Posts Tagged ‘Sharp’

CES 2014: First Impressions (4K, Curved Screens, OLEDs, and All That)

2013 was an interesting year for television technology. LG’s long-awaited 55-inch OLED television started shipping, albeit with a curved screen. Not long after, Samsung announced their 55-inch curved OLED TV, but at a $6,000 discount to LG. Later in the year, Sony announced a curved 4K LCD TV, and rumors started that we’d see more such products in Las Vegas.

Did we ever! Not only did LG and Samsung showcase curved LCDs and OLEDs, so did Toshiba, Sony, Konka, Changhong, Hisense, and TCL. And three companies (LG, Samsung, and Toshiba) unveiled 21:9 aspect ratio curved 4K LCD TVs (there’s a mouthful!), all in a 105-inch diagonal size. (No word on where the LCD panel or panels come from).

We also were treated to newer, bigger sizes. 84 inches used to impress; now we have 95 inches, 98 inches, 105 inches, 110 inches, and even 120 inches. Yep, Vizio (of all people) exhibited a 120-inch LCD TV in their suite at the Wynn, and it uses ASV glass from Sharp’s Gen 10 in Sakai, Japan.

Sharp’s CES press conference emphasized big 4K TVs.

Want high dynamic range? Dolby was there to promote it, and we also saw it in the Vizio and Sharp booths. How about big OLEDs? LG has a 77-inch curved cut with 4K resolution that is currently the world’s largest OLED TV. (Wait a few months; that’ll change.) Quantum dots? Sony’s had them for a year, but now several Chinese manufacturers are buying in, as I saw in the QD Vision suite.

Just like tablets a few years back, large and curved TVs went from “Wow!” to “So what?” in the matter of a few hours at the show. What really amazed me is that almost every breakthrough TV product unveiled by Samsung and LG was also found in the booths of the Chinese TV manufacturers – and they didn’t nearly make as much noise about it.

Some TV manufacturers made more of an impression by what they didn’t show. Panasonic’s emphasis this year was clearly on commercial applications of display technology. We know that Panasonic shut down plasma panel and TV production at the end of December. What we don’t know are Panasonic’s plans for consumer television in general, as they didn’t show a formal line-up of LCD TVs in Las Vegas – just applications for 4K displays.

The significance of this omission can’t be understated. Panasonic finally reversed years of losses in 2013, losses that were largely attributed to television operations. While Panasonic had decent worldwide TV market share in 2013 (about 6%), they may have finally seen the writing on the wall. That would explain their emphasis on battery and energy technologies, automotive tech, and white goods / appliances at the show.

Toshiba has struggled with substantial losses in both computers and television. As has been documented in Display Daily, the company is finally addressing profitability in a more hard-nosed fashion. And if they needed any convincing, the enormous booths of Chinese TV manufacturers that were stuffed full of 4K product probably did the trick.

Samsung had the “first 105-inch curved 4K LCD TV.” So did LG and Toshiba…

That leaves Sony and Sharp. The former had a rather pedestrian booth at the show, focusing more on applications and smaller electronics (including gaming) than televisions. There weren’t any ground-breaking tech demos in Sony land this year, aside from curved 4K LCDs. Aside from one barely profitable quarter earlier last year, Sony continues to pile up losses in consumer TV sales and veteran financial analysts ramp up their call for the company to cut its losses and get out.

Sharp, on the other hand, may have more lives than a cat. The company has set record for financial losses the past few years and required cash infusions from Qualcomm and Samsung to keep their doors open in 2013. Yet, they managed to eke out a small profit in consumer televisions midway through the year.

While not out of the woods yet, Sharp is plowing forward with an emphasis on big TVs (60 inches and up). They unveiled four new lines – Aquos 2K, Quattron, Quattron+, and Aquos Ultra HD. We’ve heard the Quattron story before, but Quattron+ is something new and intriguing: Multiple addressing of horizontal and vertical sub pixels to achieve higher resolution than 2K, even though the Quattron RGBY matrix is still a 2K array.

Sharp is also making a big deal out of mastering IGZO manufacturing. (LG also uses IGZO in its 4K OLED TVs.) While IGZO yields are still challenging, the technology does offer many advantages over amorphous silicon and low-temperature polysilicon – not the least of which is reduced power consumption.

Vizio’s 120-inch 4K LCD TV is now the world’s largest.

So I left Las Vegas after 3.5 days with the following insights. (1) If we haven’t seen the sunset of the Japanese television industry, we’re very close to S-Day. (2) There really isn’t anything new under the sun, television-wise, that the Chinese brands don’t also have. (3) Large LCDs will migrate exclusively to 4K panel resolution within 2-3 years.

Finally, (4): Televisions just don’t generate much buzz anymore, particularly when you look at all of the tablets, smartphones, and personal electronic displays that were showcased at CES.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for more coverage of CES shortly.

