Posts Tagged ‘Ultra HD’

Consumer Television: It’s Business As Usual (Or Maybe Not)

The official numbers haven’t been released yet, but a report in The Korea Herald, dated January 22 says that the final data will show Samsung dominated the global television business in 2013.

According to the story, Samsung was estimated to have sold 49 million units of flat-panel TVs last year. DisplaySearch had the totals at 32 million from January through September (the final DisplaySearch numbers for 2013 haven’t been compiled yet) and Yoon Boo-keun, Samsung’s consumer electronics division chief, stated at CES earlier this month that the company sold around 15 million TVs in Q4.

That’s an impressive number by anyone’s standards and reflects the complete dominance Samsung has in the television business. Think back 20 years to when Samsung was an afterthought; perceived as a 3rd-tier “bargain” brand for electronics.

Now, they’re on top of the heap, and have been so for eight consecutive years. In the meantime, LG looks to maintain its grip on 2nd place, with a varying market share number in the low to mid-teens throughout 2013. Between the two companies, they control over 40% of the worldwide television business.

The Japanese, on the other hand, will no doubt be disappointed by the final numbers for ’13. In the third quarter; Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp were hovering around 8%, 6%, and 5% market share respectively – and those numbers are expected to drop when the final tally comes in.

As I noted in my last DD, Panasonic seems to be charting a course away from televisions, based on what they didn’t show at CES (a full line-up of 2014 models) and their emphasis on commercial sales of everything from cameras and storage devices to digital signs and batteries. And of course, Panasonic pulled the plug on plasma panel and TV manufacturing at the end of December.

The other remaining player in televisions – Toshiba – took a similar approach to their CES booth, choosing to show a wide variety of 4K (Ultra HD) display applications for home and office and skipping the TV line-up. Toshiba has already shut down two manufacturing plants and laid off over 3,000 employees because of continued losses in television and computer manufacturing.

That leaves Sony and Sharp. The former continues to stay the course in sales and marketing of consumer TVs, but I’d be surprised if they don’t turn in yet another year of red ink – the ninth in a row. Sharp, meanwhile, has chosen to emphasize their super-sized lineup of TVs, plus clever engineering tricks like the Quattron+ line and their ability to manufacture IGZO TFTs with decent yields.

The problem for both companies is their uninterrupted slide in television market share that has been going on for eight years. With a 5% share worldwide and 3% in the United States as of Q3 2013, Sharp can’t afford to stay in this game for much longer. Neither can Sony, if they are serious about returning a profit to shareholders.

It doesn’t help matters that television sales are expected to have declined worldwide by 2.2% from 2012 when the accountants are done. The double-digit boom in TV sales in China kept that number from being a lot worse.

Amid the flurry of post-CES news stories about curved, super-sized UHDTVs was another item that went almost unnoticed, except for the sharp eyes of analyst Paul Gagnon of NPD DisplaySearch. In his blog post of January 17, Gagnon revealed how three retailers in the United Kingdom are already discounting LG’s “first to market” 55-inch curved OLED TV (55EA980W) by £3,000 ($4,910).

This product, which launched on these shores in July of 2013 for nearly $15,000, saw its price drop in the U.S by nearly $6,000 one month later when Samsung rolled out their own curved 55-inch model for about $9,000. And now – just seven months later – the LG model is selling in the U.K. for £4,999 ($8,178), almost one-half of its original sticker price. (Perhaps they overestimated demand?)

And the cannibalizing of TV prices continues unabated. On the last day of CES, Vizio announced its prices for a line of full-array LED 4K (UHDTV) “smart” LCD models – and they aren’t much higher than conventional LED “smart” TVs from LG and Samsung.

Case in point: The 50-inch P502ui-B1 will retail for $1,000, while the 55-inch version will have a sticker price of $1,400. The P602ui-B3 is set at $1,800, and the 65-inch model will command $2,199. Finally, a 70-inch skew (P702ui-B3) will be offered at $2,600. Consider that Samsung and Sony are trying to peddle 55-inch 4K LCD smart TVs for about $2,900 right now and you can clearly see the train wreck coming.

Summing up: Samsung dominates the consumer television world – business as usual. Panasonic and Toshiba de-emphasize TVs at CES – maybe not. Sony and Sharp keep pouring money into consumer television manufacturing and marketing, even though they are incurring substantial losses – business as usual. LG and Vizio slashing prices on OLEDs and 4K TVs – definitely not!

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article mistakenly quoted the discount applied to the LG 55EA980W as the actual selling price. The article has been updated on January 29 to reflect the correct selling price and discount of this TV.

