Posts Tagged ‘Toshiba’

Tough Times Ahead For Toshiba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Toshiba Spitting Into The Wind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows? Maybe the winds will change direction?

The Rout Is On – by Pete Putman

As things go, the flat screen TV business is relatively young. Until ten years ago, large LCD TVs weren’t even viable products. And plasma dominated the large screen (42” and up) flat screen TV business.

 

But neither technology held any substantial market share. Instead, CRT televisions (and rear-projection CRT sets) were ‘kings of the hill.’

 

Going back through some of my archives, I found that in the fourth quarter of 2005, CRT TVs held a 78.9% worldwide market share. That represented a decline of 15% from Q4 of 2004, no doubt due to the 137% increase in LCD TV market share in the same time period (yes, you read that right, 137%!).

 

While LCD TVs held a 14.7% market share, plasma TV share grew from 1.8% of all TVs sold to 3.9%, a growth rate of 109%. CRT rear-projection TVs held .9% of the market, a drop of 60% from Q4 ’04, while microdisplay RPTVs grew to 1.6% of the pie, an increase of 52% over the same time period. (All numbers compiled from DisplaySearch reports.)

 

How about the major TV brands? From Q3 ’05 to Q4 ’05, it might surprise you to learn that Sony had the top TV brand revenue share and growth, with 14% of all TV sales revenue (a quarterly growth rate of 130%)! Samsung was right behind with 11% revenue share and 36% Q-Q growth, followed by Philips (9.1% revenue share, 31% Q-Q growth), Panasonic (8.3% revenue share, 13% Q-Q growth), and LG (7.8% revenue share, 28% Q-Q growth).

 

These five companies accounted for 50% of all TV revenue in Q4 of 2005. And there was only about a 6-point spread between #1 and #5, so the pie was being divvied up pretty equally.

 

In terms of TV brand unit share, the order was changed somewhat. LG captured the number one spot with 9.8% unit share in Q4 ‘05, followed by Samsung (9.2%), TTE (7.5%), Philips (7.1%), and Sony (6.9%). The remaining 60% was chopped up among a host of brands.

 

The eye-opener here was when I went back to the beginning of 2005. For the first quarter of the year, Sharp topped the branded TV market share with an amazing 21% (a year-to-year growth of 82%). Philips was number 2 with 14.7% share, followed by Samsung (10.8%), Sony (10%), and LG (7.3%). The five brands accounted for 60% of all TV sales back then.

 

So – in a little less than a year, Sony added 7% to its brand share, while Samsung marched in place, LG picked up about 2 points, Sharp fell off the map completely, and Philips lost half its brand share. (TTE didn’t show up in the 2005 listings at all.)

 

Now, let’s jump ahead to Q4 2011. NPD DisplaySearch’s latest numbers show that LCD flatscreen TVs now account for 86.5% of all TVs sold worldwide. Plasma continues to decline as it pushes into a larger screen ‘niche,’ grabbing a miniscule 6.9% market share. Amazingly, CRT TVs still held a 6.4% share, while RPTVs managed to eke out a .0004% market share – look for this category to be killed off completely in 2012.

 

And the tables have turned completely from 2005 in terms of worldwide market share. Samsung managed the amazing feat of increasing its market share to 26.3% from Q4 ’10 to Q4 ’11, an all-time record and an amazing growth rate of 18% in an otherwise-flat (no pun intended) industry. LG was far behind Samsung with a 13.4% market share, essentially unchanged since Q4 ’10.

 

As for Sony, they also held steady at 9.8%, basically the same as a year before, while Panasonic saw a decline of 2% to 6.9%. Sharp – who continues to sell fewer LCD TVs than Panasonic, incredibly – experienced a decline of 7% from Q4 ’10 to a 5.9% market share in Q4 ’11. These five brands accounted for 62.3% of the 74,236,000 TVs sold.

 

So what does this all mean? First, Samsung has clearly blown away everyone else in the TV industry, opening up a double-digit lead over their nearest competitor (LG) in market share. And those two guys waste time arguing about whether passive or active is better for 3D viewing?