The Diverging Fortunes of Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp: Is There Life After Television?

Last week; Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp announced their financial reports for Q2 2013. And it’s clear that all three would benefit from phasing out the production and sales of televisions.

Panasonic, who is on track to shut down production of plasma display panels by the end of the current fiscal year in March of 2014, turned in a strong performance and raised its operating profit forecast to $2.75B, according to a story on the Reuters Web site.

The company posted a net profit of $627M for the period from July through September, helped by strong sales of automotive and battery products. This number just exceeded an estimate of $621M by industry analysts.

The surge of black ink was helped by downsizing plasma TV operations, along with semiconductor and smartphone manufacturing. Panasonic also concluded a sale of 80% of its healthcare business unit to KKR for about $1.7B.

Not long after saying the company would increase shipments of lithium ion batteries to carmaker Tesla Motors by nearly 2 billion cells through 2017, Panasonic also announced it will exit plasma TV manufacturing, which along with its LCD TV operations lost $261M in the second quarter.

Down the road, Sharp (who operates the world’s largest LCD fab in Sakai, Japan) managed to pull a rabbit out of its hat and announced a profit of $138M for the same quarter, largely due to increased demand for solar cells and a weaker yen against the dollar.  Just one year ago, Sharp had a $5.5B net operating loss and required transfusions of cash from Samsung (2012) and Qualcomm (2013) to stay open.

While both companies have seen a steady decline in their worldwide TV market share (Panasonic dropped 26% from a 7.8% share in 2011 to 6% in 2012, while Sharp plummeted 22% from 6.6% to 5.4%), they’ve obviously figured out that it’s time to re-focus their efforts on more profitable products and are making progress in that direction.

Not so Sony, who evidently never heard Einstein’s famous definition of insanity as “…repeating an experiment and expecting different results.” Sony’s latest financials showed a net operating loss of $197M for the 2nd quarter, largely attributable to its TV operations. The fact that Sony Pictures also had a disappointing quarter didn’t help.

The TV group lost $95M between July and September after recording a $53M profit during the previous quarter. Sales of cameras, camcorders, and Vaio computers were also weak, with only smartphones showing any strength. The company also has high hopes for its PlayStation 4 platform, which will debut later this month.

Still, analysts aren’t convinced that Sony’s strategy to maintain its traditional consumer electronics products presence will work anymore. In a related Reuters story, Makoto Kikuchi, CEO of Tokyo-based Myojo Asset Management, was quoted as saying, “I still cannot see any fundamental and believable strategy for the rebirth of Sony’s electronics business. On the other hand Panasonic, which is shifting its business away from consumer electronics, is reporting better-than-expected results. The contrast is like night and day.”

Let’s be clear: Neither Panasonic or Sharp is out of the woods yet – far from it. Panasonic’s TV operations took an even bigger hit than Sony (-$261M) in Q2 ‘13, and Sharp is still sitting on the edge of bankruptcy. But Sony’s insistence on maintaining a losing CE presence may cost it dearly: Moody’s is apparently considering dropping Sony’s credit rating to junk status.

The fact is; Japanese manufacturers can’t sell TVs and remain profitable anymore; not as long as Samsung and LG maintain aggressive pricing and newcomers like Hisense, Haier, and TCL crash the party (not to mention discount giant Vizio).

And the move to 4K won’t help. Although Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic all have 4K LCD TVs at retail for about $80/inch, the Chinese appear primed for a 4K TV price war that they will inevitably win. Consider that without China, the worldwide market for TV shipments actually declined in 2012 by 4%. Add China to the mix, and it’s an eight-point upward swing.

To sum up; Panasonic seems to have gotten religion, while Sharp is still sobering up. But Sony apparently needs an intervention. Will disgruntled shareholders and/or downgraded credit and a higher cost of borrowing force the issue? Stay tuned…

For Samsung, It’s Now Their Game With Their Rules

Wide View Samsung Booth WR

In less than twenty years, Samsung has risen from a “who’s that?” manufacturer of cheap electronics to the pre-eminent CE brand, dominating the worldwide market for smart phones and televisions, and leading the charge for adoption of organic light-emitting diodes through its subsidiary, Samsung Mobile Display.

The rise in Samsung’s fortunes has paralleled the decline of the Japanese CE industry. Samsung ships roughly 25% of all TVs worldwide and manufactures better than 90% of the OLEDs used in handheld displays. In contrast, the three largest Japanese TV brands combined (Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp) captured less than 20% of the worldwide TV business in 2012 and lost billions of dollars while doing so.

It was one of only two companies to be profitable in televisions for 2012 (LG was the other) and invented a new product category – the “phablet,” or phone with a large (>5”) screen – that has surprised veteran analysts with rapid consumer acceptance.

To give you an idea of Samsung’s clout, it spends a great deal of time in patent courts, suing and being sued by Apple, the second-most-powerful CE brand in the world. (In a Bizzaro twist, Samsung has also partnered with Apple to bid on Kodak patents related to digital imaging.)

