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OLED vs. 4K vs. smart TV: Which is most important in the near future?

TV & AVFeatures
by Joel Hruska, 14 Jan 2013Features
OLED vs. 4K vs. smart TV: Which is most important in the near future?

OLED TVs were big at CES this year – they’re big every year – but a number of manufacturers were pushing Ultra HD (4K TV) as well. A number of 4K LCD and OLED panels were on display, but in this case, OLED is ironically the better tech to bet on.

The reason is simple: OLED technology dramatically improves colour reproduction and clarity, even at 1920 x 1080. While its other benefits, like reduced power consumption, depend on the type of panel and the content being displayed, no one argues that OLED doesn’t create a better picture than traditional LCD. It doesn’t depend on your TV provider, a new Blu-ray player, or a premium streaming option from a service like Netflix. You don’t need to upgrade your set-top box or buy a third-party upscaler to see the advantage.

So, here’s an interesting question. Given that OLED’s progress in large panels has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary for several years and the global economy isn’t exactly in the best of shape, why are companies like LG moving with OLED now, rather than delaying it further?

The answer, I think, is related to the other technologies that were on display at CES this year. Television manufacturers are jockeying to introduce multiple new technologies and hoping that by doing so, they’ll be able to entice customers to swap up. The problems with OLEDs are well known, but how does the tech dovetail with the recent push for 4K television?

4K TV: The ultimate content-free solution

4K HDTVs were a huge presence at the show, despite the fact that there’s no 4K broadcast standard. What’s worse, at least from the whole “get practical use out of your television” angle, is that there’s no 4K standard for Blu-ray, either. The current BD specification tops out at 1080p24 or 1080i60. Could the standard be adjusted to account for this? Sure, but probably not without breaking backwards compatibility with current-generation Blu-ray players. Given the problems Sony had getting Blu-ray off the ground in the first place, an upgrade isn’t going to appeal to very many people.

Thus, we have Sony promising to release new 1080p movies that have been “remastered” from 4K originals and can be upsampled for display on a 4K television. Panasonic and Sony are doubling down on 4K and OLED. Nvidia and Qualcomm have both talked up mobile devices that can drive 4K displays, though Jen-Hsun’s demo of Nvidia’s Project Shield didn’t actually showcase the handheld displaying 4K content natively.

A whole lot of mud is flying at the proverbial wall as manufacturers search for a way to return to mid-2000s annual growth rates. The advent of HDTV kicked off a meteoric surge in television demand. That growth helped make Samsung a household name. It spurred the development of better, more power efficient LCD designs. Now, after more than a decade, the train is slowing down. Data from NPD, released in October 2012, illustrates the problem nicely.

Shipments grew nicely in 2010 and 2011, but declined in 2012. 3D technology (remember that?) was supposed to be the Next Big Thing, but fizzled with consumers. Early Smart TVs haven’t caught fire, but companies like Samsung are still investing in improving that experience with better, more capable processors and tighter application integration. The company showed off voice supported TV Guide searches at CES and unveiled its first Evolution Kit – a diminutive upgrade box that plugs into an existing set and upgrades its capabilities thanks to better HD decode capabilities, a faster processor, or more RAM.

Finding useful uses for the technology is still a challenge (and Samsung was a bit vague on the specific benefits of upgrading), but the company plans to support its televisions with four years of upgrade kits. It’s not clear if this will impact free software updates, but the idea has merit. At the very least, it’s another technology on the table for improving how consumers interact with televisions.

Of the three, however, OLED is still the surest bet as far as a next-generation technology that will meaningfully improve content. Everything else will take a great deal more cooperation. It’s entirely possible that 4K television won’t take off in broadcasting until the adoption of H.265, since that algorithm allows for higher quality than H.264 while consuming less bandwidth. Smart TVs have interesting capabilities, including video game streaming and super-sized tablet capabilities, but specific implementations still have a long way to go.

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