 

Second, we’re seeing the slow, inexorable end of the Japanese television industry, just as we saw it happen in the United States in the late 1970s to the late 1980s. Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic are all hemorrhaging money for the current fiscal year that ends on March 31, and the consumer TV business is the primary reason.

 

When TVs sold for $50 per diagonal inch and up, there was plenty of money on the table for everyone. But now that mainstream TVs screen sizes (up to 55 inches) are selling for $10 – $15 per diagonal inch, the Japanese simply can’t compete anymore. And it will only get worse with Chinese TV brands Haier, Hisense, TCL, and others establishing beachheads on all continents.

 

Third, it’s over. The fat lady has sung. Samsung has won. They set out in the mid-1990s to beat Sony at their own game, and by any reasonable account, have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Samsung will make a nice profit on 2011 TV sales, and LG will at least get their LCD TV business back into the black.

 

But the story isn’t so pretty for Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic. Sharp still has no explanation for their continual slide in market share, which apparently began in 2005 and continued uninterrupted, and which has now idled (by some accounts) 50% of their LCD fab capacity. As for Panasonic, they’d already shut down one LCD and one plasma factory in 2011, because demand just isn’t there. And no one in Osaka knows how to fix the problem.

 

Sony is being pressured by financial analysts in Japan to get out of the TV business altogether, a decision which, as painful as it might be to management given Sony’s long and rich history with TV manufacturing, is probably the most sensible thing to do. The company’s TV business has lost money for eight straight years – never mind the strong market share numbers that popped up early on.

 

And it’s not going to get better any time soon, as DisplaySearch stated that 2011 worldwide TV shipments actually declined .3% in 2011, reversing six consecutive years of growth. Only the LCD TV category showed any increase with a bare-bones 1% uptick. Everything else was on a downhill slide, with plasma declining 7%, CRTs falling 43%, and RPTVs in a 51% tailspin.

 

Hitachi has already pulled the plug on their TV business. Toshiba and Mitsubishi will no doubt follow suit in the next 12-24 months. And that will leave us with the Hatfields & McCoys in Korea, plus a host of Chinese brands you may want to get familiar with. (The running joke at CES 2012 is that it was the “Chinese” Electronics Show, and that’s not far from the truth!)

 

The rout is on…

CES 2012: ANOTHER OPENING, ANOTHER SHOW

Over the top? Nahhh, it's CES!

 

There’s still a debate about whether the U.S. economy has turned the corner and is on the rebound. As far as CES 2012 attendees were concerned, that ‘corner’ is way back in the rear-view mirror! According to official CES reports, over 140,000 people flocked to the Las Vegas Convention Center for the world’s second-largest annual gadget orgy (and at least 100,000 of them were constantly waiting on the South Hall cab lines).

 

The show was notable for several things. First, the expanding presence of Chinese CE brands, like TCL, Changhong, Haier, and Hisense. (Never heard of them? You’re not alone.) Second, this show was Microsoft’s curtain call, as they’ve decided to go the route of Apple and stage their own product intros in the future.

 

Third, there was a decided pull-back on 3D (aside from LG, who made it the focus of their booth) and a renewed emphasis on ‘connected’ TVs in all shapes and flavors. And fourth, gesture recognition made a well-deserved comeback this year after being mostly an afterthought in 2011.

 

Overall, the show had less of a “let’s build it because we can” feel, and more of a “let’s actually make a practical gadget that people will want to buy” buzz. Still, there were the usual surprises – some were telegraphed in advance, while others showed up quite unexpectedly.

LG's 55-inch OLED was a thing of beauty.

And Samsung's 55-inch OLED wasn't too shabby, either.

 

Here’s an example. Both LG and Samsung showed 55-inch organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs at the show. LG’s unveiling had been common knowledge, while Samsung’s was only revealed to members of the press under embargo. But both showings attracted constant crowds, as OLEDs in this size are a rare sighting!

 

LG’s 55-incher is supposedly a production model and will come from a new Gen 8 fab in Korea. It uses Kodak’s white OLED technology (purchased by LG a couple of years ago), with discrete red, green, blue, and white filters applied. Samsung’s approach is a bit trickier and employs discrete red, green, and blue OLEDs. Both panels looked terrific, and thank goodness for LG Display’s separate, quieter and far less chaotic suite at the Bellagio, where I could examine the OLED TV more closely.