And now Samsung is making history: The company announced last week that it will invest $111 million in struggling Sharp Corporation, taking a 3% ownership stake in the manufacturer that has been on the verge of bankruptcy for several months now.

Having a Korean company acquire such a strong position in a legendary Japanese brand is unprecedented, but this action may have staved off a possible majority acquisition by Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision (Chi Mei, Foxconn Group). And that would have been unthinkable in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Why is Samsung taking this step? The answer was foreshadowed over a year ago, when the company reorganized its unprofitable LCD panel manufacturing business as part of SMD. This move showed the company was shifting its R&D resources away from LCDs to OLEDs, a technology that is scalable to displays large and small, and offers numerous image quality and power consumption advantages over LCDs. (That is, if and when OLED yields on larger screens can be increased to workable levels. )

When you control 25% of the global TV market and make money doing it, why throw money away manufacturing LCD panels, which are now unprofitable commodities? Especially when the world’s largest LCD panel fab lies just across the Sea of Japan (or Korea, depending on your version of history) and you can buy inexpensive access to the next-generation of LCD (and OLED) backplane technology, IGZO?

According to a story on the Bloomberg Web site, Sharp is looking at 200 billion yen of convertible bonds that will come due later this year. But cash is hard to come by these days in Osaka, and Apple cut back much-needed orders for smaller LCD glass when iPhone demand began to tail off. A $140M investment by Qualcomm last December helped, but only to keep the vultures at bay for a few months.

In the meantime, Sharp is anticipating a record 450 billion yen ($4.7B) loss for the current fiscal year, which ends this month. Their stock price has dropped 55 percent in the past year, partly because the talks with Foxconn Group have dragged on so long. Sharp has mortgaged its corporate headquarters in Osaka and continues to look for more investors as red ink cascades from their balance sheet.

Amir Anvarzadeh, a manager for Asia equity sales at BGC Partners Inc. (BGCP) was quoted in the Bloomberg story as saying, “Chances for Sharp to revive as a standalone company are zero unless becoming part of a big group like Samsung or Foxconn.”

Speaking of Hon Hai, they’re apparently still in the game. Even though Foxconn Groups’s Terry Gou announced he would buy a nearly 10% stake in Sharp one year ago, the deal still hasn’t been consummated. (The two companies are still in talks, meeting one day after the Samsung announcement.)

This is indeed a new game with new rules. And no one is quite sure how it will play out. One thing we do know is that Samsung, with market-leading positions and $34B in cash, has the strongest hand in the world of consumer electronics right now.

And when you run the game, you get to make the rules…

This article originally appeared at Display Central.

In The Wake of CES 2013: Thoughts and Afterthoughts

It’s just over a month since the International CES, otherwise known as the world’s largest orgy of consumer electronics. Some folks are even jokingly calling it the “Chinese Electronics Show,” after the strong showing by mainland Chinese manufacturers.

I can tell you that, after sorting through over 1,200 photos and videos, I’m still discovering things I photographed in the Las Vegas Convention Center. And there have been plenty of product announcements since the show, not to mention some shifts in power among CE manufacturers.

Each year, I present on future trends in technology at InfoComm. I also travel around and offer a condensed version of this talk for dealer and distributor line shows, professional society meetings, and even for a local amateur radio club.

As you might imagine, the content of the talk is updated frequently. What I present in two weeks at the local chapter meeting of SCTE will look and sound quite a bit different by the time I get to Orlando in mid-June. But that’s the nature of the beast – there is nothing so constant in the world of electronics as change.

Even so, there are a few clear trends that aren’t likely to change in the near future. And the most important trend, one which underlies everything else, is this: Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

This ad (and the gentleman sitting below it) pretty much sum up where CES is headed: A plethora of super-cheap products from companies you never heard of.

This ad (and the gentleman sitting below it) pretty much sum up the future of CES: Walking through endless aisles of generic, super-cheap products from companies you never heard of until your legs give out from exhaustion…

 

Think about it – you can buy a 60-inch plasma TV for less than $1,000, and that’s an everyday price. Want a nice Android tablet? You can pick them up for under $300. Blu-ray players with WiFi connectivity are now available for $70. And Roku’s XD Internet video set-top box (HD playback) is also ticketed at the same price.

Heck, you can buy an 80-inch LCD TV for less than $4,000. And that size and price combination has put a good portion of the front projector market in jeopardy. I won’t rehash previous columns here; suffice it to say that consultants, dealers, and systems integrators are putting these big screens in everywhere, and tearing out a lot of perfectly-good projector/screen combinations along the way.

But the low prices on the 80-inch Sharp TV are due to (a) excess fab capacity at Sharp’s Gen 10 Sakai LCD plant in Japan, and (b) the fact that Sharp is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Hence; the company is pushing the daylights out of large LCD TV and monitor sales at unbelievably low prices (less than $50 per diagonal inch).

