S-line of HDR Ultra HDTVs by as much as 20%.

Samsung has slashed the prices on its new S-line of HDR Ultra HDTVs by as much as 20%.

But here’s the kicker: Samsung’s HDR Ultra HDTVs (S-UHD) are almost the same price. A 50-inch model (UN50JS7000) is tagged at $1098 by HH Gregg, while the 55-inch version is $1298. Too expensive? Sharp’s got a 43-inch Ultra HD offering for $598, a 50-inch set for $748, and a 55-inch version for $848. (Not to be left out, LG has cut the price on their 55-inch smart Ultra HDTV to $998, and they’ve also got a 49-inch UHD set for $798.)

Now, step back from that mass of numbers, and think about this: Those are insanely low prices for Ultra HDTVs, which were tagged around $15 – $20K when they first came to these shores in 2012. I know of several friends and acquaintances that had to replace older TVs recently, and every one of them bought an Ultra HD set because of these falling prices.

If overall sales of TVs are falling but 4K TV sales are increasing, it doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing: 4K and Ultra HD are rapidly taking over the TV marketplace for sets larger than 42 inches. This is happening so quickly that by the end of next year, ALL TVs larger than 50 inches will be Ultra HD models.

There’s a bigger message here. The money isn’t in hardware anymore – it’s moving to software. I find it hard to believe that I would spend more in a year for cable TV and Internet service than the cost of an Ultra HDTV, but that’s exactly what’s happening. Content is king, and who cares about the hardware?

So, why are TV sales in decline? It could be for a very simple reason, and that is the average household has a large-enough TV with enough bells and whistles that they see no reason to upgrade. If you already own a 55-inch or 60-inch 1080p set with “smart” functions ( and the all-important Netflix streaming), then the speed of your Internet connection is much more important than adding another 5 inches in screen size or quadrupling your screen resolution.

There’s a corollary in the world of tablets, where sales and shipments are also slowing down much faster than analysts predicted. There are any number of reasons why, but the two most likely culprits are the shift in preferences for larger smartphone screens (“phablets”) and the fact that people just hang onto tablets longer (at least, until their batteries die), often passing them down to children or off to relatives when a new model is purchased.

This shift to 4K and Ultra HD resolution is also impacting the commercial AV industry, which is heading for some serious interfacing issues. More and more of the large displays that will be installed will have Ultra HD resolution. And that will create a major headache for integrators, as the predominant interface for pro AV is still HDMI 1.4, even though version 2.0 was announced two years ago.

None of this is good news for the projector manufacturers, who are struggling to defend their turf from the large, cheap LCD displays. Unlike panel manufacturers, projector brands are moving slowly to adopt 4K resolution, which isn’t surprising because of the cost involved to tool up and manufacture microdisplays with 4K resolution and the much smaller market for projectors.

As for the naysayers who still think 4K is a fad, I would just advise them to wake up and smell the coffee. The world of consumer electronics absolutely drives the world of commercial AV – what’s happening over there is going to happen here, and that means you as an integrator will be installing more and more displays with UHD resolution; from desktop monitors and TVs to single-panel and tiled wall-mounted displays.

Count on it!




Has Sony Finally Seen The Light?

Sony’s ongoing financial woes have been well-documented by this writer over the past few years. Gone are the days when the Tokyo-based electronics giant could invent and own all parts of a media format, like the Walkman and Betacam.

It’s exceedingly difficult to make any money selling hardware to consumers these days, as fellow CE giants Panasonic, Toshiba, and Hitachi have all found out. And one of the biggest loss leaders is the Bravia television business, thanks to cutthroat competition from Samsung and LG, and now Chinese brands like Hisense and TCL.

Sony’s late entry into the LCD television marketplace a little over 10 years ago didn’t help. Back then, the company had OEM deals for LCD and plasma TVs with Pioneer and the aforementioned LG, along with a joint venture with Samsung to manufacture LCD televisions (S-LCD). But even with the Sony brand and decent market share, profits were nowhere to be found.

