12.01.17

CES 2017 Report: Video in 2017 and beyond

Sony CEO and President Kaz Hirai introduces Sony’s first Bravia OLED models at a pre-CES 2017 event
Sony CEO and President Kaz Hirai introduced Sony’s first Bravia OLED models at a pre-CES event

With CES 2017 now in the books and the major products and concepts shared with the world, it’s time to take a break from getting over the annual “CES cold” and step back and see what all the news really means. What are the overarching trends? What makes sense and what doesn’t? What do we need to look out for going forward? And, most importantly, how do we explain all of this to our customers and clients in ways that will help our respective businesses?

All valid questions, and while it will take some time for the CES dust to settle, it is important to take a crack at it. That’s exactly what we will do this month looking at the video market, and next month for connectivity, networking and audio.

Video display issue #1: LCD, “Advanced LCD with quantum dots”, or OLED?

CES saw the initial contenders lining up with traditional edge-lit LCD sets still representing the bulk of the market for all brands, particularly in smaller screen sizes and at lower prices. Indeed, for conventional 720P sets and 1080p “Full HD” models, that is virtually the only choice. The fun starts with 4K/UHD sets where all brands offer edge- or back-lit models at the entry price points. However, in the higher end models things heat up. Samsung, particularly with its new QLED models is leading the charge for the use of quantum dot technology to produce the best pictures. Other brands including TCL are also on board with that.

On the flip side, although it continues to promote and sell LCD displays and is improving its quantum dot technologies, LG is all in with OLED. Through its LG Display company it is a primary manufacturer of OLED panels and that is the main thrust of its luxury models.

In the middle, the poorly kept secret that was revealed at CES was that Sony, long a proponent of various LCD technologies, is also going to offer OLED-based models. Indeed, its new A1E BRAVIA models will be the best Sony offers once they are on sale later this spring. Perhaps to differentiate its models from other brands, the Sony sets include a unique “speaker in the screen” technology that even LG’s own brand could not offer at this time.

Which comes out best?

Given these options, what is the best and what should you recommend? A head-to-head comparison at a trade show is always chancy, as we never know if the sets were “out of the box” or comparably calibrated. While the consensus among the pundits and press at CES gave the quality edge to the LG-brand OLEDs, the Sony was almost equally regarded. However, the race was close, and to some eyes Samsung’s were equal, if not better.

Moral: The quality of video displays is improving across the board. Blacks are blacker to make contrast better and light output is increased. The difference is now clearly in the eyes of the beholder when doing an OLED vs LCD with quantum dot comparison.

Video display issue #2: Above 4K resolution

Panda 8K IGZO9 display on show at CES 2017

Displays with 8K (7680 x 4320) resolution have been on display at CES for at least the past few years, and they were there again this year. With HDMI 2.1 connectivity on the way towards the end of 2017 and displays becoming less of a science project, 8K seems closer, but don’t hold your breath for it on a practical, market-available basis for at least another two or three years.

Wandering the huge CES exhibit floor you could see 8K on display in the LG and Samsung stands, as well as from many of the Chinese suppliers. Indeed, along with LG Display, who appears to be the prime source of the 65-in models there were also 98-in displays, including one by China’s Panda. While you may not heard of them, their parent company is on track to become one of the top two LCD panel manufacturers in China. More importantly, they are producing both 4K and 8K panels with the IGZO technology originally conceived by Sharp. The results were quite impressive.

"The world is still digesting 4K, particularly from the content distribution side."

8K: a realistic option?

Our take on this, however, is that while the technology for 8K on both the content production and display technology fronts is progressing, the world is still digesting 4K, particularly from the content distribution side. If you’re asked about 8K by clients our strong post-CES advice is to tell them that it simply isn’t here yet and that waiting is good only if they willing to hibernate for 24 to 36 months at a minimum. Get them into the best 4K set you can and as noted above, they will benefit from stunning images today.

Video display issue #3: Standard 1080p and 720p Sets

The fact of the matter is that while Full HD, or 1080p, sets remain available, the products on display at CES clearly point to 4K as the main display technology above 43-in. Prices are dropping, technology is improving, and many were predicting the practical abandonment of 1080p sets in larger sizes within 18 months.

That might lead one to think that it would be the same of smaller, “second bedroom” or “office” sets in the 32-in to 42-in range, but that was not the case. As at least one brand representative told HiddenWires, the cost of full HD panels is simply not economically viable in the relatively smaller sizes. Further, given the viewing distance and video quality expectations in those sizes, the feeling seems to be that 720p is the sweet spot.

