What’s the picture for TV?

Following on from last issue’s column about projection displays, Michael Heiss tackles the complex topic of direct view TVs and what you need to think about when specifying them for your customer.

In our last print edition, this space was devoted to projection displays. There is good reason for that: direct view TVs may be purchased almost everywhere, but typically do not need much more installation help other than a friend to help the buyer get it safely out of the box. However, projection television products and systems are something best specified, installed and configured by a home technology professional. That’s you, and even better, the system-centric nature of projectors and their more controlled distribution make them a welcome contributor to your bottom line. Ask anyone in any part of the display supply chain and they will tell you that direct view TVs are, for the most part, a slim-margin product in a highly competitive marketplace.

Why, then will this issue focus on direct view displays? Or as we all refer to them as, good old fashioned TV sets? The plain fact: projection systems, and to be fair, large size direct view sets, won’t fit in most room sizes and client budgets. The overwhelming percentage of video installations are filled with a direct view, flat panel product and they remain the overwhelmingly dominant option for viewing anything people don’t watch on a smartphone or tablet.

Thanks to the fast pace of technology, specifying a direct view set is not as simple as it was in the CRT days. It used to be that the choices boiled down to what size, which brand, and going way back, the wood finish on the cabinet. Today, consumers at all levels of the market are being bombarded with way too much technobabble and enough acronyms to give even the most knowledgeable consumer a huge headache. That gives you a wide berth to step in and explain things. Of course, you need to know the basics first, so here is a review of the basics and an update of the key new items in direct view, flat panel sets.

The range of TVs available to the public can glaze over the buyer with the range of branding, technology names and feature descriptions. With your knowledge it is easy to pick the right set for a given job. Image: M. Heiss

LCD vs. LED

To explain and update on every TV or display feature would fill a magazine ten times the size of this one, so here we will deal with a quick review of the screen basics and dive into some of the newer features that really differentiate one set from another. So that this doesn’t run out of space, a quick review of the current screen technologies and then the things that the brands tout these days that you’ll both have to explain and work into system configurations.

The flat screen age began with plasma, but that technology has gone the way of all flesh. Today we have LCD and OLED, with LCD still commanding the major market share. I can hear you saying it: WAIT! What about LED? (I’ll get to OLED a bit later.)

That is an important point you need to drive home when assisting clients and suggesting which set to specify. Let’s work backwards: at this point, even after the Society for Information Display’s annual Display Week conference, unless you are talking about a microLED display such as Samsung’s The Wall, Sony’s Crystal LED and similar large venue displays from a variety of manufacturers including Digital Projection, Barco, Christie, Planar, and many others too numerous to mention, the 100” and under displays many people call “LED” are more correctly an LCD panel illuminated by LEDs as a backlight. Once that idea is across, you need to explain a bit of the technology as that, in turn, determines the image quality and the price.

In one fashion or another, the LEDs provide the light that goes through the liquid crystal panel, which acts as a light gate. “Gate open”, light is allowed to pass through, and the pixels are illuminated. “Gate closed” and most of the light is blocked and, depending on the technology, you get what approaches a dark pixel.

At the lower end of the price/feature scale the LEDs illuminate a milky white plastic that surrounds the sides of the LCD panel. That’s why they are called “edge lit”. Cost efficient, and more than good enough for some applications, but when more light control and thus more contrast is the goal, a field of LEDs are placed behind the panel. Yes, you guessed it “backlit” sets. That’s where things get interesting.

TCL Roku TVs, now available in the UK, combine the apps and interface that have made Roku TVs a leader in the US with localised apps such as iPlayer and Freeview access. Source: TCL

Backlit arrays quickly become a tradeoff of cost against quality. Fewer LEDs means that there is not as much light output possible as there is when there are more LEDs. Even better, when there is a greater number of LEDs they may be grouped into zones, with each zone under control so that some areas of the image may be lit up, but others not. Those are called “local dimming zones”. There, too, the more the merrier. Particularly with the improved image processing of the latest SoCs that control a TV, that becomes a major step up. That is why for the past few product seasons you have seen manufacturers touting the power of their processors.

