Posts Tagged ‘USB Type-C’

Hey, Whatever Happened To superMHL?

There is no such thing as a ‘sure thing.’ You can have a 20-yard field goal try with 5 seconds left, two foul shots left to ice the game, or a one-on-one penalty shot with your best wing on the ice. Doesn’t matter – things do go awry. In fact, sometimes they never get going in the first place.

Two years ago this coming January, Silicon Image (now Lattice Semiconductor) unveiled what they claimed to be the best next-generation display interface. They called it superMHL, and it was super indeed; sporting a large, 32-pin symmetrical plug design to go with a 36 gigabits-per-second (Gb/s) data transfer rate.

That’s wasn’t all. superMHL (basically MHL on steroids) also supported the new Display Stream Compression (DSC) 1.1 standard. And it would also work with the all-important USB 3.0 Type-C plug’s Alternate Mode, which multiplexed display connections and fast USB serial data in the same ‘smart’ plug.

Wow! I didn’t see this coming; neither did most of the trade press in attendance. Here was a connector faster than DisplayPort’s version 1.3 (32 Gb/s), plus it was symmetrical in operation (plug it in either way, it doesn’t care, it’s smart enough to set itself up the right way). And it was compatible with the next generation of USB connectors.

Even more amazing, the MHL Consortium demo showed 8K content flowing to a large Samsung 8K TV through this interface, which claimed to support 7680×4320 video @ 60 Hz with 4:2:0 color (albeit using DSC to pack things down a bit in size). If there was ever a ‘sure thing,’ this was it!

It's the fastest display interface out there - and no one uses it. Maybe they should call it HDMI 3.0?

It’s the fastest display interface out there – and no one uses it. Maybe they should call it HDMI 3.0?

I was assured in the following months that Lattice and the MHL Consortium would have several press announcements pertaining to design wins for the 2015 holiday season. I’d see several new UHDTV televisions with at least one superMHL port and the rest of the inputs would be HDMI 2.0 connections. Thus, we’d be ready for the brave new world of 8K TV! (Never mind that 4K TV was still getting on its feet at the time!)

But it never happened. Black Friday, Christmas, New Year’s, and then ICES and the 2016 Super Bowl came and went with no announcements. At ICES 2016, the MHL Consortium once again had a demo of 8K content playback through an LG 98-inch LCD TV using the superMHL interface, and “yes, it looked great” and “we’re ready for 8K TV” and “it works with USB Type-C” and so on, and so forth.

Right now, it’s pretty much radio silence about superMHL. So what happened?

For one thing, the adoption rate of HDMI 2.0 since its formal unveiling in 2013 can be charitably described as “slow.” Early Ultra HDTVs had perhaps one HDMI 2.0 port on them, and not all of them supported the new HDCP 2.2 copy protection protocol. In our industry, we’re only now starting to see distribution amplifiers and switches with HDMI 2.0 connections – there’s still a lot of version 1.4 product out there, too.

Another perplexing question: Since superMHL fixes the speed limit problems of HDMI 2.0 by doubling them – and also adds the all-important compatibility with USB Type-C (a must, going forward) along with support for DSC (critical as we push display resolutions beyond 5K), why would Lattice continue to support both formats, or even suggest they could be mixed on future UHD+ televisions and monitors?

In other words; if there is a better option, then why wouldn’t you want that option?

To be sure; Lattice is in a tricky position. Through their subsidiary HDMI Licensing LLC, they reap millions of dollars each year in royalties associated with every HDMI port on every piece of consumer and commercial gear. That’s a nice cash flow, and who wants to mess with it?

But they really can’t lose here, inasmuch as they control the IP for all of these transition-minimized differential signaling (TMDS) interfaces. Why not bite the bullet and announce the phase-out of HDMI 1.3/1.4, and move everyone to version 2.0? Better yet; just announce a sunset for version 2.0 and start the transition to superMHL, a/k/a HDMI 3.0?

Yeah, it's fun to demo 8K TV using superMHL, but that takes the focus off the real-world, practical interfacing solutions we're facing now.

Yeah, it’s fun to demo 8K TV using superMHL, but that takes the focus off the real-world, practical interfacing solutions we’re facing now.