Sharp also has a 90-inch product in their line, and anecdotal evidence shows that dealers are buying them for about $8,000 a pop. The 80-inch and 90-inch products are quite popular in two-up, side-by-side installations for videoconferencing and graphics display. And now China is getting into the game, showing 110-inch glass cuts made in Shenzen and resold by (among other brands) Samsung and Westinghouse. No one could have forseen nor desired this rapid drop in prices for LCD displays, particularly when the worldwide market for TVs is in decline.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Even at $269 (16 GB version), Barnes & Noble isn't selling anywhere near as many of these as they expected.

Even at $269 (16 GB version), Barnes & Noble isn’t selling anywhere near as many of these as they expected.

 

The other day, I was shopping in Best Buy and came across a special on USB flash drives (also known as “thumb” drives). SanDisk, celebrating its 25th year in business, was offering 8 gigabyte (GB) flash drives for $6 a pop – no coupons or rebates necessary. 16 GB models had a price tag of $10, and 32 GB drives could be scooped up for $20 apiece.

Believe it or now, flash drive capacity has blown past actual demand. With more and more people storing photos and documents “in the cloud,” there’s less of a need for portable flash memory.

Even so, it will take a long time to fill up a 32 GB flash drive. My 1,200+ photos and videos from CES needed about 3 GB of space on the 32 GB SD card installed in my Nikon CoolPix 8200 camera.

I bought a Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ tablet in December, and fitted it with a 32 GB Micro SD card.  That is a LONG way from filling up – the only files that take up any sizable room are HD movies I download for rentals (about 6 – 7 GB per movie).

You can buy 64 GB and even 128 GB flash drives now at reasonable prices. For those crazy enough to want one, you can pick up a 500 GB thumb drive for about $300 now. Of course, you can also purchase a 1 TB Western Digital MyBook for backups at a cost of just $129.95, or a Toshiba 2 TB portable HDD for less than $200.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Dock an Asus smart phone in the back of this tablet, and you have an 8-inch phone/tablet, or

Plug an Asus smart phone in the back of this tablet, and you have an 8-inch HD phone/tablet, or “phablet” – a great example of a market-disrupting, multifunction CE product.

 

The trend towards multifunction CE devices has also put a few product categories on the endangered species list. Shipments of point-and-shoot and DSLR camera declined markedly in 2011 when compared to 2010, a trend that is expected to repeat when 2012’s numbers are tallied.

The culprit? Mobile phones and tablets. Sure, they don’t have optical zoom lenses. And their image resolution still isn’t on a par with the best DSLRs and point-and-shoots. But that makes no difference to the average consumer, who is often pleasantly surprised to see just how well his or her smart phone takes HD-resolution pictures.

Last year, Canon and Nikon even introduced several models of DSLRs and pocket cameras with built-in WiFi and the Android operating system, just so people could take photos and instantly share them with friends. As far as I can tell, these products aren’t doing much to stem the decline in camera sales. After all, you can’t make phone calls or send texts with these cameras.

Nonetheless, prices for cameras have dropped to all-time lows. A nice compact point-and-shoot can be yours for less than $100, while a 16 megapixel model with 14x optical zoom and the ability to shoot 1080p/30 videos will run about $200. (As a point of reference, Canon’s first 5D-series DSLRs could shoot 3 frames per second in 2005 and cost $3,300.)

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Who needs a dedicated game controller? Just use your smart phone, through its MHL connector, to do the job.

Who needs a dedicated game controller? Just use your smart phone, through its MHL connector, to do the job.

 

Even though consumers haven’t swarmed to “smart” TV functions, they do like their streaming – and Netflix is now the largest pay TV system operator in the United States, with over 25 million subscribers (yes, more than Comcast). With an ever-increasing number of viewers watching video on tablets, notebooks, and through Internet connectivity boxes like Apple TV, Boxee, and Roku, we’re seeing the leading edge of a shift in how TV shows and movies are accessed.

The phenomenon of “cord-cutting” is not new – mainstream publications have been following it for some time. But there’s evidence that the trend is accelerating, driven by ever-higher costs for pay TV subscriptions that are running above the annual rate of inflation.

And it’s Generation Y that is taking the lead here, preferring to watch episodes of popular TV shows after they become available for download or streaming at Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Netflix, and on network Web sites. That is carrying time-shifting to an extreme, but it’s all in the name of economy.

Now, the traditional pay TV systems will tell you that cord-cutting is an aberration; a short-lived phenomenon that will run its course once younger people get married, form households, have children, and change to more traditional cable or satellite service.

Except that doesn’t appear to be happening. Just as Generation X and Y have all but pushed traditional landline telephone service into oblivion in favor of 24/7 mobile phone use, so too will they force the Comcasts, Time Warners, and DirecTVs of the world to finally offer some type of a la carte programming at lower prices.

