Posts Tagged ‘Panasonic’

CES 2015 In The Rearview Mirror

After all the PR hype and anticipation, the 2015 International CES has come and gone, leaving me to edit over 1500 photos and a bunch of videos and sift through stacks of press releases to see what was really significant about the show…and what was just fluff.

Before I drill down to make my top picks, I should point out some trends that have been building for a few years. We all know that the majority of our electronic gadgets (phones, tablets, home alarm systems, televisions, computers, cordless phones, and so on) are manufactured in China and Southeast Asia.

Still, the expanding CES footprint of Chinese brands (Haier, TCL, Hisense, Changhong, Konka, Skyworth) takes some getting used to. So does the shrinking footprint of former Japanese powerhouses like Sony, Sharp, and Toshiba. There is a profound shift in power happening in the CE world as the center of gravity moves farther away from Tokyo and Osaka past Seoul to Shenzen and Shanghai.

Another unmistakable trend is the decline in prices for a wide range of CE products. “Connected health” was a big deal at least year’s show, but is there really any news to be found in $60 Fitbits? Or $149 home security systems? Or $125 32-inch televisions?

Speaking of televisions, they are becoming less important in the overall scheme of things with each passing year. 4K Ultra HD was all the rage last year – this year, everyone had 4K televisions, and many models were equipped with quantum dot backlights for high dynamic range. Of course, there was no shortage of curved televisions in all sizes.

There was a big emphasis on high dynamic range 4K in Samsung's booth.

There was a big emphasis on high dynamic range 4K in Samsung’s booth.

 

But TCL had HDR too, as did a host of other exhibitors.

But TCL had HDR too, as did a host of other exhibitors.

 

The facts are these: Changhong and TCL can make a large, curved 4K LCD TV with high dynamic range just as easily as Sharp, Samsung, and Panasonic. In some cases, the LCD panels used in these TVs are all coming from the same factory.

Samsung made a big splash this year with their S UHD television line, but they’re using quantum dots just like anyone else. LG showed both quantum dots and their new M+ technology that adds white pixels to an LCD matrix to boost brightness. TCL is selling QD-equipped TVs in China and expects to launch them on these shores this year.

Perhaps surprisingly, LG decided to make a big push for OLED technology, unveiling five new Ultra HD models at the show. While the Chinese also showed OLEDs (as did Panasonic), LG appears to be “all in” with their white OLED technology, claiming manufacturing yields as high as 70%. Well, someone’s got to pick up the torch that plasma dropped in 2013.

LG now has a flexible OLED TV to suit your mood - flat (bad day at the office?) or curved (if you're feeling warped!).

LG now has a flexible OLED TV to suit your mood – flat (bad day at the office?) or curved (if you’re feeling warped!).

 

Who says we have to be stuck with two color choices for refrigerators? Not Changhong.

Who says we have to be stuck with two color choices for refrigerators? Not Changhong.

 

For many of these manufacturers, appliances and white goods are taking on a more important role in contributing to the bottom line. The margins are better on high-end refrigerators and washer-dryer sets for the likes of Samsung and LG, even though consumers don’t turn them over as often as televisions. For Panasonic, beauty products are an important income stream.

Cameras and camcorders are still holding their own against mobile phones, surprisingly. I entered the CES arena equipped with both a new Samsung Galaxy 5 phone and a Panasonic Lumix ZS40 camera. While the Galaxy 5 does take some great pictures under ideal conditions, it was no match for the 30:1 optical zoom lens (Leica glass) on the Lumix – the latter allowed me to shoot under, around, and over people to get the photos I needed.

Speaking of mobile phones and tablets, there wasn’t much news to be had at the show. LG showed its updated LG G-Flex 2 and Samsung had a crowd around its Galaxy family of phones and tablets, but there just wasn’t the “BYOD buzz” we’ve seen in previous years. The 5” to 5.5” screen size seems to be a sweet spot for phones now – 6-inch models were scarce in Vegas.

LG's G-Flex 2 smartphone still has the curve, but has actually gotten smaller with a 5.5" screen.

LG’s G-Flex 2 smartphone still has the curve, but has actually gotten smaller with a 5.5″ screen.

With every possible connection moving to Wi-Fi, range extenders are the hot item right now.

With every possible connection moving to Wi-Fi, range extenders are the hot item right now.

 

Connecting all of this stuff together made for a more compelling story from my perspective, especially as far as wireless technology goes. I saw more demos of wireless video streaming, wireless appliance control, wireless security systems, and wireless display connectivity at CES than at previous shows.