However, the size of traditional LED parts used for this purpose limits the finite number of LEDs that may be packed behind the LCD panel, and ultimately, the screen. That’s where the most recent innovation comes into play: miniLED. Unlike microLEDs, their smaller cousins, they are not used to directly face the viewer; they still hide behind the LCD panel. However, their smaller density means that many more of them, thousands in some cases, may sit behind the panel. That not only brings higher output, but better contrast.

Even better, with more LEDs the designers are then also able to divide the array into more zones. Yes, that means better images. More expensive? Typically, yes. Better quality? That’s always up to the client’s eyes, but the answer almost always is yes.

So here are the takeaways from the first part of the discussion of LCD panels with LED backlighting: backlit is almost always better than edge and when it comes to number of LEDs and dimming zones, the more the merrier. Ah, but there is more. Regardless of the configuration of the backlight, variations in LED and panel manufacturing can lead to less than perfect, accurate colour. That’s where one encounters the next aspect of flat panel displays: Quantum Dots, or “QD”.

Following a year of little to no sport, many people have upgraded their TVs to watch things such as the Euros and the Olympics in the comfort of their own homes.

Quantum Dot

These are chemical substances and nano-sized particles that, depending on the technology and set design are either applied to the LEDs or embedded in a film that sits in the stack of components between the backlighting array and the LCD panel. At the simplest level, the QD material fine tunes the light colour passing through the panel. That, in turn, means more accurate colour rendition. After all, isn’t that the goal here in the search for the best image quality?

That’s where the fun begins. OK, I must bow to current usage and stipulate that everyone calls the sets LED. I’m over it. However, the confusion goes deep from there. To differentiate their products from the competition, many, if not all, of the brands use their own forward-facing names for their combination of features and technologies. We haven’t even got to OLED yet, but if you were to look to the brands to see which set has what, you face a dizzying array of acronyms and marketing presentations. Think of it: QLED, Neo QLED, QNED, Crystal UHD and all the rest. Here’s a way to help decipher this: take what you just read, look at the actual descriptions on a set on the box or on the spec sheet. Then, take a deep breath; it isn’t as daunting as it seems at first glance.

Remember, to paraphrase the old cliché, “one does not live by LCD/LED alone.” Indeed. From a slow start, OLED has grown in market share and is a strong competitor to LCD-based sets. In fact, looking at reviews and the results from many “LED/LCD vs OLED” face offs, OLED consistently is viewed as the winner.

Why? The technology is complex, but the reason is simple. Organic Light Emitting Displays (OLED) are emissive rather than passive. No backlight is needed as the pixels you see are individually addressed; when they are on, they are on and when they are not, they are off—black. That gives you the best contrast and, in many cases, better colour.

Going forward, we will, at some point, see OLED with QD, and self-emissive QD, but that’s something that is still a bit off for popular market sets. Based on some new products scheduled for introduction this year in the US, we may soon see “dual-cell” LCD panel arrays, particularly given some papers delivered at SID Display Week. Who knows, the dream of a (reasonably) affordable consumer display with true micoLEDs may be in our future sooner than we might think.

However, for now, at the end of the day, for brightness go LED/LCD, for contrast, go OLED. For all the rest, it really depends on the specifics of the technology and processor implementation in a given product. You now have the “why and what”. The “which” is up to you and the client.

Where a set is placed will have great impact on which model and technology to choose, as would be the case with this LG set in a room with bright sunlight. Source: LG Electronics

Feature sets

Wouldn’t it be easy if that was all you needed to know? Fat chance. The good news is that there are more features than ever that deliver image performance, connectivity, content availability and the general user interface/user experience (UI/UX) that, when considered and put together will lead one to the right product selection.