As losses piled up in the television unit, more red ink started flowing from Sony’s VAIO computer operations (since sold off to Lenovo). And in a real head-scratcher, Sony bought out its share of a mobile phone joint venture from Ericsson, only to see that miscalculation produce even more financial misery than the TV group ever did.

Now, chairman Kazuo Hirai has made it official: Sony will no longer chase higher sales in smartphones, where its Experia models just can’t compete with Samsung and Apple. And Sony won’t get any traction in the world’s largest mobile phone market, China, where home-grown brands like Huawei play a dominant role.

Are the days of

Are the days of “Make Believe” are over at Sony?

Significantly, Hirai also said that he would not rule out an exit strategy for both smartphones and televisions. (Sony’s TV operations were recently spun off as a separate operating unit so their losses can be clearly identified from the rest of the company.) Sony is on track to post a $1.5B loss for the current fiscal year that ends March 31, continuing a string of down years. Layoffs have continued company-wide and about 1200 more employees will be let go from the mobile division this year.

Despite the gloomy news, Sony’s ace in the hole is a burgeoning entertainment division. Sony Pictures, Sony Pictures Television, Sony Music, and PlayStation – taken together – are profitable operations. More than one institutional investor has called for Sony to exit the hardware business altogether and concentrate on content and software, which is where the money is nowadays.

But Sony has such a strong and rich legacy in consumer electronics that they can’t bring themselves to let go of the past, even after posting year upon year of record losses attributable to that same CE hardware. It’s gotten so bad that the company even announced last year that they would not pay a stock dividend for the first time in 50+ years. (Boy, did THAT news wake everyone up!)

In a recent Reuters story, Hirai stated that Sony would target a return on equity of more than 10% by 2018, aiming for an operating profit of $4.2 billion for fiscal 2017. That would be quite a turnaround, given Sony’s performance over the past five years. And it won’t be possible unless the company kisses the TV and phone businesses goodbye, once and for all.

Did Sony learn the lesson of Panasonic, who bit the bullet and shut down their plasma TV manufacturing business cold turkey in 2013, returning to profitability last year? (Panasonic is on track to make about a $2 billion profit for FY 2014.)

Panasonic also shut down other underperforming business units and shifted its focus to commercial products, and it would not surprise me to see them walk away from consumer TVs altogether in the next year or so as their market share is so small.

What about Sony’s Japanese competitors? Hitachi read the tea leaves several years ago and gave up on TVs altogether, while Toshiba is retrenching to the Japanese market. Sharp continues to struggle in the television business as its once-dominant 21% worldwide market share in TV shipments (2006) has dwindled to about 3% and a $250 million loss is staring them in the face for FY 2014.

It seems like everyone but Sony figured out the way back to profitability several years ago. Now, has Sony wised up? Have they finally seen the light?

Time will tell…

Ultra HD: Live From the 2015 HPA Tech Retreat

Ultra HD: Live From the 2015 HPA Tech Retreat

As I write this, it is the morning of Day 2 at the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat. This annual conference brings together the top minds across a wide range of disciplines in the media production business. Cameras, lenses, codecs, displays, file formats and exchanges, content protection, archiving – they’re all here, as are representatives from the major studios, TV networks, software companies, colleges, universities, government agencies, and standards organizations.

Many of the sessions over the past few days have focused on next-generation television – specifically, capturing, editing, and finishing 4K images. Hand-in-hand with these additional pixels comes high dynamic range (HDR), which was prominently featured at CES in January. There’s also a new, wider color space (ITU BT.2020) to deal with, along with higher frame rates (how does 120 Hz grab you?).

I present a review of the Consumer Electronics Show every year at HPA (which now stands for the Hollywood Professional Alliance), and try my best to cram as much as I can in half an hour. Obviously, HDR was a big part of my presentation. And the overemphasis on HDR at CES provided a nice contrast to the presentations at HPA – at CES, it’s all about marketing hype, while at HPA, it’s all about engineering and making things work.

It was a full house for this year's Tech Retreat - as usual!

It was a full house for this year’s Tech Retreat – as usual!

