CES 2012: TVs, TVs and More TVs

I attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week for the fifth straight year, and as always, it was dazzling. CES is where the major consumer electronics makers reveal the new products they are planning to release in the upcoming year. This year the major featured trends included new tablet PCs from a variety of makers, amazingly sleek and lightweight “ultrabooks”, more and better 3-D products, and interactivity through gesture recognition. However, this year the most stunning theme was large, beautiful TVs using a variety of technologies. Naturally, this is what interested me the most and in this blog post I’ll tell you why and about the trends for 2012.

The dominant LCD TV technology just keeps getting bigger, with 60 – 80”-plus models from numerous makers. But LCD is not just getting bigger, it’s getting better. “Ultra-definition” which doubles the number of pixels in both vertical and horizontal directions, means that these 80” screens will have the same pixel density and crisp picture as a smaller screen.

Probably the most highly-anticipated TVs at CES were the 55” OLED TVs announced by both Samsung and LG. These beauties are ~4mm thin (about the thickness of 3 credit cards) and weigh significantly less than their LCD counterparts, for easier wall mounting. OLED is a technology that enables a more brilliant picture with deeper blacks and better contrast ratio than LCD (you can learn more about how LCDs and OLEDs work in this blog post).

Even within OLED there is a competition of technologies. Samsung’s technology uses actual red, green and blue (RGB) OLED material, which requires some very complex and challenging manufacturing steps, while LG uses white OLED material, then passes the light from each pixel through a color filter to create the RGB colors. The LG method is simpler, but may create some trade-offs in the image quality.

Finally, the real surprise at the show was the Sony 55” “Crystal LED” TV. This TV uses an LED (not OLED) at each pixel to make the image. This should not be confused with LED backlit LCDs which use LEDs as the light source, but not separate LEDs at each pixel. The details of how they are able to manufacture this are still quite vague. I could not even learn from the booth staff whether the LEDs are fabricated together in a fixed array or are selected individually (to achieve good uniformity) and then placed one-by-one on the display. Either way, there could be significant challenges in either uniformity or manufacturing efficiency. This TV is just a prototype, and will not be on the market in 2012, or perhaps for years to come. I look forward to learning more about how they make it.

I expected that by seeing these different TV technologies at the same show I would be able to clearly compare their relative performance variations, then judge which of these technologies would succeed in the future. But honestly, they all looked beautiful, and since I could not view them side by side and they each showed content selected by the exhibitors to look most impressive for the specific TV, I honestly cannot say which looked the best.

The OLEDs were the thinnest screens, but now that high-end LCDs are well below 1” in thickness, it is not clear that shaving another few millimeters off is that important to mass consumers, especially if there is a big price premium for OLED. After OLEDs hit big-box stores later this year and we can really look at the best LCDs and OLEDs side by side, we’ll give you our perspective on the benefits and disadvantages of both. It will be interesting to see how consumers respond.

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