 

It’s hard to upstage a demo like that, but Sony almost pulled it off by showing 46-inch and 55-inch inorganic LED TVs. What’s an inorganic LED? It’s the same technology that powers those outdoor LED signs you see alongside highway and inside stadiums and arenas. Only Sony figured out a way to stuff 6.2 million small-pitch RGB LEDs into a TV, using an expensive and time-consuming wire bonding process that ensures (for now) that these products won’t come to market any time soon. But these TVs still looked spectacular and livened up what was otherwise a rather sedate Sony booth, compared to 2011 (remember that 92-foot passive 3D screen and the astronaut DJ?)

Sony's 46-inch Crystal LED (left) and a 46-inch Bravia LCD TV (right).

 

Just down the hall, Sharp left no doubts about its product marketing strategy for the next few years by showcasing a new 80-inch professional video display with touchscreen overlay. The Aquos Touch is adapted from Sharp’s 80-inch Aquos TV that launched in the fall of 2011, and complements the 70-inch product already in the line. Given that Sharp’s market share in TVs has inexplicably dwindled to the mid-single figures, this is an interesting approach – but the playing field is wide open. And the pro AV channel is very interested in large, self-contained displays that could replace traditional two-piece projector installations.

 

Sharp also tickled our fancy with several Freestyle “portable” LCD TVs, including models as large as 60 inches. These TVs have been designed to be as light as possible and use a WiFi-based solution to stream HD content, so you can pretty much pick ‘em up and move ‘em wherever there’s an AC outlet. (I guess that includes the garage if you want to watch a football game with your best buds and keep the noise level down…)

 

3D was around, but clearly took a back seat to other demos. Still, Toshiba showed several examples of 1080p and 4K autostereo 3D TVs in their booth. These demos once again required the viewer to stand in specific locations to receive the full autostereo effect, and Toshiba thoughtfully provided small green circles with arrows in them as visual cues – when both were seen, you were positioned in a ‘sweet spot.’ Toshiba has clearly walked away from active 3D and has a few passive 3D sets in their line, but it appears autostereo is their game plan for the near future. (And yes, the 4K TV looked spectacular.)

 

Next door, Panasonic anted up big time by showing a new line of LED-backlit LCD TVs that will be available in sizes to 55 inches, immediately casting doubts as to the company’s future plans for plasma TVs.  These ET-series sets employ Panasonic’s IPS-Alpha LCD panels and I have to admit, they looked doggone good, particularly at wide viewing angles. Still, the company had plenty of plasma announcements, including faster subfield drive for improved motion rendering and even lower power consumption from the 2011 plasma lineup. For my money, plasma is still the way to go – that is, until OLED prices drop low enough.

4K is a lotta pixels! Wonder where the content will come from...

Are Panasonic's new ET-series LCD TVs the 'writing on the wall' for plasma?

 

LG is head over heels in love with 3D. That’s the only conclusion anyone could make after cruising through their booth, which featured an enormous panoramic Cinema 3D videowall (passive, of course) at the Central Hall entrance. Inside, LG’s 55-inch OLED was shown with 3D and 2D content, and a nearby exhibit showcased an 84-inch 4K 3D LCD monitor. (Sorry, it’s not for sale – yet…) 3D popped up on so many LG products that I expected the ‘smart’ washer and dryers also located in the massive exhibit to be labeled ‘Cinema 3D’ as well. (Technically speaking, you could apply film patterned retarders to the front port of the washer – oh, never mind.)

 

As mentioned earlier, the overwhelming presence of numerous Chinese brands at the show clearly shows which way the wind’s blowing these days. Haier brought back their clever wireless LCD TV demo from two years ago, and this version builds the inductive coupling system into the pedestal. Yes, it is completely wireless, power and all. (Amazing what you can do with a big transformer!) Elsewhere in the Haier booth, you could find a “brain wave TV” demo that was supposed to allow you to “think” of changing channels and raising/lowering volume. (It kinda worked.)

