At CES, there are lots and lots of TVs. All of the major manufactures rolled out their new wares: Plasmas, LCDs and LEDs and now OLED and Crystal LED. There were lots of incremental improvements but no game changers. After sitting through press conferences from LG, Samsung and Panasonic, the one thought that kept crossing my mind was that these companies don’t understand TV. To put it another way, consumer electronics companies have decided to focus on the lean forward experience and forget about the lean back one.
Maybe I’m old school but I think TV is all about relaxing after a busy day. Somehow, TV companies are attempting to turn the TV into this futuristic control panel that’s designed for galactic and social domination. At their CES press conference, Samsung was bragging how their 2012 HDTVs can multi-task apps. I can’t wait to flip between Twitter, Facebook and the program I’m trying to watch. Wait, what was I writing?
I understand that from a business point of view that the TV business has become a low margin affair. Adding additional features to differentiate a set is one way to command higher prices and hopefully higher margins. Smart TVs and 3D failed to do this and are now being included in many models. The looming spectre of an Apple HDTV has forced the preemptive launch of an entire array of new features in this year’s TVs. With manufacturers bundling tons of features, it feels like a “let’s throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks” strategy.
Let’s take a look at some of them. First, there’s LG’s various magic remotes. Each version provides a multitude of ways to control the TV: voice, motion controls, a scroll wheel and traditional buttons. The Google TV version also has a full QWERTY keyboard. Voice commands will control some functions but not others. It’s overwhelming to say the least. Where do I start?!? At most give folks a couple of options.
Samsung introduced voice, gesture controls and facial recognition (similar to Microsoft’s Kinnect) in its higher-end sets. Once again, where do you start? While the facial recognition feature adds the concept of user profiles, it doesn’t do things yet like enforcing parental controls by user. It really feels like we’re looking at an enabling technology that needs to be developed further.
Then there’s the user interfaces for smart TVs that have also been “upgraded”. Yes, the icons have more detail and you can build screens with your favorite apps. But, it’s just as confusing as last year’s experience. How many choices are there on the screen? It’s a cluttered mess. For some reason, Samsung’s icons are under water. Someone throw them a lifeline!
Samsung also introduced the idea of “upgradable” TVs. Called the “Evolution Kit”, it’s a card you can plug into your TV that will “bring the latest and greatest TV technology to life”. Well, I’m skeptical abou this. While they can provide more RAM or potentially a more powerful CPU, it can’t change the panel itself meaning you won’t be able to noticeably improve the picture. Since you can already upgrade the firmware of the set and download new versions of apps via the Internet, I don’t really see what Samsung is pushing here.
Technologies like OLED and Sony’s Crystal LED were nice to look at but are not game changers. Without firm release dates or pricing, I can’t get too excited over what is at best an incremental improvement over today’s plasma and LED displays given the limitations of today’s sources. For example, while OLED TVs can display a wider range of colors, it’s irrelevant given the limitations of the current Blu-ray format and HD television broadcasts. I thought that the new high-end plasmas that Samsung and Panasonic introduced were impressive, comparable in picture quality to the new technologies and they will probably be more affordable. While the plasmas still had deep blacks, the sets this year were sporting improved brightness. While I love how thin OLED sets are, does it really matter? I don’t move my living room TV around on a regular basis. Given the low price of plasma and LED sets, OLED has a long way to go.
On the other hand, I was impressed with VIZIO’s announcements. First, on the surface, VIZIO had the most compelling Google TV offering with their own simplified version of the Google TV interface (more to come). Second, VIZIO introduced a line of HDTVs with aspect ratios that match film screens, 21:9. Yes, these screens have the potential to eliminate the horizontal black bars when you watch a movie (and will introduce vertical bars when you watch TV shows). However, Blu-rays aren’t authored in this aspect ratio today and there’s no defined standard resolution for this aspect ratio. The VIZIO set can play a scaling trick to fully utilize the screen, but you lose some picture quality in the process. Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction but it reminds me of the biggest disappointment of CES.
All of the announcements from TV manufacturers were mostly around their hardware and software. I heard little about upgraded content or standards that would take advantage of the advanced technology they introduced. Nothing about extended color gamuts, nothing about 4K content, nothing about wider-aspect ratios. As far as being able to watch my content anytime, anywhere and anyplace, TiVo had the most significant announcement. Also, Panasonic did have an interesting announcement about the MySpace TV, Flixster and Miramax services and there were some interesting developments in the UltraViolet area but more on that later. By introducing all of these features, the one thing that TV manufacturers did was create an even bigger opportunity for Apple to come to market with its easy-to-use mythical HDTV.