And Gen X and Y will succeed because they’re already watching a la carte, streaming or downloading selected shows and movies at $2 – $5 a pop when it suits them. Many are supplementing Internet TV viewing with free, over-the-air broadcast HDTV services to hold the line on their entertainment budgets.

Many people buy WiFi-enabled Blu-ray players solely for the purpose of streaming. Yes, they can pop in a BD or DVD now and then, but the majority of their viewing is through that streaming port. And that is one reason why Blu-ray player prices have dropped so far and so fast.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Panasonic's NEO plasma TVs make drop-dead beautiful pictures. So how come most people still buy LCD TVs?

Panasonic’s NEO plasma TVs make drop-dead beautiful pictures at reasonable prices. So how come nearly 9 out of 10 people still buy LCD TVs?

 

When you stop and think about it, the cost of consumer electronic devices compared to the power and functionality they offer is simply mind-boggling. With a $40 Bluetooth keyboard and $60 micro mouse, my Nook HD+ is transformed into a super-compact notebook computer. I can surf the Web, watch movies and TV shows, send and receive emails, and even make a PowerPoint presentation. And all of that cost me less than $400.

Televisions with screens smaller than 50 inches can often be purchased for less than $10 per diagonal inch. For that matter, I’ve seen 26-inch and 32-inch LCD TVs for about $8 per diagonal inch, a price point at which virtually no one is making any money. This means your next TV purchase is basically amortized in less than a year, and if it breaks, you simply recycle it and buy a new one.

The glut of LCD TVs in all sizes and the resulting TV price wars are claiming one casualty – plasma. Plasma TVs were once the Rolls-Royce of TVs and commanded comparable pricing. They still have the advantage in image quality all over LCDs, particularly at wide viewing angles. Maybe they aren’t quite as bright, but they do have excellent dynamic range and deep blacks.

So what? In the third quarter of 2012, 88% of all TV shipments worldwide were LCDs. 5.5% were plasma. In fact, more CRT TVs were shipped worldwide in Q3 2012 than plasma TVs! (You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say.)

Clearly, price and convenience are trumping quality, adding plasma to the endangered species list. Samsung, Panasonic, and LG will continue to manufacture plasma TVs as long as there is reasonable demand, but have been shuttering factories and fabs along the way as demand drops.

More importantly, they’re not investing any more capital in upgrading or enhancing plasma technology – not while TV prices are hovering in the range of $8 – $12 per diagonal inches, LCDs account for nearly 9 out of every 10 TVs sold currently, and the Chinese are breathing down the necks of Korean and Japanese TV brands with even lower-priced models.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Haier'as 84-inch 4K LCD TV looked as good as anything in the LG and Sony booths.

Haier’s 84-inch 4K LCD TV looked as good as anything I saw in the LG and Sony booths.

 

I’ll close this essay with a look to the future of TV – specifically, 4K TV. You can shrug your shoulders, smirk, or make fun of 4K. But there’s no denying that it’s coming whether or not there is enough 4K content to watch.

4K went from being highly-anticipated at CES to “ho hum” in a single day. That’s because so many companies had 4K TVs on display, and many of those were located in China. Brands like Hisense, TCL, Skyworth, and Haier showed fully-loaded 4K TV products that were every bit as impressive as the latest “smart” TV offerings from Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp.

Not only that, the Chinese brands had multiple models of 4K TVs. While Sony and LG got some “oohs!” and “aahs!” for their 84-inch LCD offerings, Hisense had 50-inch, 55-inch, 65-inch, 84-inch, and 100-inch models flickering away in the aisles. Westinghouse Digital showed a similar portfolio in their LVH suite. Skyworth’s small booth was dominated by an 84-inch 4K set, while TCL pulled off a sensational marketing and PR coup; getting the producers of the upcoming Iron Man 3 release (May) to showcase their 110-inch 4K set in the movie. (Guess Samsung and Sharp were asleep when that happened?)

The fact is, most TV manufacturing is inexorably moving to China. Some will remain in Korea, but it’s hard to see how the Japanese can hang on, seeing as they are getting clobbered by an unfavorable exchange rate on the yen and the emergence of large LCD fabs in Taiwan and China that can make big sheets of inexpensive, good-quality LCD glass – glass that can be used in everything from tablets and phones to televisions. It’s just not a fair fight.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it…

 

 

CES 2013: From Hype to Ho-Hum in Minutes

Here we go again ! (Sigh…)

Here we go again ! (Sigh…)

Things are booming in the world of consumer electronics, regardless of the state of the world’s economy. You needed no additional proof beyond the enormous turnout at last week’s International CES, which was in excess of 150,000, according to official press releases. Even if you apply the Kell factor, that’s still a huge turnout – at least 120,000.