One problem Lattice created with this new connector is that it’s effectively an oxymoron. MHL stands for Mobile High-definition Link, and it was originally designed to multiplex HDMI signals through 5-pin micro USB ports. The concept was that the single micro USB connector on your smartphone or tablet could connect to a television so you could play back videos, show photos, and share your screen. (Never mind that the majority of people prefer to do this via a wireless connection and not a 15-foot HDMI-to-micro USB cable that often requires a power adapter.)

So MHL meant “small, fast, and powerful.” And now we have the ‘funny car’ of display interfaces with a large connector that will never get anywhere near your mobile device…and the way things are going, it may never get anywhere near your TV, either.

In previous columns and in my classes and talks, I’ve written about the deficiencies of HDMI 2.0 – slow speed, non-symmetrical, no support for USB Type-C (finally remedied a few months ago) and lack of support for Display Stream Compression. superMHL fixes all of these problems in one fell swoop.

The answer? Re-brand this connector as HDMI 3.0 – which it really is – and make the appropriate announcement in two months at ICES 2017. Practically speaking; MHL has been a non-starter (among major U.S. brands, only Sony, Samsung, and LG have supported it on their smartphones and TVs) and the adoption rate for HDMI 2.0 is nowhere near as fast as it was for version 1.3. Too many interfaces and too much confusion!

After all, even Elvis Presley had to make a comeback…

CES 2016 In The Rear View Mirror

I’m a little less than a week back from one of the world’s largest trade shows, the 2016 International CES. According to press releases from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the new name for the Consumer Electronics Association, upwards of 170,000 people attended the show this year, which was spread out over several venues in Las Vegas.

Based on the crowds I saw, I’d say that number wasn’t far off. Walking through booths in the Las Vegas Convention Center gave me the feeling of strolling along the beach, unaware that a tidal wave was sneaking up on you – one minute you had a particular exhibit all to yourself, and the next, you were swamped by a sea of bodies adorned with CES badges.

Trying to predict which trends in electronics will be “hot” each year is basically a fool’s errand. Going into the show, I was deluged with press releases about “Internet of Things” gadgets, and the show didn’t disappoint – I saw everything from connected thermostats and body sensors to pet food dispensers and shower heads that monitor how much water each member of your family uses – and record that data, too.

The LG floor-to-ceiling OLED wall at CES put many people into a trance.

The LG floor-to-ceiling OLED wall at CES put many people into a trance.

 

TCL set up their usual tiny booth in the Central Hall.

TCL set up their usual tiny booth in the Central Hall.

Last year, the show was all about Ultra HDTV, with some unusual video aspect ratios and pixel counts thrown in. This year, I figured high dynamic range (HDR) would be the “hot” item in every booth. Surprisingly, it wasn’t generating all that much buzz, even though it was featured in the Sony, Samsung, LG, and Chinese TV booths. Instead, there seemed to me much more interest in virtual reality (VR); examples of which were to be found everywhere in the LVCC and also over at the Sands Expo Center.

What was an eye-opener (although not entirely unexpected) was the reduction in booth space devoted to televisions in the Samsung, Panasonic, and LG booths. Sony chose to use Ultra HDTVs to illustrate HDR, wide color gamut, and local area dimming concepts, while Panasonic largely ignored TVs altogether, featuring just a 65-inch UHD OLED TV in one part of their booth and a 55-inch 8K LCD set in another; primarily to demonstrate 8K signal transport over optical fiber.

LG and Samsung devoted more real estate than ever before to connected and “smart” appliances, tablets, smartphones, and personal electronics like smart watches, subtly pushing TVs (of which there were still plenty, believe me) to a secondary role with less square footage. The fact is; appliances are more profitable than TVs these days…WAY more profitable. And Samsung and LG had plenty of refrigerators, ovens, washers, and even dryers out for inspection.

For LG, CES was a big “coming out” party for their expanding line of OLED Ultra HDTVs – they were everywhere, dazzling with their deep blacks and saturated colors. But LCD still plays a part in the LG ecosystem: The 98-inch 8K LCD panel that blew us away last year made a return appearance, as did the 105-inch 21:9 5K (5120×2160) model.

This Innolux 8K LCD monster TV showed up in the Hisense booth and a few other locations.

This Innolux 8K LCD monster TV showed up in the Hisense booth and a few other locations.

 

Samsung showed the

Samsung showed the “World’s largest 170-inch TV.” Apparently there are smaller ones I didn’t know about.

