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CES 2018: Look to the Processor, Not the Display, for TV Picture Improvements

Samsung, LG, Panasonic, and TCL look to better processors and AI to move TV tech forward in 2018

4 min read
A man looks over a 4K Super UHD TV Nano Cell display in the LG Electronics booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center during the 2018 CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. January 9, 2018
Photo: Steve Marcus/Reuters

CES press day, the day before the opening of the gargantuan consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, is traditionally anchored by the “big” consumer electronics manufacturers. The names change, but these days, that list includes Korea’s LG and Samsung, and Japan’s Panasonic, with China’s TCL waving its flag as well. (The big names used to be U.S.-based RCA and Zenith…but I’m showing my age here.)

These flashy presentations typically focus on the television display. Inevitably, manufacturers would unveil a new display or two, claiming they were the biggest, thinnest, prettiest, or most colorful—or all of the above.

Not this year. If you were dropping into your first CES from another planet, you might not actually realize from the announcements at CES press day that TVs have screens. Instead, the manufacturers struggled to explain tech advances that are coming in places the eye can’t see—under the hood and in the cloud.

Under the hood

LG, Panasonic, and TCL put the spotlight on the chips that do the video processing: For the foreseeable future, any advances in image quality will be coming from these chips, not from the displays themselves.

LG announced its new Alpha 9 processor, which, the company says, will produce clearer and more realistic images, with more accurate color reproduction and less picture noise. It will also yield high frame rate (HFR) broadcast video, a technology being experimented with—but not embraced—for sports broadcasts. Its most innovative change, LG said in a statement, “is the four-step process of noise reduction, which boasts twice as many steps compared to conventional techniques. This algorithm allows for greater finesse in noise reduction, improving the clarity of images affected by distracting artifacts and enabling more effective rendering of smooth gradations.”

The processor is showing up in the company’s newest OLED TVs as well as its new top-of-the-line LED TVs.

Panasonic said its new HCX processor would be featured in new models of OLED TVs, able to automatically optimize brightness, color, and contrast as scenes change. The biggest change, the company said in a statement: 

“is the introduction of a completely new ‘Dynamic LUT’ system. LUT (Look Up Table) technology is used extensively in professional post-production and broadcast circles in Hollywood and beyond to ensure color accuracy. Until now, LUTs were fixed according to the color space used by the source. With this innovation, the HCX automatically monitors the average brightness level of a scene and uses picture analysis to dynamically load an LUT appropriate to that scene. This brings significant improvements to mid-brightness scenes, making them look much more natural. To improve color accuracy in shadows, Panasonic has included additional layers of LUT data at much darker levels than were previously available. This means that while improving the transition from pure black, the colors in the shadows are even more accurate.”

TCL calls its new processor the iPQ engine, and also promised a more realistic picture.

And Sony said that its X1 Ultimate processor, which will render images by objects rather than by frames, will be coming in both LCD and OLED displays; however, the chip is just a prototype for now, so no word on timing. 

AI and the cloud

Samsung, though it didn’t tout a new processor, promised that all its gadgets, big and small, will be a lot smarter this year—and will, by 2020, be using AI and talking to the cloud.

LG pointed to its plans to integrate AI into all its consumer electronics products, including refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions—an effort the company has branded ThinQ. (Most people would pronounce this “think,” but LG wants it to sound more like “thank you.”)

And TCL joined with Roku to connect its gear to the cloud via a new smart sound bar, coming toward the end of 2018.

In their efforts to make their connected products more intelligent and more useful, the major consumer electronics companies are reaching out to the little guys—the startup gadget makers who are putting lightbulbs, swimming pools, and even pets onto the IoT (I’m imagining your TV telling you it’s time to let the dog out). Samsung and LG both touted the efforts to develop open standards through the two-year-old Open Connectivity Foundation.

Thanks to all of your gadgets chattering behind your back, says Tim Baxter, CEO of Samsung Electronics North America, your things will “understand you and figure out what you want before you have to ask.” (This is a movie plot waiting to happen.)

In the shorter term, the technology would enable scenarios like someone asking the TV what is in the refrigerator, then having it display a recipe and send that recipe to the stove. Or, say, pausing a TV broadcast when the washing machine finishes a load.

And, promised LG’s Park, smarter appliances will also mean the end of user manuals, because, he says, “products will learn from users, not the other way around.”

That had me scratching my head a bit, but Yoon Lee, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics America, did an impressive demo of its new televisions pulling apps and user data from a phone, eliminating the laborious process of inputting usernames and passwords for services like Spotify and Netflix.

MicroLED on the horizon?

Samsung Unveils \u201cThe Wall,\u201d the World\u2019s First Modular MicroLED 146-inch TV.Samsung unveils “The Wall,” the world’s first modular micro-LED 146-inch TV.Photo: Samsung

While the consumer electronics manufacturers made it clear that any improvements in the TV viewing experience in the near future will come from better processors and AI software, one—Samsung—gave a brief hint that display evolution is not at a dead halt. The company gave a don’t-blink-or-you-might-miss-it peek at what it says will be the world’s first commercial micro-LED display, available sometime this year. Micro-LED technology operates like the jumbotron in a football stadium, with a dedicated LED for each colored subpixel—shrunk down to the size of a standard TV, that is, with subpixels so small your eye can’t distinguish them. It doesn’t require filters or backlights, so color and brightness can be exceptional.

To date, however, researchers working with this technology have been struggling with manufacturing yields, so cost is likely to be a huge issue for some time to come, and the company offered no pricing information. And given that the company emphasized the ability to piece these displays together into large panels, it seems that this product is aimed more for commercial spaces than living rooms, at least for now.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.