 

Changhong and TCL both exhibited some really sharp-looking LCD TV designs, proving that Japan and Korea don’t have any special magic in this area. All of the companies had 3D sets out for inspection with the majority using passive 3D technology, while several of the models were ‘smart’ TVs with built-in WiFi Internet connections for streaming video. No content partnerships were announced or seen, however. It’s telling that the size of these booths is getting larger with each year, while some of the Japanese TV manufacturers are slowly shrinking.

Look Ma - no HDMI cables, no power cables, no USB cables, no cables period!

I don't know what it means, but the thought is intriguing...

 

Speaking of ‘smart’ TVs, everybody had them – Sharp, LG, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, Haier, TCL, Hisense, you name it. That included connected Blu-ray players. Samsung’s Apps for TV seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, and Panasonic’s Viera Connect has also added content partners. LG’s ‘smart’ TV featured a demo of the new Google TV interface, which certainly looked a lot more user-friendly that the last implementation and presented a much more logical process for searching and finding video content on the Web.

 

Many of the companies exhibiting at CES used Rovi’s Total Guide EPG (or variations of it) to search out and find Web video content, as well as more traditional sources like cable, satellite, and even broadcast TV. Rovi has ported their guide to every possible platform and in their suite at Caesar’s Palace, showed implementations on set-top boxes, tablets, and a variety of TVs. The company is also into ad insertion and content delivery management systems. In short, they find it, stream it, and monetize it.

 

How about connecting all of this stuff together? Rainbow Fish had a small booth in the rear of the South Hall, but it was worth hunting down. They are selling direct HDMI-to-fiber optic connectivity kits that use multimode fiber and require only a separate USB connection at the TV to supply 5 volt phantom power to the lasers. Everything is built into the plugs, so there’s no need for separate converter boxes.

HDMI to fiber is here. Need a 300-foot extension? No problem!

DO try this at home. At least, 3M says so.

 

A few booths away, 3M was hawking a new ‘unbreakable’ HDMI cable design. Its super-flat and you can fold it, bend it, twist it – in short, pretty much abuse it any way you want. But you won’t screw up the signal, as 3M’s presentation showed. There are two types of cables – one for consumer applications, and one for computers (notebooks, I guess) and 3M offers plenty of options for color-coding the cable ends. They won’t be sold directly, but through OEM partners. Marry these with the drop-forged HDMI plugs I saw at a nearby booth, and you’ve got a ‘super’ HDMI connection.

 

Don’t want to plug anything in? Silicon Image has rejuvenated the Wireless HD standard with its acquisition of SiBeam, and was demonstrating 60 GHz wireless HDMI connectivity from tablets and notebook computers to large TVs. Wireless HD is a close range HDMI connectivity standard that is not WiFi based, and the chipsets and associated connections can now be manufactured in sizes small enough to build into a tablet. So, who will be the first to add it to their tablet? (My vote is for the next-generation iPad.)

 

Some signs just can't be explained. Your guess is as good as mine...

Over in the Hilton, the WHDI Consortium had their demos of 5 GHz wireless HDMI interfaces running on professional camcorders, tablets, notebooks (including wireless DisplayPort and wireless VGA, for some unknown reason), and TVs. Asus showed a production notebook computer with WHDI connectivity built-in, and HP is now selling a WHDI connectivity kit for computers and TVs. Atlona won a Best of CES award for its WHDI-based LinkCast wireless HDMI package. Can WHDI compete with Wireless HD? We’ll see as 2012 unfolds.

Fish need camcorders?

 

Have you ever dropped your cell phone in a pool, or in the toilet? HzO had a demonstration of their proprietary waterproofing system for handheld CE devices that showcased an iPhone merrily playing away a selection of iTunes while dunked in a fish tank for several hours. Other phones that had been ‘treated’ also took a dive. Waterproofing was a big thing at CES, as I spotted several tanks full of phones, camcorders, and still cameras.

 

I mentioned gesture recognition earlier. PrimeSense, the company behind Microsoft’s Kinect Xbox motion recognition system, had an impressive demo of gesture recognition in the South Hall, and has licensed an add-on MS package to Asus called Xtion. A dancer in the booth kept things hopping with a ‘60s psychedelic imaging sequence that triggered all kinds of ‘trippy’ graphics and was fun to watch for a few minutes.