Over in the Samsung booth, they kept the “mine’s bigger than yours” contest going with a 170-inch Ultra HDTV based on a LCD panel fabbed at CSOT in China and equipped with quantum dots. (Last year, Samsung insisted their quantum dot illumination technology was to be called “nanocrystals.” This year, they did a 180-degree turn, and are now calling them quantum dots.) A curved 8K TV and some demos of live broadcast Ultra HD with HDR were also showcased alongside the company’s new Ultra HD Blu-ray player ($399 when it ships in the spring).

The “towers” and stacks of LG and Samsung televisions we used to marvel at a decade ago have now found their way into the ever-expanding booths of Chinese TV brands like Hisense, TCL, Changhong, Haier, Konka, and Skyworth. (Not familiar names? Don’t worry, you’ll get to know them soon enough.) And notable by its absence was Sharp Electronics, whose US TV business and assembly plant in Mexico were acquired by Hisense last year. That’s quite a change from ten years ago, when the company held a 21% worldwide market share in LCD TV shipments.

To be sure, there was a Sharp meeting room w-a-y in the back of the Hisense booth, which was enormous – almost as big as TCL’s behemoth in the middle of the Central Hall. And the Konka, Changhong, and Skyworth booths weren’t far behind in size. If you needed to see the writing on the wall regarding the future of television manufacturing, it couldn’t have been more clear – everything is slowly and inexorably moving to China. (It’s a good bet that the LCD panel in your current TV came out of a Chinese or Taiwanese assembly plant!)

TVs were just part of the story in Las Vegas. I had been waiting a few years to see which companies would finally pick up the baton and start manufacturing 802.11ad Wi-Fi chipsets. For those readers who haven’t heard of it before, 802.11ad – or its more common names, “Wireless Gigabit” and “Certified Wireless Gigabit” is a standard that uses the 60 GHz millimeter-wave band to transmit high-speed data over 2 GHz-wide channels.

Letv demonstrated wireless 4K video streaming over 60 GHz 802.11ad, using this new smartphone and Qualcomm's chipset.

Letv demonstrated wireless 4K video streaming over 60 GHz 802.11ad, using this new smartphone and Qualcomm’s chipset.

 

Are you on the USB Type-C bandwagon yet? (Check your new laptop or smartphone...)

Are you on the USB Type-C bandwagon yet? (Check your new laptop or smartphone…)

Considering that the current channels in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz band are only 20 MHz wide, and that the 802.11ac channel bonding protocol can only combine enough of them to create a 160 MHz channel, that’s quite a leap in bandwidth! The catch? 60 GHz signals are reflected by just about solid object, limiting their use to inside rooms. But with high-power operation and steerable antennas, those signals can travel a pretty good distance.

In-room, high-bandwidth operation is perfect for streaming video – even at 4K resolution – from phones, tablets, set-top boxes, and even Blu-ray players to TVs, projectors, AV receivers, and switching and distribution gear. Qualcomm had demos of numerous ready-to-manufacture tri-band modems (2.4/5/60 GHz), along with LETV’s latest smart phone with a built-in 60 GHz radio chip. And SiBEAM, a part of Lattice Semiconductor, showed 4K streaming through their WiHD technology, along with close-proximity interface coupling using SNAP to download images and video from a waterproofed GoPro camera.

Lattice had some other tricks up their sleeve in their meeting room. One of those was using a Windows 10 phone with a MHL (Mobile High-definition Link) connection through USB Type-C to create a virtual desktop PC. All that needed to be added was a mouse, a keyboard, and monitor. In another area, they showed a scheme to compress Ultra HD signals before transmitting them over an HDBaseT link, with decompression at the far end. This, presumably to overcome the 18 Gb/s speed limit of HDMI 2.0.

DisplayPort had a good demonstration of Display Stream Compression (DSC). That's the chipset under that enormous fan.

DisplayPort had a good demonstration of Display Stream Compression (DSC). That’s the chipset under that enormous fan.

 

Ultra HD Blu-ray is here, complete with high dynamic range mastering. How will it hold up against the growing trend to stream video?

Ultra HD Blu-ray is here, complete with high dynamic range mastering. How will it hold up against the growing trend to stream video?