The average Joe may not understand much about “4K TV” or Ultra HD, but there is definitely more than meets the eye. At CES, an announcement was made about the new UHD Alliance, a partnership of TV manufacturers (Samsung, Sony, Panasonic), Hollywood studios (Disney, Warner Brothers, Fox), and other interested parties that include Netflix, Dolby, DirecTV, and Technicolor.

All well and good, but you need to understand the primary function of this Alliance is to promote the sale of Ultra HD televisions. And right now, television sales haven’t been as strong as they were five years ago. (The introduction of Ultra HD did boost sales a bit in 2014, which may have provided the impetus for the UHD Alliance.)

So here are a few of the problems with transitioning to Ultra HD. First off, not all of the pieces are in place for implementing add-ons like HDR, wider color gamuts, deeper color, and higher frame rates. It’s nice to talk about these features in conjunction with Ultra HD, but the mastering and delivery standards for HDR 4K movies and TV programs haven’t even been finalized yet.

Color is a particularly tricky issue, as LCD TVs with LED backlights render colors differently than LCD TVs equipped with quantum dot backlights. And OLED TVs require their own look-up tables as they are emissive displays, not transmissive. As far as frame rates go, consumer TVs generally can’t handle anything faster than 60 Hz and in fact prefer incoming signals to match up to one of four harmonically-related clock rates.

Next, there is a new version of copy protection coming to your television in the near future. It’s known as HDCP 2.2, and will ride along on an HDMI 2.0 connector. It is not backward-compatible with current versions, and you may be surprised to learn that early models of 4K TVs don’t support HDCP 2.2 yet. So there is a real compatibility problem lurking in the shadows if you are an early adopter.

You may be wondering where 4K Blu-ray content will come from. The first Ultra HD BD player was shown at CES, and you can expect those to show up late in the 4th quarter of this year. Suffice it to say that they will be running HDCP 2.2 on their HDMI outputs! Media players will also have to adopt version 2.2 if they are to access movies and other protected content.

Getting back to HDMI: Although version 2.0 was announced in September 2013, it’s pretty scarce on Ultra HDTVs. Most current-model sets I’ve seen have one or two HDMI 2.0 inputs, and as I just mentioned, many of those don’t support HDCP 2.2 yet. HDMI 2.0 is also speed challenged; with a maximum clock rate, it can’t support signals beyond 3840x2160p/60 with 8-bit RGB color.

Because of that, some UHDTV manufacturers are quietly adding DisplayPort 1.2 inputs to their products. Some of these interfaces are intended for connections to proprietary media players, but others are available for connections to set-top boxes, computers, and laptops. DP 1.2 can support 3840x2160p/60 with 10-bit RGB color as it has a much higher clock rate.

In summary, it’s all well and good that UHDTV is here, and initial sales are encouraging. But the plane isn’t finished yet, even though some of us want to fly it. The HPA presentations I’ve heard and seen the past two days clearly point out all of the back room details that have to be addressed before the media production, editing, mastering, and delivery ecosystem for UHDTV is ready to roll…

4K & UHDTV: Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends…

Yesterday, TWICE reported that Samsung, Sony, and LG will partner with Best Buy on a 13-week consumer awareness campaign to increase interest in UHDTV and ultimately drive sales of 4K TVs.

The campaign starts tomorrow and is named “Believing Begins Here.” The Consumer Electronics Association had a part in developing the campaign, which will feature in-store demonstrations of UHDTV at 50 Best Buy locations in 11 major markets, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

The timing of this campaign is no coincidence. National Football League pre-season games have already started, and the first NCAA college football games are scheduled for August 28. And as we all know, nothing sells big-screen TVs like football!

The demonstrations will take place between 11 AM and 3 PM each Saturday for the duration of the campaign. According to the TWICE story, these three major TV brands (and hopefully others to be added later) “…have chosen the last remaining big-box CE specialty chain as their showcase.” (I’m sure HH Gregg and Frye’s would dispute that last statement!)

Does this bring back memories of the stumbling, awkward effort to promote 3D TV five years ago? It should, except there’s a difference this time around. For one thing, there aren’t any eyewear issues, because there’s no eyewear. Assuming BB does a good job with 4K content selection, anyone who happens to wander by the demo can easily and quickly check it out.