 

Over in the Samsung booth, crowds lined up for the most impressive MS demo. Samsung’s implementation also incorporates voice and facial recognition, taking and storing a picture of each user with a top-mounted camera. The command “Hi, TV!” activates a menu bar along the bottom of the screen, and the user can then command channel and volume changes on the TV as well as navigate menus and delve into Samsung’s ‘smart’ TV system. Hand gestures are also used to raise and lower volume and navigate up/down through channels.

 

Variations of gesture recognition were also seen in the LG and Haier booths, as well as by specialty manufacturers. Some systems require the use of a wand to control the TV; others simply rely on broad gestures – Haier’s demo had a fellow actually boxing in sync with the video game, and I was afraid he was going to deck himself at some point!

Seriously? A USB emergency in the field? Victorinox' has 16GB to go.

 

Impressive car. Now, how exactly do you drive it? From the cloud? (Don't laugh...)

Other cool products at the show included Sharp’s 8K-resolution LCD TV, Victorinox’ 16 GB USB Swiss Army Knife (I kid you not), Belkin’s four-port ScreenCast wireless HDMI transmitter/receiver, Duracell’s cordless smart phone charging system (yes, it really works), Ford’s cloud-connected EVO concept car with personal health sensor monitoring, LG Display’s Art TV concept design, JVC’s new 4K camcorder for $4,000, BenQ’s new LCD monitors for gamers with instant picture setting changes, and Silicon Images’ demo of 3D mobile high-definition link (MHL) connectivity that resulted in the first TV screen I’ve ever seen with “airplane mode” on it.

 

I’d be remiss by not commenting on one legendary company’s presence at the show. As many readers know, Kodak has been in a death spiral for the past decade as its core film business fades away and digital imaging takes over. The company recently received a warning from the New York Stock Exchange that it might be delisted (last time I checked, shares were selling at about 61 cents) and it is about to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in order to auction off its patents in digital imaging.

 

So what the heck was the Great Yellow Father showing in that enormous booth in the upper South Hall? Why, its line of color inkjet printers, of course! Supposedly, color inkjets will be the salvation of Kodak, or at least that’s what the current management (ex-HP) tells us. Only problem is, Kodak’s market share in inkjet printers for 2011 was less than 5%, and they’re fast running out of cash for day-to-day operations.

OK, what's wrong with THIS picture?

 

Somehow, Kodak’s long-time competitor Fuji managed to support both film-based and digital imaging and not drive over a cliff. At CES, they showed a new 16-megapixel digital camera system with interchangeable lenses, upgraded their line of point-and-shoots, expanded the FinePix digital camera offerings, and continue to market a clever 3D digital camera. (Maybe Kodak ought to hire some of the Fuji guys…)

 

I’ll have more coverage of CES 2012 during my annual Super Tuesday Technology Trends presentation at InfoComm 2012 this coming June in Las Vegas. See you there!

Product Review: A Tale of Two (3D) Televisions

The great 3D TV debates continue as 2011 winds down. “Active 3D is best!” cries one group. “No, passive 3D is better!” replies another. “Don’t jump in yet, wait for autostereo TVs!” warns yet another group.

 

Here are the facts. At present, there are a handful of manufacturers of active 3D TVs, including market leaders Samsung, Panasonic, and Sony. On the other side of the street, we have passive 3D TVs available from LG, Toshiba, and Vizio.

 

There are other companies playing in the 3D space to a lesser degree, including Sharp (active 3D) and JVC (passive 3D). And Toshiba is trying to be all things to all people, supporting a few active models and also announcing that they will bring a 55-inch autostereo TV to the Japanese market this fall.

 

All of this back-and-forth volleying is accomplishing one thing, if nothing else: It’s confusing the heck out of potential buyers. No one wants to sink a few thousand dollars into a 3D TV system and realize belatedly that they picked the wrong horse in the race.

 

Problem is; no one can say for certain which horse will win that race. Active 3D has its detractors for using expensive, battery-operated glasses that can create eye fatigue in certain individuals from flicker. However, an active 3D TV delivers all 1920×1080 pixels for every video frame in both 2D and 3D mode. And there are no patterned barriers attached to the screen surface to affect 2D viewing.