Not far away, the “funny car” guys at the MHL Consortium showed their superMHL interface linking video to another LG 98-inch 8K LCD display. Converting what was once a tiny, 5-pin interface designed for 1080p/60 streaming off phones and tablets to a 32-pin, full-size symmetrical connector that can hit speeds of 36 Gb/s seems like putting Caterpillar truck tires and a big-block Chevy engine in a Smart Car to me…but they did it anyway, and added support for USB Type-C Alternate mode. Now, they’re ready for 8K, or so they keep telling me. (That’s fine, but the immediate need is for faster interfaces to accommodate Ultra HD with 10-bit and 12-bit RGB color at high frame rates. Let’s hear about some design wins!)

At the nearby VESA/DisplayPort booth, there were numerous demonstrations of video streaming over USB Type-C connections in Alternate mode, with one lash-up supporting two 1920x1080p monitors AND a 2550×1536 monitor, all at the same time. DP got somewhat faster with version 1.3 (32 Gb/s) and now a new version (1.4) will be announced by the end of January. The VESA guys also had a nice exhibit of Display Stream Compression (DSC), which can pack down a display signal by a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio with essentially no loss or latency (a few microseconds). If we’re going to keep pushing clock speeds higher and higher, compression is inevitable.

The world of display interfacing appears to becoming more disjointed, what with the majority of consumer devices still supporting HDMI 1.4 and 2.0, while an increasing number of computer and video card manufacturers are jumping on the DisplayPort bandwagon (Apple, HP, and Lenovo, among others). How superMHL will fit into this is anyone’s guess: The format is TMDS-based, like HDMI, but outstrips it in every way (HDMI 2.0 does not support DSC or USB Type-C operation). Do we really need two TMDS-based interfaces, going forward?

Speaking of USB Type-C, everybody and their brother/sister at CES had Type-C hubs, adapters, and even extenders out for inspection. If any connector is going to force the competing display interface standards to get in line, it will be this one. Apple, Intel, Lenovo, and several phone/tablet manufacturers are already casting their lots with Type-C, and it looks to be the next “sure thing” as we head toward a universal data/video/audio/power interface. I even came home with a credit card-sized press kit with a reversible USB 2.0 / 3.0 Type-C plug built-in!

First it was vinyl. Then cassettes. Now, Kodak is bringing back Super 8mm film and cameras. (I kid you not!)

First it was vinyl. Then cassettes. Now, Kodak is bringing back Super 8mm film and cameras. (I kid you not!)

 

Lenovo is one of four laptop manufacturers now offering OLED screens, here on a ThinkPad X1 Yoga (right).

Lenovo is one of four laptop manufacturers now offering OLED screens, here on a ThinkPad X1 Yoga (right).

So – how about HDR? Yes, a few companies showed it, and there were spirited discussions over dinner whether OLEDs could actually show signals with high dynamic range (they most assuredly can, as they can reproduce 15 stops of light from just above black to full white without clipping) and whether you actually need thousands of cd/m2 to qualify as an HDR display (I’m not in that camp; displays that bright can be painful to look at).

For LCDs, quantum dots (QDs) will lead the way to HDR. Both QD Vision and 3M had demos of quantum dot illuminants, with QD Vision focusing on light pipes for now and 3M partnering with Nanosys to manufacture a quantum dot enhancement film. Both work very well and provide a much larger color gamut than our current ITU Rec.709 color space, which looks positively washed-out compared to the more expansive Rec.2020 color gamut associated with UHD and HDR. QD Vision also showed the reduction in power consumption over OLEDs when using QDs. However, you won’t get the deep blacks and wide viewing angles out of an LCD in any case, so a few more watts may not matter to the videophiles.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray format had its formal debut at CES with Panasonic and Samsung both showing players. The latter can be pre-ordered for $399 and will ship in the spring. (Remember when Samsung’s first-ever Blu-ray player sold for nearly $2,000 almost a decade ago?) To support HDR – which requires 10-bit encoding – the HDMI interface must be type 2.0a to correctly read the metadata. That can be in the DolbyVision format, or the Technicolor format, but the baseline definition is HDR-10.

LG Display's flexible 18-inch OLED display was just too cool for words.

LG Display’s flexible 18-inch OLED display was just too cool for words.

 

Stand four 65-inch UHD OLED panels on end, stitch them together, and this is what you get. Bibbedy-bobbedy-boo!

Stand four 65-inch UHD OLED panels on end, stitch them together, and this is what you get. Bibbedy-bobbedy-boo!