The 802.11ac channel bonding protocol is becoming increasingly important for making this stuff work in the 5 GHz band. And the wide-open spaces at 60 GHz are starting to attract everyone’s attention – having 2 GHz channels to play with is a lot more appealing for making high bitrate connections than fighting the congestion at 2.4 and 5 GHz.

Display interfaces are getting fast – a lot faster – and relying on compression for the first time. And now we’re starting to see the boundaries blur between small, high-performance mobile display interfaces and full-sized versions, which leads me to wonder why we need so many versions of HDMI and DisplayPort in the first place.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the growing number of automobile manufacturers who set up shop in the North Hall every year. It reminds me of the New York Auto Show, with the likes of Hyundai, VW, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and Audi showing off their latest high-tech “connected” automobiles that can do everything from mirror your smartphone’s display to recognize speech commands, navigate flawlessly, and even drive themselves.

This McLaren coupe is so smart, it doesn't even need you to drive it. (So how do you impress your friends?)

This McLaren coupe is so smart, it doesn’t even need you to drive it. (So how do you impress your friends?)

It seems logical that Toyota would come out with a hydrogen-powered car. After all, the 2nd most abundant thing in the universe after hydrogen is the Toyota Camry, (Or it just seems that way...)

It seems logical that Toyota would come out with a hydrogen-powered car. After all, the 2nd most abundant thing in the universe after hydrogen is the Toyota Camry, (Or it just seems that way…)

 

And there were plenty of alternatives to gasoline-powered engines to seen, from BMW’s i3 electric car to Toshiba’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. All equipped with Bluetooth, 802.11, Sirius, and in some cases, user-customizable dashboard displays using flexible displays (important to survive vibration and G-forces).

Quite a bit to take in over three and a half days! What follows is my list (in no particular order) of significant products and trends I spotted in Vegas. Let’s see if they hold up as the year progresses:

High Dynamic Range – as usual, a hot new technology makes its appearance at the show and quickly becomes a buzzword. HDR Ultra HDTVs were shown by numerous manufacturers at CES; none more prominently as Samsung, who made HDR the centerpiece of their Monday press conference with their S UHD line. Virtually all of these TVs use quantum dot technology to boost image brightness and color saturation, and only one (LG) had an alternative path to HDR with M+ technology.

HDR is a key part of the transition to next-generation television. So are wider color spaces, high frame rates, and increasing resolution. Looks like everyone’s getting into the game, including the Chinese. Interestingly, I saw only one demo of Dolby’s HDR technology in the TCL booth (Vizio also has it), so it appears many homegrown solutions are in the works for HDR displays.

LG Display's 65-inch curved OLED TV helps you get over the demise of plasma pretty quickly.

LG Display’s 65-inch curved OLED TV helps you get over the demise of plasma pretty quickly.

 

OLEDS Are Back – at least as far as LG is concerned. Seven new Ultra HD OLED TVs were rolled out at CES with sizes ranging from 55 inches to 77 inches, and one of them can flex back and forth from flat to curved surface mode. A partnership with Harman-Kardon should ensure better audio quality than you hear from typical super-thin televisions. (There were even two models featuring bases made from Swarovski crystal!)

With the demise of plasma, videophiles are still looking for displays that can give them the magic combination of deep blacks, saturated colors, and wide viewing angles. Right now, OLEDs are the only game in town, but they’ve proven to be tricky to manufacture with acceptable yields. LG Display seems to have overcome that barrier with these models (which use IGZO TFTs for pixel switching, by the way) and it will be interesting to see the uptake as 2015 winds on.

Super MHL Is Here: The battle for fastest display interface shifts back and forth between Silicon Image and VESA. DisplayPort fired the first salvo with their introduction of version 1.3, raising the maximum data rate to 32 Gb/s and introducing Display Stream compression for the first time. Now, the MHL Consortium has fired back with Super MHL. MHL stands for Mobile High-definition Link, and in its first iteration, allowed transport of 1080p/60 video over the 5-pin micro USB connector found on smartphones and tablets.

But Super MHL is different – it is a full-sized connector with 32 pins and matches the data rate of DP 1.3. The CES demo showed a Samsung 8K display being driven through Super MHL. How would anyone fit this on a mobile device? Does it replace HDMI 2.0? (It’s a LOT faster and uses DS compression, too.) So many questions to be answered…

Wait - isn't MHL a small connector for mobile devices? Did they put it on steroids?

Wait – isn’t MHL a small connector for mobile devices? Did they put it on steroids?

Hmmm...apparently they did give MHL "the juice."

Hmmm…apparently they did give MHL “the juice.”

