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“Smart Evolution” TV: DOA, or a reinvention for Samsung?

Samsung is billing its new Smart Evolution TV as the definitive “next big thing” in consumer display technology. The idea here is simple. You buy a television in 2012 with the Smart Evolution feature, and come 2013 (or presumably later) you’ll be able to plug a kit into the display and upgrade the core CPU, RAM, and possibly other capabilities.

It’s been six months since Samsung unveiled this feature, and the first televisions to support Smart Evolution are finally shipping, but the company has remained cagey when it comes to the specifics of what it plans to offer or what features will be available. 2012 is clearly a pilot year, meant to gauge consumer interest and marketability before Samsung bets big on the idea.

There’s been some knee-jerk negativity towards the concept from various bloggers, mostly because Samsung’s upgrade kit (the first one is due in 2013) won’t allow users to upgrade to a 4K television. I don’t think this is actually a problem, for two reasons. Firstly, consumers are used to the idea that when you buy a television, computer display, or laptop, your screen has a fixed maximum resolution. Second, the emerging 4K pseudo-standard just isn’t going to matter to the vast majority of people. If you plan to buy a monster 84-in television, currently sit four feet from a 60-in panel, or have 20/10 vision, sure, 4K is going to be awesome for you. No one else is going to notice.

The evolution will be televised

There are some real potential upsides to Samsung’s Smart Evolution idea, depending on how the company implements it. Consider the case of the next-generation video codec that’s eventually slated to replace H.264, known as H.265 or HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding). HEVC is designed to improve fidelity while slashing bandwidth, and it achieves these goals by beefing up the required decompression computing power. That requirement means a number of televisions sold today won’t be able to play H.265-encoded content.

An upgradeable television could neatly dodge this bullet. An 8-bit Smart Evolution display still wouldn’t be able to display the true 10-bit colour that H.265 allows, but this problem could be mitigated with a high quality video processor. A 10-bit source interpolated to 8-bit can still offer superior colour reproduction than a straight 8-bit signal – starting with 10 bits of data allows the video hardware to create a more accurate reproduction of the source. The images below offer a comparison between 8-bit and 10-bit colour from the open film The Elephants Dream.

Here’s the 8-bit picture:

And here’s the 10-bit affair:

An 8-bit video downsampled from 10-bit would be somewhere between the two.

When you consider the link between digital signal quality and processing power, an upgraded television makes sense in a lot of other ways. When Microsoft built Kinect, one of the greatest challenges it faced was ensuring that the device’s CPU requirement was low enough to avoid crippling game performance. Improving CPU performance gives Samsung the option of enhancing integrated webcam quality, offering new TV features, building out app capabilities, or integrating more advanced game/3D functions into the panel, all without asking consumers to automatically spring for a new television.

Worst case scenario

The real pitfall here has nothing to do with 4K displays. The fastest way for Samsung to kill this concept is to follow what passes for manufacturing instinct these days and overcharge for pitiful hardware that delivers barely noticeable performance improvements, while simultaneously using said upgrade capability as an excuse for pushing out broken software that isn’t optimised for the hardware it ships on.

The problem with the upgradeable television concept is that Samsung wants to create Apple-like experiences that drive consumer preferences, but it also wants to sell lots and lots of televisions. If folks buy the former, and then upgrade, the firm will be doing less of the latter. It also runs the risk of creating fragmented user bases and ugly fights over what upgrade kits fit which televisions and enable which experiences. Say, for example, that a consumer buys a 2013 Smart Evolution display. At what point does Samsung stop offering software updates or OS patches? Where’s the cut-off line for saying: “OK, now we want you to buy an upgrade kit, or get fitted for a new display.”

An H.265 upgrade kit would be a great idea for consumers, but it’s a terrible idea if you’re part of Samsung’s entrenched display business. This tendency to fight change is precisely why dominant companies in one market often wither when new competition comes along from a different direction. In 2000, Netflix offered to partner with Blockbuster for DVD distribution over in the US. Blockbuster just laughed.

The success of upgradeable TVs won’t just be a question of price and features, it’s a question of whether Samsung wants to reinvent itself as a digital distribution company with an upgradeable product that happens to be a television, or if it wants to be a television manufacturer whose displays happen to offer some computing features and Internet capability. Long term, it can’t be both.

For more info, watch the video below – but turn your sound down first.