I saved the best for last. Every year, LG Display invites a few journalists up to what we call the “candy store” to see the latest in display technology. And this year didn’t disappoint: How about dual-side 55-inch flexible OLED TVs just millimeters thick? Or a 25-inch waterfall (curved) display that could form the entire center console in a car, with flexible OLEDs in the dashboard creating bright, colorful, and contrasty gauges?

LGD has WAY too much fun coming up with demos for this suite. I saw four 65-inch OLED panels stacked on end, edge to edge, and bent into an S-curve to create a 2.2:1 ratio widescreen UHD+ display. And it also had video playing on both sides. In another location, I saw a jaw-dropping 31.5” 8K LCD monitor with almost perfect uniformity, and an 82-inch “pillar” LCD display.

How about a 55-inch UHD OLED display rolled into a half-pipe, with you standing at the center, playing a video game? Talk about filling your field of view! Next to it was a convex 55-inch display, wrapped around a ceiling support pole. And next to that, a 55-inch transparent OLED display with graphics and text floating over real jewelry, arranged on tiers. The actual transparency index is about 40% and the concept worked great.

Toyota's Future Concept Vehicle (FCV) is a bit roomier than last year's sidecar-shaped model.

Toyota’s Future Concept Vehicle (FCV) is a bit roomier than last year’s sidecar-shaped model.

 

Wow, drones are getting REALLY big these days!

Wow, drones are getting REALLY big these days!

The icing on the cake was an 18-inch flexible OLED with 800×1200 resolution that could be rolled up into a tube or a cone-like shape while showing HD video. This was one of those “I gotta get me one of these!” moments, but significantly, it shows how OLED technology has matured to the point where it can be manufactured on flexible substrates. And what is the largest market in the world or displays? Transportation, where G-forces and vibration eventually crack rigid substrates, like LCD glass.

That’s just a snapshot of what I saw, and I haven’t even mentioned drones (buzzing all over the place), fold-up scooters and hoverboards, smart appliances, pet cams, alarms that alert you when an alarm goes off (really!), wooden smartphones (really!), talking spoons and forks (really!), toothbrushes linked to video games (would I kid you?), and 4K action cams with built-in solar cell chargers.

Gotta run now. My phone just sent me a Wi-Fi alarm that a Bluetooth-connected doorbell camera spotted the UPS guy delivering a package I was already alerted about via email to my desktop that signaled a buzzer via ZigBee in my virtual desktop PC that was connected wirelessly to my smartphone, currently streaming 4K video over a 60 GHz link to my “smart” TV that is also…also…also…

Oh, great. Now I’ve forgotten what I was talking about…Does anyone make an iRemember app? (Look for my “second thoughts” column later this month…)

A Trend Is A Trend – Until It Isn’t

A story posted on the CNET Web site for August 22 might have gone unnoticed – except that it shows that the tide is now flowing the other way when it comes to smartphones and tablets.

By “tide,” I mean market forces and analyst predictions. The former is showing a decided preference for ever-larger smartphone screens, while the latter is prematurely writing the epitaph for notebook and laptop computers.

When the first iPads burst onto the market, everyone had to have one. There was nothing like it, and what we know as a smartphone was still in the toddler stage, with small screens and limited ability to take photos and stream videos.

Indeed; as recently as two years ago, analysts were predicting that sales of desktop PCs would eventually fizzle out and notebook computers would follow in short order. To some extent, they were right – you can now buy high-powered notebooks for less than $500, a consequence of lowered demand and an oversupply of components, including LCD screens.

But analysts are often more wrong than right, and they definitely got it wrong with the future of larger smartphone screens. “No one will buy a phone with a 5-inch screen. And a 6-inch screen? That’s crazy!” they thundered.

Um, guys – The hottest category now for smartphones is that same 5-inch to 6-inch screen size category. Apple’s sold plenty of iPhone 6s, as has Samsung with their Galaxy 5 and 6. I upgraded from a Motorola Droid Razr Maxx (4.7” OLED screen) to a Galaxy 5 (5.5” OLED screen) last December, and love it. I rarely make calls with it, but I do text, take pictures, shoot video, use sports scores, and even read newspapers while having breakfast or when traveling.

The ever-larger size of smartphones, combined with a somewhat stagnant market for phone sales, has depressed the sales forecasts for tablets. According to the CNET article, “Sales of slate-style tablets are expected to fall 8 percent, according to a report from research firm Strategy Analytics. Sales in Apple’s iPad business, meanwhile, fell 18 percent year over year in its most recent quarter, the sixth consecutive quarterly decline.”