THX Certifies Up-converted 4K Television

The consumer television industry needs something new that will excite consumers and stimulate sales. 3D was a bust, OLED is struggling to raise its manufacturing yields out of the mud and bring its prices down from the stratosphere, and quantum-dot-enhanced color gamuts have yet to penetrate the consumer consciousness. But Ultra HD (or 4Kx2K, or just 4K) excites both consumers and industry participants. In addition, prices are dropping rapidly and the industry’s crystal-ball gazers are predicting rapidly increasing sales.

But the industry has one immediate issue that must be resolved, and a threat that is just over the horizon and coming fast. The immediate issue is that there is essentially no 4K material in a form that consumers can buy and watch now, much less material that is broadcast or streamed. That means the only way consumers can benefit from their 4K sets is to watch material that is up-converted from 2K (or Full HD) to 4K. But is up-converted 4K material worth watching?

Sharp 70-inch THX

Sharp’s 70-inch 4K TV, available in August, is the first global TV set to receive THX’s 4K Certification. (Photo: Sharp)

The threat coming fast over the western horizon is a flood of very inexpensive Chinese 4K sets. These sets are so cheap that it’s unlikely they could be produced at the price without significant corner-cutting. The first- and second-tier brands are concerned that consumers will be seduced by these too-low prices and wind up buying sets that give them a deeply disappointing 4K viewing experience. The result, they fear, is that these sets will give 4K an undeservedly bad name that more sophisticated products will not be able to overcome.

A solution — at least a partial one — to both of these problems is to certify the quality of the native and up-converted 4K images that appear on TV sets: A “Good Housekeeping Seal” of 4K approval that will let consumers buy with confidence.

Both THX and Technicolor have announced 4K certificaion programs. On July 12th, I had a telephone conference call with members of the THX team headquartered in San Francisco. On the call were Eric Gemmer, Sr. Video Engineer; Jon Cielo, Senior Systems Engineer; and Matt Severaid, Partner Marketing Manager.

Severaid started the call with a brief recap of THX’s origins. George Lucas established THX to certify the ability of individual movie theaters to reproduce the visual and audio experience of his Star Wars movies faithfully. Lucas had been very disappointed with the quality of reproduction of the first two Star Wars movies at many cinemas. The THX standard was introduced prior to the release of The Return of the Jedi, the third movie in the series. Lucas released The Return of the Jedi only to theaters that could meet the THX standards. Naturally, the standards improved the viewers’ experience of movies, too. THX standards were applied home viewing in the 1990s, and the display program began in 2006.

The first globally available TV set to by THX 4K Certified is Sharp’s 70-inch 4K set, which will become available in August. My colleage Matt Brennesholtz saw this set at CE Week in New York in late June, and was impressed with the up-converted 4K image quality.

Cielo emphasized that THX certification assures that a TV set delivers the image the way the creator intended. “We don’t want to change content from the source material, and that includes image grain. We try to make sure the image is as beautiful as it can look.” The goal is “cinema quality in the home.”

For the Sharp 70-inch, two certified modes are the THX Cinema Mode for dark ambients and THX Movie for bright ambients. The color space for up-converted material is Rec. 709 since its based on a 2K source. An expanded color gamut will be defined under Rec. 2020, but that is under development now and a final recommendation is “way down the road.” The wider gamut seen in digital cinema and specified by the DCI standard is for professional applications and is not appropriate for consumer devices, Severaid said. Studios retune masters to accomodate the limitations of HD. “Ultimately, our goal is to present images that don’t change the meaning of the content,” Severaid said. Specifically, THX wants to be sure that the 2K-to-4K processing does not hurt the image. Following the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.”

THX authentication is based on industry standards, and focuses on panel performance, including good black-and-white uniformity and off-axis consistency. But, said Cielo, “It’s difficult to make a TV work as precisely as we would like it to.” Among the issues are light leakage and blotchiness. Most non-THX-certified sets would probably not pass the requiremets for motion artifacts and jaggies, he said.

The certification process requires collaboration between the set-maker and THX. Sharp personnel were present during testing, and available “when the TV needs to be tweaked, and they always need to be tweaked.” The tweaks are embedded in the set’s software, and sometimes a set requires modifications beyond the software before THX’s requirements are achieved.

The Sharp 70-inch with THX 4K certification produces beautiful up-converted images. Does Technicolor’s approach differ from THX’s? Is one better than the other? That is what we’ll be discussing next time.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, display manufacturing, display technology, and display applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.