I’ve used an easy rule to determine attendance: How long it takes to catch a cab at the end of the first two days of the show. 10 minutes? Light turnout. 20 minutes? Respectable turnout. 40 minutes or more? Now, that’s a crowd!

I spent the equivalent of three full days at the show, scrambling back and forth between strip hotels and the convention center, capturing over 1200 videos and photos along the way. After a while, it all started to blur together. I mean; how many 110-inch TVs do you have to see before the “awe” wears off? How many tablets will you run across before you swear never to touch another one?

This year’s edition of show was characterized by a level playing field across many technologies. No longer do the Japanese and Koreans have an exclusive right to “first to market.” Their neighbors across the sea are now just as technically competent, if not more so.

hisense

Hisense’s “Big Bertha” uses the same glass as TVs shown by TCL, Samsung, and Westinghouse Digital.

syyworth

Everybody (and their brother) had an 84-inch 4K TV at the show. (Yawn…)

Case in point: The 110-inch 4K LCD TVs shown at CES (I counted four of them, including one in the Samsung booth) all use glass from a Chinese LCD fab known as China Star Optoelectronics Technology, which is a three-year old joint venture between TCL, Samsung, and the local government of Shenzen.

Never heard of them? You will. What’s even more amazing is that their Gen 8.5 LCD fab is (according to an industry insider I spoke to) more efficiently used when cutting two 98-inch LCD panels at the same time. Those are huge cuts, and given China’s predilection for market dominance, we may see rapid price drops in 4K TVs across all sizes by the end of 2013.

Speaking of 4K (UHDTV); everyone had it. And I mean everyone! Sony, Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Toshiba, Sharp, Westinghouse, Skyworth, TCL, Hisense, Haier – wait! You never heard of those last four companies? The last three had enormous booths at the show, and Hisense showed five different models of 4K TVs – 50, 58, 65, 84, and 100 inches. That’s more than anyone else had.

In a significant marketing and PR coup, TCL managed to get their 110-inch 4K TV featured in Iron Man III, which debuts in May. That’s the sort of promotional genius that Sony and Panasonic used to pull off. But there are new guys on the block now, and they’re playing for keeps. The steady decline of the Japanese TV industry and continuing financial woes of its major players are all the proof you need.

4koled tv

So – who was REALLY “first” to show a 4K 56-inch OLED TV? Sony, or…

panasonic

…Panasonic, who also claimed they were the “first?” (Maybe it was a matter of minutes?)

Interestingly, Sony’s booth signs identified this display as the “world’s first and largest OLED TV.” Puzzling, as it clearly wasn’t the first OLED TV ever shown, and just down the hall, Panasonic was showing its 56-inch OLED TV, the “world’s largest 4K OLED created by printing technology.” Both companies need to get out of their booths more often!

Panasonic, who emphatically renewed their commitment to plasma at CES (despite a continued decline in plasma TV sales worldwide), clearly wanted to show they had a second act ready when plasma eventually bites the bullet. The company is also a major player in IPS LCD, manufacturing LCD TVs in sizes to 65 inches that are every bit as good anything LG cranks out.

Speaking of LG…the heavy emphasis on 3D found in last year’s booth was all but gone this year. Yes, the enormous passive 3DTV wall that greeted visitors at the entrance was still there. And there were a few passive 3D demos scattered throughout the booth. But the more impressive exhibit featured a wall of curved 55-inch OLED TVs. (Why would anyone need a curved TV? You’re probably asking. Well, why would anyone need most of the stuff you see at CES?)

LG also showcased a unique product – a 100” projector screen illuminated by an ultra-short-throw laser projector. LG billed it as the world’s largest wall-mount TV (for now) and it’s known as “Hecto.” The projector uses laser diodes (presumably with DLP technology; that wasn’t mentioned) to illuminate that screen at a distance of just 22 inches.

lg oled tv

It’s bad enough that LG shows 55-inch OLED TVs we can’t buy yet. Now, they have curved OLED TVs we can’t buy yet. (Drool…)

3d tv

Got two people who want to watch two different 3D TV programs at the same time? No problem for Samsung!

Back down the hall, LG’s neighbor Samsung also showed a 55-inch curved OLED TV (just one) and a couple of company representatives were surprised to hear that LG had a bevy of them. (I repeat my observation about booth personnel who need to get out more.) Samsung did have a clever demo of an OLED TV showing simultaneous 2K programming – simply change a setting on the 3D glasses and you could watch one or the other show. (TI showed this same trick years ago with DLP RPTVs by switching left eye and right information.)

Samsung did have an 85-inch 4K LCD TV that wasn’t duplicated anywhere else on the show floor, and as far as I can tell, it’s a home-grown product. But given the company’s investment in China Star and its shifting emphasis on AM OLED production, I would not be surprised to see Samsung sourcing more of its LCD glass from China in the near future.