For another, there’s aren’t any “exclusive” 3D Blu-ray deals tied to specific manufacturers and TVs, a strategy that amounted to shooting one’s self in the foot back then. Throw in the battle between passive and active 3D, the eye disorders and vision issues almost a quarter of the population experiences, and a paucity of interesting 3D content readily available to viewers, and the obituary for 3D TV was quickly written.

This time around, Best Buy has decided to emphasize 2K/4K upconversion as a “future-proof” advantage of 4K TVs and will have adequate demos of 2K-to-4K program material to make their point. And to attract potential customers, the usual manufacturer promotions and sweepstakes/drawings will be conducted. Prizes include a 55-inch Sony, Samsung, or LG UHDTV with installation and Geek Squad service plan included. (By the way, a 55-inch Samsung 4K TV can be taken out of the box and up and running in about 5 minutes, based on my experiences at InfoComm during my 4K / UHDTV class.)

The television industry clearly has a lot more at stake in 2014 than it did in 2009. TV shipments have declined for two years in a row, and TV prices are collapsing with each quarter. (You can easily buy 60-inch LCD sets for less than $1,000 now, and LG has already dropped a 55-inch 4K “smart” model to less than $2,000.)

For some manufacturers like Panasonic, the TV business has been de-emphasized in favor of commercial electronics products and even beauty aids and appliances. (Panasonic now sources a lot of its LCD TV glass on the wholesale market from Taiwan and China.) For others like Mitsubishi, the business of manufacturing and selling TV is “history” as their profits slowly but inexorably evaporated to nothing.

One fact that Best Buy and its partners can’t really explain to consumers is the changing dynamics of the LCD panel and television components supply chain. Thanks to an aggressive push by Chinese manufacturers into the television business and an emphasis on 4K, we will soon see ALL TVs larger than 55 inches move exclusively to 4K glass, just as we saw the migration from 720p/768p glass to 1080p about 6-7 years ago.

The good news is; 2K-to-4K upscaling is comparatively easy, as my colleague Ken Werner has pointed out in a previous Display Daily. Some manufacturers are even building upscaling chips into HDMI interfaces and cables! So the Best Buy demos should be effective if they start with strong 2K content.

But there are always unanswered questions. Best Buy now sells Vizio TVs, and according to Vizio’s timetable, they will have a full range of heavily discounted UHDTVs available this fall, starting at $999 for a 50-inch TV and going all the way to $2,999 for a 75-inch set. In the key sizes of 55 and 65 inches, the prices will be $1,299 and $2,199, respectively. How does that price war help the Big 3? And why should Vizio have anything to do with this campaign when they can simply sit on the sidelines for a couple of months and then swoop in and capture sales based on their brand recognition?

More devil in the details: We still don’t have a 4K Blu-ray standard, and every month it is delayed lets more wind out of the BD sails. According to a recent Home Media story, consumer spending on streaming, downloads, and optical discs was flat through the first six months of this year, to the tune of $8.6B in the U.S.

The “details” show us that digital spending (downloads and streaming of movies and TV shows) increased by 17% ($3.6B) over the same time period in 2013. Meanwhile, spending on optical discs (DVD and Blu-ray) continues to drop, falling 8% ($3.3B) in the Y-Y comparison. Additionally, rentals of optical discs dropped 14% ($1.7B) compared to the first six months of 2013. Brick and mortar store rentals took an enormous hit of 33%.

Breaking out the Blu-ray category, the story says that Blu-ray disc sales were up by 10% during Q2 ’14, with new theatrical releases up 18% in the same time period. But that’s not enough to offset the overall decline in interest by consumers to buy or rent optical discs. (No numbers were provided for Blu-ray sales revenues.)

Will 4K suffer the same fate as 3D? Not a chance. As I just pointed out, many of our big screen TVs will employ 4K panels exclusively in the not-too-distant future. The infrastructure for 4K streaming is being built and the sales and rental numbers show consumers increasingly prefer that delivery format to accumulating a pile of discs.

I plan to check out the 4K demos myself in “secret shopper” mode and will have a report in a future DD.