 

Passive 3D has simplicity and lower cost going for it – you can use the same circularly-polarized glasses you brought home from the local Cineplex – but presents a visible artifact in the form of horizontal patterned film retarder lines when watching 3D content and sitting closer than 2x the screen diagonal. And passive 3D TVs have very narrow ‘usable’ viewing angles, compared to active 3D TVs.

 

As for autostereo, let’s just say right now that it’s not really ready for prime time yet, based on what I saw at CES 2011 in the Toshiba booth. The appeal of glassless 3D is easy to understand, but it makes the design of the TV much more complex. Plus, there’s a tradeoff: The more ‘views’ you have on an autostereo TV, the lower the overall resolution of each view.

 

SEEING DOUBLE

 

In my tests of 3D TVs, both active and passive, I look very carefully for evidence of ghosting, or double images. Ghosting is caused by insufficient suppression of opposite-eye images, and results in double vision (and often, headaches).

 

The ability of a 3D TV design and its associated eyewear to suppress ghosting is called its extinction ratio.  The laws of physics say that active LCD TVs will have a harder time suppressing ghosts than plasma TVs, and that’s because of all the polarizers used in a typical LCD TV: They interact with the polarizers used in 3D eyewear and can cancel each other out.

 

There is even an inconsistency among active 3D TVs. Samsung and Panasonic use dual polarizers in their active eyewear. Sony, however, opted to go with a single polarizer for two reasons. First, the resulting images are brighter. And second, it helps to minimize flicker and eyestrain. But there’s a trade-off, and that is a lower extinction ratio and lots of ghost images with small head tilt.

 

Passive 3D TVs don’t get a free pass here. One set of polarizers is mounted on the TV screen surface (those afore-mentioned film patterned retarders) to work with the other set in the ‘el cheapo’ passive glasses. At certain narrow viewing angles, their extinction ratio is quite high. But at comparatively small offset viewing angles, the double images are apparent, as I’ll demonstrate shortly.

 

TWO FOR THE MONEY

 

I decided to see what the fuss was all about with passive 3D TVs and lined up a pair of 47-inch models to see what they could do. LG’s 47LW6500 ($1,399) is at the top of their 3D TV line and comes with four pairs of passive glasses. It’s a 240 Hz LED-backlit LCD TV with four HDMI inputs (1.4a compatible, of course), plus a host of network functions (Smart TV) and other bells and whistles.

Figure 1. LG's 47LW6500 3D LCD TV

Figure 2. Toshiba's 47TL515U 3D LCD TV

Toshiba’s 47TL515U ($1,299 SRP) just came to market and offers much the same goodies as the LG Set. (I’ve been told it even uses LG Display panels.) This is also a 240 Hz LED-backlit LCD TV with 4 HDMI inputs, Net TV, and one leg up on the LG set: It’s equipped with the new InstaPort HDMI connector. That means fast switching between HDMI sources.

 

To be honest, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two TVs. The LG scans TV channels faster; the Toshiba changes inputs faster. Both TVs have multifunction remotes, but the Toshiba remote is far more complicated and difficult to use. There are just too many small buttons, and the navigation mousedisk is mounted coaxially inside a second navigation ring, which also has four pushbuttons on it. You can’t use this remote easily even with the lights on.

 

The LG remote is FAR more user-friendly, with big, white buttons, large blue volume and channel controls, and a simpler mousedisk for navigating through menus. In addition, the LG’s 3D on/off button is nestled between the volume and channel rocker switches and clearly marker “3D” in bright red. In contrast, it took me a while to find the 3D mode button on the Toshiba – it’s part of a row of four tiny black buttons near the bottom of the remote.

Figure 3. Which remote would you rather use? And can you find the 3D buttons?

Figure 4. Here they are!

MENUS AND ADJUSTMENTS

 

The menus on both TVs leave a bit to be desired. Toshiba’s menus appear as rotary icons near the bottom of the screen. You scroll (spin, rotate) left or right to bring up the desired menu, then hit select and start making your choices or adjustments. It’s a bit different than the usual horizontal bar menus, but you’ll get used to it quickly enough.

 

On the LG set, pressing the Home button brings up a master screen that shows Smart TV icons, a settings icon, and an input icon. Whatever you’re watching on screen is reduced to a small window. You then have to navigate to the ‘Settings’ button and select it to get into any menus. It’s slightly annoying, but you shouldn’t have to adjust it very much.