 

Talk To Me: Conexant showed a demo of voice control for TV set-top boxes (change channels, bring up program guide, set DVR recordings) that was leap years ahead of their demo from 2013. This system works exceptionally well in noisy environments and can be used to control other devices, such as room lighting, thermostats, and security systems.

Conexant is looking to sell their technology as a system on chip (SoC) to a wide cross section of manufacturers. The trick had been reliable speech recognition in all kinds of high and low noise environments, something that doomed Samsung’s voice control TVs back in 2012. It appears they’ve finally pulled it off, but the focus has shifted away from TVs to set-top boxes this time around.

I’ll Be Watching You: The EyeTribe of Denmark showed an amazing eye tracking and control system at ShowStoppers that can operate tablets and phones and costs all of $99. Yep, you read that right! While Tobii’s impressive demos have focused on laptops and gaming systems, EyeTribe has gone after potentially the biggest market for eye tracking. How many times have you wished you could operate your mobile phone while your hands were full?

Look, ma! No hands! (Alternate caption: The Eyes Have It...)

Look, ma! No hands! (Alternate caption: The Eyes Have It…)

Is your IP video slow? Sluggish? Does it drop out? Try new Giraffic video for faster streams, cleaner video, and no buffering drop-outs! Available without a prescription.

Is your IP video slow? Sluggish? Does it drop out? Try new Giraffic video for faster streams, cleaner video, and no buffering drop-outs! (Available without a prescription.)

 

Faster Video For All: Giraffic had an intriguing demo of optimizing and speeding up video streaming rates over conventional TCP/IP networks. And it had nothing to do with adaptive bitrate streaming, using H.265 encoding, or AVB protocols. What Giraffic is doing is changing the nature and frequency of HTTP requests. This is the best way I can explain it: Imagine you just sat down with a big piece of chocolate cake and want to eat it as quickly as possible. If you take big bites, you’ll be chewing for a while and some pieces may get stuck in your throat.

But if you start with very small bites (like crumbs) and keep shoveling them in quickly, you’ll finish the cake just as fast – or perhaps faster – than the conventional way of eating. And that’s what Giraffic does – it keeps nibbling at the video stream to ensure continuous delivery, even with 4K content. The company claims they can achieve streaming throughput 200% to 300% faster than conventional video streaming, with no freeze-ups and annoying “buffering” warnings.

4K Blu-ray: Okay, we’ve been waiting for this for some time now. And 4K video streaming has already begun at Netflix and Amazon. But Ultra HD BD is finally out of the gate, although you won’t see it until the fourth quarter of this year. Streaming rates will be on the high side of 100 Mb/s with single and dual-layer discs available. (And yes, high dynamic range will be a part of the equation!) Panasonic showed their prototype of an Ultra HD Blu-ray player at the show. The question is; with all the enhancements coming to streaming, does optical disc matter anymore? Time will tell…

Here's Panasonic's prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

Here’s Panasonic’s prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player, chugging along at 108 Mb/s while standing still!

 

Now THERE'S an LCD shape you don't see every day! (Except perhaps in the nVIDIA booth...)

Now THERE’S an LCD shape you don’t see every day! (Except perhaps in the nVIDIA booth…)

Circular LCD Displays: This was a breakout year for oddball sizes of LCDs, particularly in the Sharp booth where automotive displays were shown. (LG Display also exhibited circular and curved LCD displays.) Given the drop in TV prices and Sharp’s ever-dwindling market share in TVs, the market for automotive and transportation displays may be a better bet, long-term. Especially given the company’s leadership in implementing IGZO TFTs, which are important for brighter displays with lower power consumption and higher pixel density.

USB Type-C Connectors: VESA had an excellent demo of this game-changing connector, which has a symmetrical design (no need to worry about which way you’ve plugged it in) and can multiplex DisplayPort 1.3 video with high-speed data. USB 3.1 Type-C is seen as the next generation of USB connectors for mobile and portable devices, and by itself, it can move serial data at 10 Gb/s.

SiBEAM Snap Wireless Connectivity: Silicon Image has revived the SiBEAM name (they bought the company in 2011) and implemented their 60 GHz wireless display connectivity into a close-proximity variant. You simply bring two Snap-equipped devices together (like a smartphone or tablet and a matching cradle), and voila – you’ve established a full bandwidth data and display connection that can run up to 12 Gb/s. Plus, the connector can be used for wireless charging.