CES take-away: On one hand you will be suggesting and hopefully selling 4K sets at the upper range while warning that 8K is still a bit off in the distance. On the other hand you have to explain or, if you will, “sell down” to explain that higher resolution displays are simply not common in smaller sizes. No one ever said this was going to be easy!

Content distribution and selection/management trend #1: “Roku or Fire TV Inside”

Of course, these displays will be of little use if they have no ability to access content and select or manage it. Some of the trends in that area are perhaps now US-centric, but they are worth noting as something that may well influence the way displays are sold in other markets. Understanding this trend will put you ahead of the pack when it inevitably appears where you trade.

Regardless of where you are, it’s likely that you’ve heard of both Roku (already sold in the UK and France), and the Amazon Fire TV products currently sold in the UK and Germany. These small “streamers” are standalone products that access streaming services, but at CES 2017 the way consumers buy them, at least in the US, is changing. In fact, what is key here is that consumers aren’t actually purchasing the streaming boxes or dongles. Rather, they are, or will soon be able to buy, TV sets that use Roku or Fire TV as the set’s main interface.

Yes, that’s right, the remote is the same as with the basic product. There are no traditional numeric keypads or source selectors since the interface has the program guides and controls under the guise of the master UI. Of course, streaming services are available, and in the case of the Fire TV they are available from the Amazon store. Looking at it another way, these aren’t TV sets with “Smart TV” functionality added. Rather, they are connected devices that also happen to have off-air tuning.

In the case of the Amazon-based TVs the integration with the underlying system even extends to the ability to use the voice remote to control Alexa skills.

To be sure, the main legacy brands are still based on their own UI designs, although Sony has been using Android TV. The brands with this type of system are mainstream China-based brands such as TCL, Sharp and Hisense with Roku, Seki and Elements with Fire TV, and soon Haier and others with Chromecast will be on board.  There are also marketing companies using licensed branding such as Westinghouse, Hitachi or Elements that use this concept.

Benefits of Roku

What’s the advantage and why get involved with what might seem to be less known brands that use what, at first glance, is a different way to use a TV? For both the TV companies and the end-user having the interface developed by a third-party company completely devoted to interface means that upgrades are both easier and automatic. As with the standalone devices, updates are constant to add and update streaming services so that the sets will keep more current than is typically the case with manufacturer-specific interface design.

Additional side note: For 4K/UHD sets with this configuration, the constant upgrades will be particularly critical as new services and HDR are added.

If you don’t see this configuration in your market, it is not out of the question that this will spread from the US so it is important to be prepared for it.

Content distribution and selection/management trend #2: “Physical media lives!”

Philips new UltraHD Blu ray Dolby Vision models on display at CES 2017

With all the focus on streaming and IP distribution you might think that physical media is on the way out. Particularly with regard to 4K/UHD content, CES 2017 gave new meaning to the quote attributed to the American author and humourist Samuel Clemens, popularly known as Mark Twain. To paraphrase “Reports of optical disc’s demise are greatly exaggerated!”

While bandwidth is increasing across the globe, the speed required for high-quality, “buffer-free” 4K streaming content delivery just isn’t always possible. Riding to the rescue is UltraHD Blu-ray with over 300,000 players were sold in the US in 2016, with sales of 110 available titles surpassing the 2 million unit-mark. An additional 250 titles are scheduled for release in 2017 from the major film studios.

More importantly, CES showcased new models with improved performance and upgrades promised by summer to add Dolby Vision to the existing HDR-10 capability. Key to future success will be the introduction of models from Sony and LG to join those from Samsung, Panasonic and Philips, as well as the Xbox OneS.

UltraHD Blu-ray is still spreading its wings across the globe and it isn’t in all markets yet. However, as a BDA spokesperson told us at CES, “There is no better sidekick partner for 4K TV than UltraHD Blu-ray.” That’s hard to argue with.

Given the huge size of CES it is hard to capsulise it in one article. After all, it had 3,800 exhibiting companies including over 600 start-ups, more than 2.6 million net square feet of exhibit space, and it welcomed more than 175,000 industry professionals, with 55,000 from outside the US. It is important that those of you who didn’t make it over to Las Vegas have not just the product news, but a view of the impact those products will have on your business.

Look out for the second part of our CES report on HiddenWires soon.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group. Follow him on Twitter: @captnvid.