Sharp’s booth intrigued me. Here’s a company on the verge of bankruptcy that was showing a full line of new Quattron LCD TVs, along with “Moth Eye” anti-glare first surface glass. Moth Eye glass preserves high contrast and color saturation, but minimizes reflections in a similar way to a moth’s eye; hence the name. Sharp also had impressive demos of flexible OLEDs and a gorgeous 32-inch 4K LCD monitor.

IGZO was also heralded all around the booth. Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide is a new type of semiconductor layer for switching LCD pixels that consumes less power, passes more light, and switches at faster speeds. Many LCD manufacturers (and OLED manufacturers, too) are working on IGZO, but Sharp is closer to the finish line than anyone else – and that may be the salvation of the company, along with an almost-inevitable orderly bankruptcy.

IGZO is why Terry Gou, the chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industries, wants to buy a piece of Sharp – about 10%, to be exact. He’s looking for a source of VA glass for Apple’s tablets and phones (Hon Hai owns Foxconn, who manufactures these products.) And if Sharp can’t get its financial house in order, he might wind up making a bid for the entire company. (“Never happen!” you say. “The Japanese government wouldn’t allow it.” Well, these are different times we live in, so never say “never!”)

igzo

Sharp may not be able to balance their books, but they still know how to manufacture some beautiful displays.

tlc

It goes without saying that Tony Stark would have a 110-inch TV, right?

On to the Chinese. They showed 4K, 84-inch and 110-inch LCD glass cuts, gesture recognition, clever LED illumination systems, 3D, smart TVs – basically, everything the Japanese and Koreans were showing. Hisense had a spectacular demo of a transparent 3D LCD TV, along with something called U-LED TV. The explanation of this by the booth representative was so ambiguous that I’ll leave it at an enhanced method of controlling the backlight for improved contrast.

I had heard from an industry colleague that Hisense’s XT880-series 4K TV would have rock-bottom retail prices, but couldn’t confirm this from booth personnel. (Think of $2,000 for a 50-inch 4K TV.) The company’s gesture recognition demo wasn’t nearly as impressive – it’s powered by Israel-based EyeSight – but clearly shows that Hisense is just as far along in refining this feature as anyone else.

TCL had demonstrations of high-contrast 4K TVs with amazingly deep blacks; as good as anything I’ve seen from LG and Samsung. They also had a demonstration of autostereo 3D at the back of their booth, very close to Toshiba (who was showing the same thing). Haier had that now-ubiquitous 4K LCD TV prominently featured in their booth, along with smart TVs and what must have been several dozen tablets. Meanwhile, Skyworth’s booth in the lower south hall showcased yet another 84-inch 4K TV.

rca

RCA’s got the first tablet with an integrated ATSC/MH tuner, and it runs Windows 8.

tv antennas

TV antennas are passe? NOT!

celluons

Celluon’s laser-powered virtual keyboard works on any surface. TI had a pair connected to picoprojectors in their suite.

Vizio’s suite at the Wynn featured 80-inch, 70-inch, and 60-inch LCD TVs using the Sharp Gen 10 glass, and they looked impressive. One version of the 70-inch set is already selling below $2,000, and the 80-incher will come in (for now) at just under $4,500. Vizio also had three new 4K TVs in 55-inch, 65-inch, and 70-inch sizes, but no pricing was announced yet. (Everyone is sitting on their hands waiting for the other guy to price his 4K TVs!)

There was obviously a lot more to CES than televisions. Vizio has a new 11.6” tablet with 1920×1080 resolution that runs Windows 8 with a AMD Z-60 processor. Panasonic showed a prototype 20-inch 4K (3840×2560) tablet using IPS-alpha glass. It also runs Windows 8 with an Intel Corei5 CPU and has multi-touch and stylus input. And RCA had a cool 8-inch tablet (Win 8 OS) that incorporates an ATSC receiver and small antenna. It can play back both conventional 8VSB and MH broadcasts.

Silicon Image had a kit-bashed 7” Kindle tablet running their new UltraGig 6400 60 GHz transmitter, delivering 2K video to a bevy of LCD TVs. They also showed a new image scaling chip to convert 2K to 4K, along with the latest version of InstaPrevue. The latter technology lets you see what’s on any connected HDMI input with I-frame thumbnails of video and still images.

sillcon

Silicon Image’s new UltraGig 6400 TX chip connects this full HD Kindle tablet to an HDTV at 60 GHz.

speech

Conexant’s powerful speech processing chips can filter out any background noise while you “command” your smart TV.

omeks

Omek’s gesture control demo was easily the most impressive at the show.

Over in the LV Hotel, Conexant dazzled with a demonstration of adaptive background noise filtering to improve the reliability of voice control systems for televisions. The demo consisted of a nearby loudspeaker playing back an art lecture while commands for TV operation were spoken. A graphical representation showed how effectively the background noise was filtered out completely. The second demo had a Skype conversation running with a TV on in the background and the remote caller walking around the room. I never heard one peep from the TV, and the remote caller was always intelligible.