SI is showing integrated Snap transmitter and receiver chips that would replace USB 2.0 or 3.0 connections. Clearly, they are also targeting USB interfaces that support DisplayPort 1.3 (see USB 3.1 Type-C) and trying to move away from physical display connections. (This was one argument against using MHL to connect to televisions.) But if they’re successful, what happens to MHL? And now that Super MHL has been shown, what happens to conventional HDMI? Stay tuned..

This little bugger is a brand-new USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Look for it to start appearing on mobile devices in 2015.

This little bugger is a brand-new USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Look for it to start appearing on mobile devices in 2015.

It's 27 inches diagonally and offers 5K resolution. Talk about immersive....

It’s 27 inches diagonally and offers 5K resolution. Talk about immersive….

Make a fashion statement and superimpose video over the real world at the same time.

Make a fashion statement and superimpose video over the real world at the same time.

 

Super-wide, high resolution desktop monitors: Seems like everybody had one of these at the show. HP, Dell, LG Display, Samsung, and others showed 27-inch widescreen displays with “5K” resolution (5120×2880 pixels). These monitors also support wider color gamuts and use 10-bit panels (a necessity, given all the 10-bit RGB images they’ll be asked to display). What’s surprising is how inexpensive these monitors are – HP’s Z27Q version will be available in March for just $1300.

Toshiba Glass: The jury’s still out on whether Google Glass is a hit or a bust (I’m leaning toward the latter). But Toshiba, who recently retrenched their television operations to Japan, is all-in with a line of enhanced glasses that employ a tiny projection module to show images on the lens surface. This has been tried before – Epson’s Moverio VR glasses have tiny QHD LCD panels embedded in them – and it remains to be seen if the public will buy into the idea. They do look stylish, though. (And there’s even a pair of safety goggles in the line.)

I’ll close out this report with a few passing thoughts. First, it’s impossible to miss the trends of mass-produced, cheap consumer electronics that are starting to turn CES into the old Comdex show. (And we all know what happened to that show!) Next, there is hardly any new technology debuting at the show that multiple manufacturers have in short order (and that includes the Chinese).

Whereas voice recognition was big a few years ago, gesture control took its place the past couple of years. But now that Omek (bought by Intel) and PrimeSense (bought by Apple) are absent from the scene, voice recognition has come back. My new Galaxy 5 phone has Samsung voice on it and it works reasonably well. However, it appears that consumers just haven’t jumped on the gesture recognition bandwagon yet.

Remember 3D? I almost got all the way through this report without mentioning it. A few companies still showed it, such as LG, Toshiba, HP, Hisense, Changhong, Ultra D (digital signage), Panasonic, and some gaming companies. Likewise, Google TV was gone this year, replaced by Android TV in such places as the Sony booth. Aside from program guide searches, I’m not convinced that the average TV viewer needs a Google search engine or Android OS on their TV. But I could be wrong.

Cute little guy, isn't he? (Where's my fly swatter...)

Cute little guy, isn’t he? (Where’s my fly swatter…)

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

 

Remember drones? I almost managed to skip them as well. There were so many at the show, ranging from behemoths that idled in place overhead while we visited tables at Digital Experience to pocket-sized models with built-in cameras that could zip unobtrusively over a crowd under the control of your smartphone. (I’m waiting for the first pocket-sized EMP generators to appear next year – like electronic bug-zappers.)

Finally, after a day full of press conferences during which there was only about 30 minutes of actual, usable news, I’d like to see a temporary moratorium placed on the words “innovation,” “big data,” “stunning,” “cloud,” “ultra” anything, and in the Chinese booths, “happiness.”

The only thing stunning about Vegas is how expensive cab rides have become. True happiness can only be found at Big Daddy’s Barbecue outside the Central Hall (dee-lish!). “Big Data” should be the name of a blues band, or at least the harmonica player. (Maybe Big Data and The Cloud?)

And I’m sorry, but a floor-mounted pet camera and toothbrushes that sync up to video games are not “innovation.” Cute, yes, but no innovative. (Although the self-powered skateboard I saw that can run up to 16 miles might fall into that category…)

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale Of Two Companies, Part II: The Best-Laid Plans…

In a recent post, I talked about Panasonic’s impressive financial turnaround from its last fiscal year, booking a nice profit after doing some soul-searching and consequent house-cleaning of underperforming business units. And I contrasted Panasonic’s performance with the struggles of Sony, who continues to struggle with red ink. Let’s take a few moments to revisit both brands.

Coincidentally, Panasonic held a couple of press days this week in New York City to talk about its 2014 TV lineup. I attended the Thursday session and can say that it was much more low-key than previous Panasonic TV events.