Let’s start with connectivity. On the device-to-device side of things the latest and greatest is HDMI 2.1. After a start that was slower than an elephant’s gestation period, HDMI 2.1 is here and its availability is growing. However, depending on the user’s needs and the rest of the components in the ecosystem, there are a few things to consider. First, for full access to all of the HDMI 2.1 features, you’ll want to check to see if the set accommodates 48Gbps or just 40Gbps. The latter is no slouch and works for more content services we envision for a while. However, if the user is a heavy-duty gamer, the full 48Gbps is worth looking for. And, look for it you will have to do, as this spec is not always on the spec sheets.

Next, check to see which of the multitude of HDMI 2.1’s features are present. You’ll almost always see eARC, for bitstream delivery of audio content from content services managed within the set to the audio system. In an age where gaming has become very important, look for Variable Refresh Rate, or VRR. This enables the display to keep up with refresh rates from a game that changes more rapidly than the set can keep up with or which are above the set’s limit. In simple terms, it smooths out the image and helps avoid stuttering. This capability is a part of 2.1, and similar processes are found with Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync. If the set is for a PC gamer, ask which is needed to work best with their video card. Beyond that, many brands offer their own “game modes” that do similar things. Pick the one that makes sense from a cost and compatibility standpoint.

Speaking of frame rate, since the arrival of modern flat panels, we’ve been accustomed to 60fps screens. Some recent models are 120fps, and gaming monitors are now available with 144fps and soon even higher. Does that matter? That’s what your interface with the client is all about.

Last one on this score: how many HDMI inputs, and how many of them are 2.0 and how many are 2.1? Particularly if there is more than one HDMI 2.1 source (such as both an Xbox X and PlayStation 5), this is important if the audio system has not yet been upgraded to an AVR or processor with HDMI 2.1. Odds are, it probably hasn’t been.

Hisense will be one of the first to offer sets with dual-cell technology that uses a separate LCD panel to control contrast. Source: Hisense

Content

In the era of streaming and smart TVs, content services and user interface go hand in hand. More than the basic menu system we have all been used to for years, the manufacturers are making the ease of use and flexibility of their UI/UX a key selling point. Here, this is definitely a “dealer’s choice”. What one person likes and thinks is easy may be incomprehensible to someone else.

To move beyond the walled garden approach of manufacturer-specific, some brands have used standard UI schemes that we have, to date, associated with streaming devices. Android TV, now migrating to Google TV is a well-known approach. More recently, Roku has begun to expand beyond the US and North America with sets using their OS, with TCL joining the ranks for that in the UK.

No matter which approach is present, it is wise to check in advance to see if the viewer’s favourite apps are included. Most of the popular ones, such as Netflix, are likely to be there. However, as the streaming landscape is a constant state of flux I suggest that you make certain that there are enough HDMI inputs at some point along the system chain to attach at least two external streamers. Be it an Apple TV 4K, a Fire TV Stick, a Nvidia Shield, a Chromecast with Google TV, a Roku, or another device that might be specific to your region or country, having these assures that if a new service pops up, or an older service is no longer available via the set’s built in app selection, the user is covered. Here in the US services come and go, often are dropped from one device, and added to another, and new services born of media company mergers are added. That trend is headed east to EMEA and the UK, so be prepared.

There are many more things in defining and selecting the correct direct view TV product for a given room. Does the remote have a numeric keypad? For some that is important to simplify app setup. Does the remote offer voice control, and if so, is it brand specific or does it also work with Alexa or the Google Assistant? Who knows, after the announcements at Apple’s annual WWDC in June we may even see Siri/HomeKit built into a set. Is there access to a sufficient range of low-level controls to allow you to properly calibrate a set, if needed?

Remember, too, what’s proper for a main viewing room or home theatre may not be right for a lounge where there are large windows letting in gobs of sunlight. The range of features needed on a “serious” viewing environment may not be need in a kitchen, office or bedroom. Is gaming a key use for the set? That may change the whole dimension of what is called for.

At the end of the day, it is your knowledge of what’s inside that will help you work with the user to make certain that, together, the right set is specified for a given room, location and viewer requirements. Hopefully, these insights will assist you to make the right decision.

Main image: Mr.Mikla / Shutterstock





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