A few floors down, Omek (yet another Israel-based gesture recognition startup) had perhaps the best demo of gesture control at the show. Their system captures 22 points of reference along your hands, allowing complex gesture control using simple, intuitive finger and wrist movement. (No flailing of arms was necessary). I watched as an operator at a small computer monitor pulled a virtual book from a shelf and flipped through its pages, and also selected a record album, removed the record from its sleeve, and placed it on a virtual turntable. I was even treated to a small marionette show!

At the Renaissance, Prime Sense had numerous exhibits that all revolved around their new, ultra-compact 3D camera design. One demo by Shopperception involved boxes of cereal on a shelf. As you picked one up, the sensors would flash a coupon offer for that cereal to your tablet or phone, or suggest you buy a larger, more economical size instead of two boxes.

Nearby, Covii had one of those “You Are Here” shopping mall locator maps that operated with touchless sensing to expand and provide more detail about any store you were interested in, including sales and promotions. And Matterport had a nifty 3D 360-degree camera that could scan and provide a 3D representation of any room in about one minute. You could then rotate and turn the views in any direction.

hzo

Do not – repeat, DO NOT try this at home with your tablet!

hybird

A hybrid low rider? With a 500-watt sound system? Who’d a thunk it?

gps

Wear this Garmin GPS watch and nobody can ever tell you to “get lost!”

HzO was back with another amazing demo of their WaterBlock waterproofing system. They had a tablet computer sitting in a continuous shower, and also dunked it in a fish tank. Additional demos included dropping smart phones in a bowl of beer and other mysterious liquids. The water infiltrates all spaces but has no effect on operation – you just drip-dry the device once extracted from water. (How do you get rid of the beer smell, though?)

There was an HDMI pavilion at the show, but I was more interested in the goings-on at the DisplayPort exhibit. VESA representatives showed me a single-channel DP connection from a smart phone to a TV for gaming and playing back video, all over a super-thin connecting cable. The powers that be at VESA are also talking about upping the data rates for DisplayPort (currently about 18 Gb/s) to accommodate higher-resolution TVs.

Right now, DP uses an uncompressed data coding method. But there is now discussion of applying a light compression algorithm (tentatively called DisplayStream) that would enable data rates to go much higher – more like 25 Gb/s. (DisplayPort can currently handle 3840×2160 pixels with 10-bit color and a 60-Hz refresh rate.)

I was surprised at the number of devices at the show that support HDMI, and expected more support for DP given its ability to handle higher data rates and its Thunderbolt data layer overlay. It may still be early in the game – the venerable VGA connector is on its way out starting this year, and manufacturers of laptops, tablets, and phones are still debating which digital interface to hitch their horses to.

ces

No, this is not a typical CES attendee. But it’s how all of us feel after three days at the show.

panasonic

Panasonic’s 20-inch 4K offering is the Rolls-Royce of tablets. (So who needs a notebook!)

inada

Suffice it to say that this was a VERY popular booth at CES…

mattress

…as was this one. Sealy lets you control your mattress settings from your iPad. (Hey, it’s CES!)

Let’s wrap things up with a discussion of ultrabooks. Intel’s booth prominently featured a full line of these next-gen notebooks, although several of the models on display weren’t nearly as thin as I’d expect an ultrabook to be. Shipments of “ultras” in 2012 were only about half of what was forecast.

The reason? Tablets. Vizio’s new tablet is one of the larger models at nearly 12 inches, but Panasonic showed you can go even larger and make it work. At that point, why would you need a notebook? I left mine at home this time and used a Nook HD+ instead. Fitted with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and loaded with Office-compatible programs, it did everything I needed it to do while in Vegas.

Needless to say, the Intel booth representative wasn’t too happy when I pointed this out to him. But that’s the thing about CES: There’s always some other guy at the show that has the same or better product than you. There’s always a better mousetrap or waffle-maker lurking in the South Hall. Very few companies have much of an edge in technology these days (the Chinese brands proved that in spades), and so many of these “wow, gotta have it!” items become commodities in rapid order.

The plethora of 4K and ultra-large LCD TVs found at CES proved this conclusively, as they went from hype to ho-hum in a matter of minutes. So did tablets, smart phones, and other connectivity gadgets. What CES 2013 was really about was the shift in manufacturing prowess and power to China from Japan and Korea; a shift that will only accelerate with time. And that is definitely NOT ho-hum!

Editor’s note: Many thanks and a tip of the hat to Nikon booth personnel, who were apparently charging and swapping out batteries for journalists who (like me) inadvertently ran out of power during the show. They saved me more than once!

marilyn

Marilyn says, “Gentlemen prefer 4K 3D curved wireless multi-touch OLED IGZO cloud-based voice controlled tablets!” (See you next year…)