For 2014, the emphasis was on two things – 4K, and cloud connectivity. Panasonic introduced a new concept, LifeScreen, which is yet another search engine combined with a clever graphical user interface.  You pre-set your preferences, and your Panasonic TV searches for content to match them.

And how, exactly, does the TV know it’s you? Thanks to a pop-up camera and face recognition software, the TV comes to life when you stand or sit in front of it and loads up your programs choices. A new remote control provides both swipe control and voice recognition (shades of Samsung 2011!), and seems to work reliably.

Jay Park Presents 600p

Panasonic’s Jay Park fills us in on the 2014 TV lineup details.

Panasonic’s cloud structure isn’t much different than other manufacturers. You can download photos and video and share them with connected tablets and phones in your house. And you can upload your own photos and videos to the same online storage.

Now, to the nitty-gritty. As expected, the 2014 TV lineup is 100% LCD. What’s unexpected, but ultimately not surprising, is that you’ll find a mix of IPS and PVA LCD panels in these new TVs, meaning that Panasonic (like everyone else) is shopping for the best price and performance combination in LCD panels for their new TVs.

Given the cutthroat pricing in the TV market, this isn’t surprising and in fact is a smart strategy: There’s plenty of good LCD glass coming out of Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese fabs, so why bother with the costs of making it yourself?

Panasonic's 2014 LCD TVs (center) predominantly use PVA glass and are quite improved over the 2013 models (right), holding their own against last year's ZT-series plasma (left).

Panasonic’s 2014 LCD TVs (center) predominantly use PVA glass and are quite improved over the 2013 models (right), holding their own against last year’s ZT-series plasma (left).

 

You can operate the 2014 TVs from an iPad, iPhone, or Android device - even to the level of a full grayscale and color calibration.

You can operate the 2014 TVs from an iPad, iPhone, or Android device – even to the level of a full grayscale and color calibration.

Panasonic’s value-add for these TVs is to improve the spectral response of the white LEDs used in these new sets, and it’s impressive. They’re claiming 98% coverage of the minimum DCI color space and have improved the rendering of yellow.

Side-by-side demos with last year’s award-winning ZT60 plasma TV showed the difference dramatically. Aside from the usual issues with PVA and IPS LCD panels, the images had excellent contrast, great color saturation, and decent black levels – and you can clearly see why plasma has fallen by the wayside.

There will be six series of models in the 2014 TV line-up, starting with the entry-level A400 and moving all the way up to the new 55-inch and 65-inch Ultra HD AX800-series TVs. The new remote and camera system come with three of these lines, and some models now include a sound bar (smart move!) in the box.

HDMI 2.0 and HEVC decoding are standard on the AX800, which is interesting considering how few Broadcom HEVC decoder chips have been deployed by TV manufacturers to date. And you can operate the TV from your iPhone or iPad (or Android device), even to the point of doing a full color and grayscale calibration, thanks to a new app.

So Panasonic remains a player in the TV game, even though the company’s worldwide market share fell out of the top five in 2013. Panasonic’s return to corporate profitability will take a lot of pressure off the TV division, which has relocated to San Diego from New Jersey.

In contrast, Panasonic’s neighbor down the street in San Diego – Sony – continues to struggle with red ink. The company released its final numbers for fiscal year 2013 last Thursday, and things still don’t look good, even though the picture is lightening up a bit.

For 2013, Sony booked a net loss of -¥125B (about $1.23B USD) with operating income of ¥26.5B (about $265M USD). There were a couple of operating divisions that continue to drag down profit, most notably Sony’s discontinued PC business unit, battery manufacturing, and disc manufacturing (DVD, Blu-ray) outside Japan and the U.S.

Sony’s long-struggling TV operations are reported as part of the company’s Home Entertainment and Sound business unit, which recorded a loss of -$248M for FY 2013. That’s actually a 70% reduction from FY 2012, which is a silver lining. Overall, the TV division saw its sales increase 30% Y-Y, which is more good news.

Another bright spot for Sony is its Imaging Products and Solutions (IP&S) division, which booked $256M in operating income. That’s not enough, however, to offset the -$729M operating loss from PC operations and the -$78M loss from the Game division. And an impairment charge of -$250M was assigned to the disc manufacturing business, adding more red ink.

Getting rid of the unprofitable PC business will definitely help next year’s results. (Apparently, so will the sale of Sony’s New York City headquarters on Madison Avenue, which netted almost $700M, according to the company’s financial statement.) The operating loss reported for the Game division (-$78M) was a surprise, but Sony attributed it to costs involved in launching the PlayStation 4 console and a $60M write-off of PC game software titles.