 

I usually go into more detail about menu settings here. Suffice it to say that both TVs give you a full range of adjustments over images, with the exception of 3D. The 47LW6500 has two ISF Expert modes in addition to Intelligent (ambient light sensing), Vivid, Standard and Cinema presets, and you can get the TV’s white balance very close to the BT.709 target of 6500 degrees pretty easily. Ditto the 47TL515U, which also has an ‘expert’ mode for calibration, and offers two Movie modes, Sports, and Autoview (ambient light sensing) presets.

 

As mentioned earlier, both TVs offer 240 Hz scanning and de-judder circuits that can convert a film look to live video, along with automatic contrast, adjustable gamma, and black level settings. All routine stuff and all things you should shut off if you want to calibrate either TV to work at its best. The digital noise reduction circuits are handy if you are viewing video content that has been over-compressed. That shouldn’t be much of a problem with HDTV programs, but is quite common with standard-definition programming.

 

TUNING THEM UP

 

What I was interested in seeing was how well each TV worked in 2D mode after calibration, and what happened to image quality when 3D mode was selected. Here’s where the biggest difference was found between the two TVs – the 47LW6500 will not let you make ANY adjustments or access any menus in 3D mode, while the 47TL515U will. And if you think that’s not such a big deal, have I got some histograms for you…

Figure 5a. Here's the gamma curve for the 47LW6500 after calibration - a beautiful 2.31 arc.

Figure 5b. And here's the corresponding after-calibration 2.44 curve on the 47TL515U.

Figure 5a shows the final gamma curve for the Toshiba, while 5b shows the LG gamma after calibration. Both curves are consistent coming out of black and mimic the performance of a CRT. Where things get dicey is when 3D mode is switched on. The LG TV switches to a much brighter image with higher black levels and an S-curve gamma, which measures approximately 1.5 – and there not a thing you can do to fix it.

 

On the other hand, the Toshiba set exhibited a remarkably consistent gamma after its 3D mode was turned on, with a curve similar to 2D mode that measured 2.36. AND you can go back into the menu and tweak it if you want to.

Figure 6a. Yikes! What happened to the LG's gamma performance?

Figure 6b. Toshiba maintains its gamma settings even in 3D mode.

How about color temperature? Figures 7a and b show grayscale tracks for both sets in 2D mode, and they’re looking pretty good, eh? But switch to 3D mode, and as you can see in figures 8a and b, the 47LW6500 jumps way above 9300 degrees, while the 47LT515U doesn’t move nearly that high (about 6800 degrees) – and again, you can fix it.

 

This is what you don’t hear about 3D TVs: Their 2D calibrations usually go out the window when 3D mode is selected, and most of the time, you can’t do a darn thing about it. Fortunately, Toshiba does preserve your ability to compensate for any shifts caused in 3D mode.

 

Let’s talk about color accuracy. HDTV content for television and released on Blu-ray disc is supposed to conform to the ITU BT.709 color space, which produces colors that are somewhat less saturated than the full color gamut of LCD and plasma TVs. So to be ‘precise,’ any TV ought to match that color encoding as closely as possible.

 

Guess what? Both TVs do just that, as seen in figures 9a and 9b. LG gets the blue ribbon for coming closest to the desired RGB and CMY coordinates and both sets provide color management software (CMS) to fine-tune the x,y locus of each coordinate. Note that the coordinates shift on both TVs when in 3D mode (why is that???) and the shift is more noticeable on the LG TV, as evidenced by the green, cyan, magenta, and yellow targets.

Figure 7a. The 47LW6500 tracks a stable grayscale in 2D mode...

Figure 7b. And so does the 47TL515U.

 

Figure 8a. Switch to 3D mode on the LG, and all bets are off with respect to color temperature.

Figure 8b. Meanwhile, everything is rock-steady in 3D on the Toshiba.

Figure 9a. Here's the 47LW6500's color gamut. The dark outline is the BT.709 color space.

Figure 9b. And here's the 47TL515U's color gamut, mapped against the BT.709 color space.

