CES 2015: Placing Bets on the New TV Technologies

Will the next technology to dominate television screens be OLED, quantum dot, or MEMS? TV makers show their hands at CES

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Tim Alessi, head of new product development for LG Electronics USA, discusses LG's newest OLED Ultra HD TVs on 5 January 2015
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The day before the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (informally known as press day) is traditionally the time for the large, established consumer electronics manufacturers to strut their stuff. And because these are the outfits that own the factories that make the video screens for gadgets big and small, you know they are going to talk about TV, their flagship product.

Surprisingly, none of the major manufacturers led their press conferences with a TV announcement; instead, they first turned the spotlight onto the Internet of Things, and then quickly moved on to wearables. No breathtaking announcements there: All sorts of stuff will connect, and some of that stuff will be attached to your body. But opening with their small rather than their big products was telling. The manufacturers clearly hope the consumers will buy enough of these smaller gizmos to keep the cash flowing until they are ready to buy a new big (and, for the companies, profitable) gadget, the TV.

The best way to get someone to trade in his or her old TV is to improve on the technology enough to make it worth it. Remember back when you still had a CRT TV and a friend brought a plasma TV home? You wanted it, right?

And nobody thinks today’s LED-backlit LCD screens (what you call LED TV) are perfect. That technology will, eventually, be replaced.

LG, kicking off press day in its traditional 8 a.m. spot, proclaimed that the next TV you buy will use OLED technology. “What really distinguishes TV’s ability to create a jaw dropping picture is not the colors, it’s the ability to generate black,” said LG’s Tim Alessi. “For all its virtues, LED TV [can’t] generate black, even with local dimming.” Because OLED can turn individual pixels on and off, Alessi says, it wins with the blackest black.  LG already has OLED TVs on the market; but it is raising its bet on the technology, introducing seven new models, ranging from 55 to 77 inches in screen size, at CES. The company didn’t reveal its pricing plans, but these things will be expensive. The 55-inch version released last year currently retails for about $3500.

Alessi did mention a competing technology—quantum dots—in passing, indicating that LG would be displaying a quantum dot TV at its CES booth. (I demystify quantum dot technology here, but in short, it’s a way of lighting LCD TVs that produces vastly better colors than LED backlights do. There are two approaches: putting the quantum dots on the edges of the screen, or on a film covering the back of the screen.)

According to quantum dot company Nanoco, LG will be using Nanoco’s film technology. Industry sources tell me that the LG TV on display at CES is an early prototype, pulled out because the company knew some competitors were going to go big with that technology at CES. LG tells me that it’s simply trying “not to play favorites” with its CES lineup.

One of LG’s quantum dot–wielding competitors is TCL, a dominant TV manufacturer in China now hoping to challenge the big Korean and Japanese companies that rule the U.S. market. TCL’s E Hao dismissed OLED, saying, “OLED has been talked about for so many years…but it’s always way out there.” He insists that quantum dots is the future, adding that its name speaks volumes: “Quantum—it’s high tech already.”

But the proof, Hao says, will be in the color images quantum dots produce. He’s confident that consumers will love it. Maybe OLED can produce 100 percent of the colors specified in the U.S. television standard, but, like a poker player upping the ante, he notes that “quantum dots can offer 110 percent.” With that, the company unveiled a 55-inch quantum dot TV—no pricing yet, but likely cheaper than same-sized OLED models. TCL is using the edge-lit version of quantum dot technology, developed by startup company QD Vision.

Samsung also is betting on quantum dots and against OLED. But you might not have realized that even if you attended the Samsung press conference. Samsung jumped through linguistic hoops to announce its first quantum dot television—without ever using the term “quantum dot.” Instead, it referred to its “proprietary nanocrystal semiconductors” that create a “next-generation viewing experience” it is calling SUHD. Come on, Samsung! You picked a technology, own up to it! Samsung, by the way, is using the film approach to quantum dots developed by Nanosys.

Sharp, the company that was the first to bet all its chips on LCD display technology back when most TVs used cathode ray tubes and plasma still seemed a viable contender to be tubes’ successor, is still committed to pushing the limits of LCDs—so far, without incorporating quantum dots. Sharp announced monster 120-inch displays, displays with 8K resolution, and displays that put the control electronics at each pixel rather than at the edges, allowing free-form shapes.

When Sharp executives speaking at its CES press conference presented their view of the future beyond LCD, they pulled out a wild card: MEMS displays. Sharp has been working with Qualcomm subsidiary Pixtronix for more than two years to develop a display using indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) semiconductor technology. IGZO/MEMS displays comprise arrays of tiny mechanical shutters, one at each pixel, that switch to select red, green, or blue from a cycling backlight. Sharp says this technology is finally ready for commercialization; it anted up with a 7-inch IGZO/MEMS tablet display. Sure, that’s a long way from a big-screen TV, but some of us remember when we were oohing and ahhing about OLED screens at that size, and OLED eventually grew up.

This all leaves LG alone in thinking it can win with OLED TV in the near future.

Meanwhile, despite the consumer electronics companies being divided in their predictions regarding what kind of screen will be on the next TV you buy, they coalesced in how they believe you’ll be getting content on that TV. The consensus is that you’ll be streaming it from the Internet, not tuning in to cable, satellite, or broadcast channels.

The reason? For large screen sizes, the 1080-pixel resolution (actually 1920 by 1080 pixels) of HDTV isn’t always good enough. The industry is moving towards a 3840-by-2160-pixel resolution with better specs in terms of color and other features that it’s calling 4K UHDTV. Nobody seriously thinks the cable companies are going to transmit much bandwidth-eating UHD programming anytime soon. But streaming providers such as Netflix appear eager to do so—on-demand, for a price. 

Several consumer electronic manufacturers did mention that they would be producing Blu-Ray disk players that could display 4K UHDTV programming from purchased or rented disks; but this seems aimed at the videophiles with tricked-out home theaters; the average TV viewer will turn to the Internet for 4K programming.

Update 9 January:

Nanosys on Wednesday published a correction to its earlier press release stating that Samsung does not use Nanosys products. A bit confusing, but according to a Nanosys spokesman, Samsung is manufacturing its own quantum dots under license from Nanosys; Nanosys could potentially supply them from its Milpitas, Calif., manufacturing line, but is not doing so at this time. I wasn’t able to get an official statement from Samsung on the matter, but one company representative pointed out that it wouldn’t be smart for Samsung to single-source any technology.

Samsung isn’t the only company licensing the Nanosys technology. 3M is using it to manufacturer Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF), which it supplies to TV manufacturers. Hisense’s ULED TV and Changhong’s QLED TV, both introduced at CES, incorporate the 3M quantum dot film. 

Sony, who was actually first on the quantum dot bandwagon announcing quantum dot TVs using QD Vision’s technology in 2013, continues to include it in its “Triluminos” line of TVs; displaying a number of those models on the CES floor.

And now some news about pricing: Hisense, unlike the rest of the TV manufacturers launching quantum dot products at the 2015 CES, was willing to talk money. The company says it expects to list its 65-inch quantum dot television at $3000 when it ships sometime in the first half of 2015. (The company’s current 65-inch 4K resolution models list for about $2000 but have a street price under $1500.) That’s a bit less than Sony’s current 65-inch quantum dot model, launched at $5000 but now listing at $3800.

Go here for photos and on-the-spot commentary on TV technology from CES 2015. 

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