There’s no question that Sony has quite a mountain to climb and get back on the “plus” side of the ledger. Unlike Panasonic, Sony’s worldwide share of television shipments held pretty steadily in 2013 (about 7%, down slightly from 2012), but that number either has to go up or further cost-cutting must take place to make TV retailing worth continuing.

Sony also has to make a decision about its optical disc business unit. The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) hasn’t released a standard for 4K yet, while the Digital Entertainment Group’s numbers have shown pretty consistently over the past four years that digital media consumption is shifting emphatically to digital downloads and streaming. Given this trend, it’s not likely that the disc manufacturing unit will ever return to profitability and might also be a candidate for the axe by year’s end.

You know that old saying about the best-laid plans oft going astray? Hmmm…

A Tale Of Two Companies, Revisited

It’s annual meeting time in Japan, and the final reports for fiscal year 2014 are trickling in. (In Japan, the fiscal year starts on April 1 and runs through March 31.)

Given all of the financial misery that Japan Inc. has been enduring for the past four years, you’d probably cringe before opening the latest consolidated financial statements. Yet, there was a surprise this time.

Let’s look at two of the dominant CE brands in Japan – Panasonic and Sony. The former company grabbed some headlines last year when it announced an exit from the plasma display panel (PDP) business, effective 12/31/13. For years, plasma displays and televisions were synonymous with Panasonic – they dominated the market and provided most of the technological breakthroughs that led to the (still to this day, IMHO) “best in class” televisions on the market.

Sometimes “best’ doesn’t always win. Plasma TV shipments and sales had been in steady decline for the past seven years as more and more consumers chose LCD TVs, particularly after 1080p resolution became widespread and national discounters like Vizio forced prices down to bargain-basement levels.

2013’s final numbers from NPD DisplaySearch show that plasma TV shipments from all brands (Panasonic, Samsung, and LG) accounted for slightly more than 4% of the global TV market. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and Panasonic – who had been in the midst of a massive review of all 80+ of its business units – did the right thing and quickly cut its losses, however painful that may have been.

Now, it appears all of that aggressive restructuring and cost-cutting has paid off. For FY 2014, Panasonic posted a net profit of about ¥120.4 billion, or $1.18B USD. That represents a spectacular turnaround from a ¥754 billion loss in FY 2013, or about $7B USD.

In addition to the money-losing plasma operations, Panasonic also jettisoned its mobile phone business. (Didn’t know they made mobile phones? Neither did most people.) Along with slimming down underperforming business units, finishing the acquisition of Sanyo and all costs associated with it, and shifting their focus to everything from energy storage solutions to Lumix cameras, the company realized an operating profit of ¥305 billion ($2.3B) for the fiscal year.

Now, on to Sony, who has struggled to maintain profitability for several years, thanks in part to the never-ending red ink generated by its television business unit. Sony won’t post its final numbers until May 15, but an advisory went out on May 1 saying that they won’t be pretty – and in fact will be worse than previous guidance suggested.

The company now is forecasting an operating income of ¥26 billion ($255M USD) for FY 2014 when all is said and done. That number represents a steep drop of 67% from the company’s original forecast of ¥80 billion ($783M USD). Sony identified two primary reasons for the drop in income. I’ll quote from the company’s press release:

“Sony expects to record approximately 30 billion yen in additional expenses in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014 related to exiting the PC business. Since Sony’s announcement on February 6, 2014 that it will exit the PC business, PC sales for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014 and expected PC sales for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2015 are underperforming the February expectation. Consequently, Sony expects to record write-downs for excess components in inventory and accrual of expenses to compensate suppliers for unused components ordered for Sony’s spring PC lineup. In addition, certain restructuring charges are expected to be recorded ahead of schedule.”

Okay, so the computer operations weren’t pulling their weight, which is why Sony decided to exit stage right and reportedly sell their VAIO operations to Lenovo (as announced in February). But there’s more:

Sony expects to record approximately 25 billion yen in impairment charges mainly related to its overseas disc manufacturing business. Primarily due to demand for physical media contracting faster than anticipated, mainly in the European region, the future profitability of the disc manufacturing business has been revised. Consequently, Sony has determined that it does not expect to generate sufficient cash flow in the future to recover the carrying amount of long-lived assets, resulting in an expected impairment charge. Primarily due to the reason mentioned above, the fair value of the entire disc manufacturing business also has decreased, resulting in an expected impairment of goodwill.”

Translation: The Blu-ray and DVD business is in the tank, particularly in Europe. Clearly, consumers are turning more and more to cloud storage and streaming of movies and TV shows, and not purchasing or renting optical discs. That’s definitely not good news in Tokyo, but it’s not like this trend snuck up and blindsided the company: I’ve been writing about it for several years now in Display Daily.