How fast things change. Back in early 2014, tablet sales were forecast to grow 18% by the end of the year. Now, we’re seeing the numbers run in reverse. And part of the problem is that people don’t turn over tablets as fast as they do phones – my wife still uses an iPad 2 from 2011, although the battery is starting to go.

I have a Barnes & Noble Nook HD that’s also vintage 2011 and hardly gets any use anymore, thanks to my new Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.4. Somewhere in a drawer, I have a Nook reader with “Glowlight” that crapped out about six months ago. (And my wife’s Nook Tablet, vintage 2010, still works just fine.)

So, where’s the growth in mobile computing devices? Looks like it’s now happening with so-called “2 in 1s;” devices that combine a detachable keyboard with a larger tablet screen. Microsoft’s Surface Pro is one example; Lenovo’s Yoga Pro is another. The CNET article says that sales of these devices are expected to grow by 5x this year over last, and new processors such as Intel’s Core M give them CPU speeds comparable to midrange laptops.

In terms of turnover, tablets are lasting 5 to 7 years. (Not good news for Apple, I suspect!) Smartphones are still driven by the length of service contracts, nominally 2 years. But Intel claims that buyers of 2-in-1s are turning over laptops and notebooks much more frequently – on average, 18 to 24 months.

We’ve also seen much sales of much larger tablet screens pick up. Samsung’s 10.4-inch Galaxy Tab is popular, and the CNET story mentions a rumor that Apple plans to unveil a 13-inch iPad Pro this fall. (No word on whether it will have a detachable keyboard, a feature that Apple has resisted for now.)

The demand for the Surface Pro product stands in stark contrast to its earlier failures at launch three years ago. (Wow, has it been THAT long?) At one point, the company had hundreds of thousands of unsold units sitting in warehouses, no doubt due to the public’s emphatic rejection of Windows 8 software.

Now, Surface Pros are a popular product, and can run special versions of Office software. With gradual acceptance of cloud-based storage as opposed to CD drives, these tablets are quite powerful, thin, and lightweight.

A move to larger screens on smartphones can’t continue indefinitely: The 6-inch Galaxy is about the largest phone size I can fit into a shirt or pants pocket, so we may be hitting a wall in that area (although I have heard of plans by one Chinese brand to come out with an 8-inch 4K smartphone!).

So if any device will be sacrificed on the CE altar, it will be mid-sized tablets – 7 to 9 inches – and that’s already happening, based on market numbers. As the owner of a still-running Toshiba 10.4” notebook with OS 7, I’m intrigued by the idea of replacing all of that weight with a same-size tablet and keyboard – and a higher-resolution display, too.

For AV connectivity, the market switch creates its own headaches. Micro HDMI? MHL? Lightning? In all likelihood, the interface of choice will become wireless, most likely using 5 GHz Wi-Fi channel bonding technology for more reliable video streaming. Or, we may see some early adopters of 60 GHz wireless links for “2-in-1s,” using the 802.11ad protocol or SiBEAM’s Snap wireless docking system.

Keep your eye on the new USB 3.0 Type-C connector. This could be a game-changer: Like Lightning, it is symmetrical and thus reversible. It can carry high-speed data (up to 10 Gb/s), DC power for charging, and in Alternate Mode, transport display signals like DisplayPort 1.3 (packet) and superMHL (TMDS).

It’s a good bet that as the market ramps up production of “2-in-1s,” they’ll include the Type-C interface and probably drop everything else except power connections. For that matter, Type-C is in a position to displace everything from Mini DisplayPort to HDMI as it is the closest thing we’ll have to a do-everything, universal I/O connector going forward.

As for picking winners and losers in the smartphone/tablet/notebook/laptop game, better leave that to the “experts.’ They’re just as confused as anyone else…

CES 2015 In The Rearview Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm...apparently they did give MHL

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I’ll close out this report with a few passing thoughts. First, it’s impossible to miss the trends of mass-produced, cheap consumer electronics that are increasingly showing up at CES.  Next, there is hardly any new technology debuting at the show that multiple manufacturers have in short order (and that includes the Chinese).

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

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

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

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

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

Makes the long hours on the show floor worth it.

 

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

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

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

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