VIEWING 3D

 

For my viewing tests, I used a Blu-ray copy of Avatar, played out from a Samsung C6900 3D BD player. Since both TVs use circular polarization in their eyewear, I was able to watch with many different pairs of glasses and saw no difference in the results.

 

First off, 3D images seemed to have more depth on the Toshiba. Can’t tell you why that was, but I definitely noticed it. Not to say that the LG set didn’t do a good job  – it did, but the Toshiba 3D images seemed to be more realistic, especially in the scenes with people gathered around the sacred trees, campfires, in the lab, and in the war room.

 

Color quality was better on the Toshiba for the reasons enumerated in the previous section. It doesn’t jump that far out of calibration in 3D mode. The LG TV does get considerably brighter and colder in color temperature, and the overall picture quality isn’t as pleasing to the eye.

 

Both TVs seem to switch on their motion de-juddering circuits in 3D mode, so you need to make sure that function is disabled completely if you want a true ‘film’ look when watching 3D Blu-ray discs. Look for a menu function that shuts down 240 Hz mode. (And make sure you’ve shut off ALL other picture enhancements like dynamic contrast, auto black levels, etc.)

 

Now for my viewing distance suggestions. I generally counsel people to shoot for a seating distance equal to 1.3 – 1.5x of the screen diagonal, in order to get a more immersive 3D effect. That rule of thumb works great with active shutter TVs, and also holds true for 3D front projectors, but it doesn‘t hold up with passive 3D TVs.

 

The reason? You’ll see the FPR lines, which appear as thin, horizontal black bands. Close one eye or the other, and there they are! In fact, you’ll see them with both eyes open, and it’s like the old ‘screen door’ effect with low-resolution LCD projectors from the mid-1990s. Kinda distracting, in my opinion.

 

So it forces you to sit farther away from the 3D TV, which is exactly the opposite of what you want to do! The best 3D experiences come when the screen fills 50% or more of your field of view, and you’ve removed as many distracting 3D artifacts from outside that field. That’s one reason why 3D works so much better in movie theaters than at home – there is practically zero ambient light and the screens are big, so your brain locks onto the 3D illusion much more quickly.

 

Practically speaking, you need to sit about 2x the screen diagonal (94”, or about eight feet) to minimize the FPR lines. I’ve tested this viewing distance with a variety of viewers, young and old, and it holds up. And that, in my mind, is the big strike against passive 3D: You want to sit closer, but you can’t because of this picture artifact.

 

The other artifact you’ll notice from time to time is crosstalk. It depends on your viewing angle and the type of content, but it is most often seen with titles, high contrast fine detail, and angular objects on light backgrounds. I created a few test patterns to check for crosstalk and you can see the actual results in figure 10a. Both TVs suffer from this problem – it’s a direct consequence of using FPRs.

Figure 10a. Here's what crosstalk looks like on a passive 3D set.

Figure 10b. Here's the view through one eye of a passive 3D image. You can see the FPR lines running horizontally along the walkway in the foreground and across the railroad tracks.

Figure 10c. Here's a close-up view of the FPR artifact.

THE WRAP-UP

 

Did I mention that both TVs make some beautiful pictures in 2D mode? No FPR artifacts are seen here; just full-resolution 1080p images with good contrast and color saturation. In fact, the 47LW6500 is one of the better 2D LCD TVs I’ve tested recently, and the 47TL515U is right up there with it.

 

The devil is in the details, and in 3D mode, the 47TL515U is clearly the better performer. Just the fact that it lets you fine-tune image settings while in 3D mode is a BIG plus in my book. It is nice to know that all of your hard work in 2D mode won’t be lost, and you’ll see some really good-looking 3D as a result.

 

With the 47LW6500, you are out of luck. 3D pictures will be a lot brighter, black levels will elevate, and white crush will be present… and you’ll just have to live with whatever the TV shows you. If there’s any consolation, you’ll get into 3D mode a lot faster with the LG TV ( that big fat 3D button is a great idea) and the Toshiba isn’t as user-friendly when it comes to the remote control.

 

By the way, both sets support all standard 3D formats, including side-by-side and top + bottom frame compatible, and the frame-sequential Blu-ray format is recognized automatically by both TVs. (You can also horse around with converting 2D to 3D, if you have nothing better to do…)