Given how aggressively Sony worked a few years ago to convince Warner Home Media and other studios to dump the nascent HD-DVD format in favor of Sony’s home-grown Blu-ray platform, this development must sting all the more. And talk about bad timing: The latest numbers from the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) show that digital movie sales (streaming and downloads) during the first three months of 2014 totaled $330.25 million, while optical disc sales and revenue were down 13.7% to $1.82 billion from $2.1 billion in the first quarter of 2013, continuing a long-term steady decline that goes all the way back almost a decade.

We won’t have the final numbers from Sony for a few weeks. (Sharp and Toshiba also have yet to report their year-end results.) But you can clearly see what happens when one company faces reality and takes the bull by the horns, while another keeps stalling for time. I’ll check in again in two weeks with the rest of the numbers from Japan, Inc.

NAB 2014 In The Rear View Mirror

The 2014 NAB Show has come and gone, and although attendance was strong, this year’s edition didn’t have quite the buzz that I expected. Given all that is happening with UHDTV currently, that’s surprising: We are seeing a transformation of television into something very different from traditional models, including demonstrations of next-generation broadcast systems (ATSC 3.0), more powerful encoders (HEVC), and a migration to IP-based video production facilities (the cloud, AVB).

I spent three and a half days at the show, taking it all in while setting aside some time to present a paper at the Broadcast Engineering Conference on the current state of wireless AV connectivity and moderating a Wednesday Super Session on the future of video technology. If I really had to pick one word to characterize this year’s show, it would be “flux.”

Some trends were clear. The Japanese brands (aside from Canon) continue to down-size their booths as their business models shift away from traditional cameras, switchers, recording devices, and monitors. There were numerous companies showing cloud-based storage and media delivery over IT networks, and more than a few booths featured demos of HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding; most of it done with software.

Only a handful of booths emphasized monitors, and some of those had super-sized screens for digital signage out for inspection. In the north and central halls, you could find the traditional purveyors of broadcast transmitters, antennas, and coaxial cable, along with microphones and conventional audio products. But the emphasis seemed to be on “connected” anything – video, audio, cloud storage and delivery, and even wireless cameras for field acquisition and live events.

Given the sheer number of booths, it was difficult to compile a “pick hits” list, but I’ll give it a shot. To me, these companies/products/demos made the trip to Las Vegas worthwhile (and having traveled there over 70 times in the past 20 years, that’s saying a lot!).

Visionary Solutions may not be on your radar, but these clever folks are building some impressive hardware and software codecs at affordable prices. This year, they rolled out their PackeTV system, an end-to-end IP-based video delivery product with scheduling, recording, security, and delivery of real-time and recorded H.264 video, all rolled into one. The graphical user interface (GUI) for controlling the system was well-designed and easy to figure out.

Altera showed how easy it is to stream 12 G HD-SDI (4K) over a single piece of plain coaxial cable.

Altera showed how easy it is to stream 12 G HD-SDI (4K) over a single piece of plain coaxial cable.

 

LG and Gates Air demonstrated their vision for ATSC 3.0, using OFDM and HEVC in a standard TV channel.

LG and Gates Air demonstrated their vision for ATSC 3.0, using OFDM and HEVC in a standard TV channel.

LG and Gates Air had an impressive demo of an ATSC 3.0 concept broadcast. They combined Quad HD, 2K, and SD video programs into one 6 MHz channel, using HEVC encoding and decoding. The signals were encoded at 14, 1.6, and .98 Mb/s respectively, and the signal-to-noise threshold for the SD cast was just 1.5 dB. Multipath sets emulating mobile reception were also demonstrated with the 2K and SD streams holding up very well even at 50 mph.

Sony demonstrated a beautiful 30-inch OLED reference monitor that will soon take its place in the existing Trimaster series. This is a home-grown product and employs the same top-emission system with optical bandpass filters found on the 17-inch and 25-inch products. No price has been announced yet, and Sony has a real challenge in trying to figure out what that price should be as its customers aren’t willing to shell out 1990s bucks anymore for reference displays.

Altera had a clever demo of 12 Gb/s HD-SDI streaming over a piece of “conventional” coaxial cable. 3G HD-SDI has a nominal data cap of 3 Gb/s, so this demo used linked HD-SDI streams to hit the magic number (coincidentally, the data rate for a Quad HD video stream with a 60 Hz refresh rate and 4:2:2 coding). The coax link was 60 feet long and the transmission was flawless, aside from some hiccups on the PC playout server.

Ericsson showed there is more than one way to stream live 4K content. They set up a system that transported a live Quad HD video stream (3840x2160p/60) from a server in England, through satellite and fiber links, to the Ericsson and Intelsat booths at the show. But they used conventional H.264 encoding, breaking the 4K signal into 2K quadrants and using their Simulsync process to stich them together at the receiving end in a seamless presentation on an 84-inch monitor.

Ericsson stiched together four 2K image quadrants to stream this 4K image live from England.

Ericsson stiched together four 2K image quadrants to stream this 4K image live from England.

 

NHK's 4-pound Super Hi-Vision camera records video with 7680x4320 pixels @ 60 Hz and is a marvel.

NHK’s 4-pound Super Hi-Vision camera records video with 7680×4320 pixels @ 60 Hz and is a marvel.

NHK once again had their 8K Super Hi-Vision booth set up, but this time they were streaming live 8K (7680×4320) content from a new, compact 4-pound camera head. The signals were broadcast across the booth in two separate streams on a standard UHF channel, using 4096 QAM at 91 MB/s. Half of the data traveled as a horizontally-polarized signal and the other half as a vertically-polarized signal, both on UHF channel 36. (At that frequency, you can achieve about 20 dB separation between polarization angles.)

Haivision was demonstrating their Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) system over at the Renaissance Hotel. SRT is a hardware/software overlay for existing Haivision encoder/decoder products that is intended to better manage end-to-end streaming over public Internet connections. It offers adaptive streaming rates and two levels of encryption (AES 128-bit and 256-bit). SRT is positioned as an alternative to more expensive satellite backhaul links and dedicated MPLS point-to-point connections.

Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Institute (ETRI) had a small but intriguing demo of facial recognition linked to ad servers. The recognition system is built into a standard TV and has a range of about 10 feet, can discriminate between older and younger viewers, and will recognize a face turned 45 degrees to the right or left of center. An appropriate advertisement for the viewer is then displayed during a commercial break.

Fraunhofer HHI always has clever technology demos at NAB, and this year they spotlighted real-time software-based HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding at bit rates up to 40 Mb/s. They also showcased a real-time, hardware-based H.265 decoder using an Altera Stratix V FPGA. This decoder can handle bit rates to 80 MB/s and uses standard interfaces for set-top box designs. Fraunhofer also had an intriguing demo of surround sound playback for tablets in a nearby isolation booth.

BlackMagic's Ursa 4K camera costs only $6,000 (EF lens version)!

BlackMagic’s Ursa 4K camera costs only $6,000 (EF lens version)!

Sony's 30-inch Trimaster OLED looked great, but will its price tag break the bank?

Sony’s 30-inch Trimaster OLED looked great, but will its price tag break the bank?

No plasma? No problem for Panasonic, which showed new 84-inch and 98-inch 4K LCD monitors at the show.

No plasma? No problem for Panasonic, which showed new 84-inch and 98-inch 4K LCD monitors at the show.

BlackMagic Design continues to introduce powerful camera systems at bargain basement prices. Their new Ursa 4K field/studio camera has a huge 10-inch LCD monitor, touchscreen control, RAW and ProRes recorders, and upgradable Super 35mm shutter. The EF lens-compatible version lists at $5,995 while the PL-compatible version is $6,495. Their Studio Camera 4K, also equipped with the 10-inch LCD monitor and 12 GB HD-SDI connections, had an even more amazing price – $2,995.

Intel showed a clever use for Thunderbolt technology: Using a display interface for file exchanges. Thunderbolt runs on the DisplayPort physical layer and has a maximum speed of 20 Gb/s. By using a simple mini or regular DisplayPort cable; two MacBooks, two Windows laptops, or a MacBook/Win laptop can link together for file transfers, working just like a 10GigE network connection.

Panasonic showed it still has game after shutting down plasma manufacturing. Two new large digital 4K LCD displays were up and running in their booth – an 84-inch model (TH-84LQ7OU) and a 98-inch model (TH-98LQ7OU). We’ve seen the 84-inch LG Display LC glass cut before offered by other manufacturers, but the 98-inch hasn’t been in wide circulation. These will replace the 85-inch and 103-inch plasma monitors previously offered.

Finally, Christie had regular screenings to show off its new laser cinema projector system. This projector uses two sets of color primaries and matching eyewear, using wave division multiplexing to achieve a high degree of left eye/ right eye separation. According to a Christie rep, the system can achieve a brightness level of 72,000 lumens, and what was interesting to me was virtually no difference in image brightness through the glasses or without them.