One of the great things about the annual Consumer Electronics Show is that it helps set expectations for the technology you’ll see in the coming year. At CES 2017, which kicks off January 5 in Las Vegas, we’re not expecting blockbuster TV announcements, but we do think we’ll see a number of developments that will keep the year interesting.
1. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is Everywhere
Ultra-high definition TVs moved into the mainstream in 2016. All but the least expensive larger-screen sets had 4K resolution, another term for UHD. And you didn’t have to pay much more for it.
In 2017, we think high dynamic range (HDR) will be the biggest buzzword, though it may be tough for consumers to understand exactly what they’re getting.
THE TECHNOLOGY IS GOOD WHEN IT IS DEMONSTRATED CORRECTLY
“The technology is good when it’s demonstrated correctly, and the consumer is well educated about HDR in terms of compatibility of content and the performance cues to look for,” says Paul Gagnon, director of TV sets research at IHS Markit, a data and market analysis firm. “But there’s a lot of variance in terms of how manufacturers implement HDR. It’s all over the map.”
HDR is about improving the contrast between the darker and brighter parts of a scene. It’s also about the ability to display intense highlights, which videophiles call specular highlights, such as the glint of sunshine off a metallic object, and offering up richer, more vibrant colors.
TO ACHIEVE THESE EFFECTS, TOP PERFORMING TV’S WITH HDR
To achieve these effects, top-performing TVs with HDR are brighter than regular sets, though HDR isn’t just about increasing a TV’s overall brightness. Instead, it’s about being able to provide the necessary higher levels of peak brightness when the scene calls for it.
The problem for consumers in 2017 will be determining what level of HDR each TV is capable of producing. That’s because more sets will be marketed as “HDR compatible,” meaning they can accept content that’s been mastered in HDR.
But all HDR compatible sets are not created equal. Many less-expensive sets won’t have the hardware to really show off HDR to its full effect. These TVs will be able to read the HDR metadata, and they’ll do their best to map the content to the TV’s capabilities. But many lower- and even mid-priced sets won’t have the brightness, black levels, or video processing to produce a truly dramatic HDR effect.
THERE ARE COMPANIES THAT ARE FOCUSED ON HDR
“There are companies that are focused on HDR,” says Gagnon. “And there are companies looking to take the HDR logo and slap it on the set somewhere without doing any enhancement of the product, hoping to confuse consumers and get a premium for a lower price product.”
To address this issue, the UHD Alliance this year developed an “Ultra HD Premium” certification and logo program, so consumers would have confidence they were getting a top-performing UHD TV. But only a few companies, notably LG and Samsung, took advantage of the program. Others, including Sony and Vizio, did not, which mitigated its impact.
2. Dolby Vision Gains Traction
In 2016, Dolby Vision HDR took a back seat to HDR10, which acts as the baseline standard for HDR. Every 4K TV with HDR capability supports HDR10, but only two major TV brands—LG and Vizio—also support Dolby Vision, basically Dolby’s version of HDR. And while a few streaming services, including Amazon and Netflix, offer some Dolby Vision content, there are no Dolby Vision-enabled Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray players.
“Manufacturers seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach,” says Gagnon.
But at CES we expect to hear about more TV brands offering support for Dolby Vision HDR, and to see the first Dolby Vision-capable Ultra HD Blu-ray players hit the market this spring.
GAGNON NOTES THAT ONE OF THE CHALLENGES FOR DOLBY VISION
Gagnon notes that one of the challenges for Dolby Vision is educating consumers to ensure that each link in the chain—the content, the source device and the television itself—are compatible. “That’s incredibly confusing for the consumers today.”
One way Dolby Vision could get a big boost in 2017 is from a new crop of 4K Roku TVs that include Dolby Vision HDR. At CES 2017, we think we’ll see the first HDR-enabled 4K Roku TVs that support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. The likely suspects are TV brands such as Hisense, Insignia, JVC, and TCL, which have all offered Roku TVs in the past.
If these brands do launch Dolby Vision-equipped TVs, one benefit for consumers is that it will give content creators and streaming service providers a greater incentive to offer more Dolby Vision content this year.
3. LCD TVs Try to Get More OLED-Like
For the past two years, LG’s OLED TVs have dominated the top slots in our TV ratings, though the gap between OLED TVs and the very best LCD TVs continues to narrow.
At CES 2017, we expect to see companies continue to push the boundaries of LCD TV technology to bring them closer to OLED TV performance.
“This year was a good example of how good LCD can be,” says Gagnon. “The LCD camp continues to innovate. They’re improving performance and bringing pricing levels down.”
In fact, last week reports in the Korean press suggested that Samsung was heading to CES 2017 with a new quantum-dot technology that would not only offer brighter, better colors, but also help improve black levels, an LCD TV weakness. Samsung will only say that we’ll learn more at CES.
Sony has introduced a new Z-series of flagship LCD TVs that utilize an innovative backlight technology called Backlight Master Drive. What makes this technology different is that in Sony’s system, every single one of the LEDs in the backlight can be controlled—meaning dimmed—separately. In other LCD-based TVs, the LEDs are grouped into a number of zones that can be dimmed or illuminated.
“There were sets out there this year, and I’m thinking particularly of the Sony Z9, that showed that if you went to the expense of including that many LED zones and that much brightness output, you could really approach some of the key benefits of OLED,” says Gagnon.
But there’s an even newer technology on the horizon: TVs that use self-illuminating LEDs that can give off their own light, so a separate backlight is no longer required. This would make an LED TV work like an OLED TV, where each pixel in the TV could be turned on and off individually.
Early this year we reported that Samsung was working on this type of LED technology, which it dubbed “QLED.” There are also reports that Panasonic was also developing this type of technology, though it wasn’t clear if it was looking to use it in consumer TVs or just commercial displays.
4. Chinese TV Brands Continue Their Move
Chinese TV manufacturers have been on the rise globally for several years now. According to research group IHS Technology, both Hisense—which will control the Sharp TV brand in the U.S. as of January 6—and TCL are now among the world’s top 10 LCD TV brands, trailing only Samsung, LG, and Sony. Their shares of the U.S. market are expected to climb again in 2017.
“We’ve heard directly from Hisense at CES 2016 that their goal was to become a top three brand in the U.S. market within a few years,” says Gagnon. “That’s a pretty bold goal. That means replacing companies like Sony or LG in the brand hierarchy. How do they get there? It’s difficult to define.”
He adds that while the company licensed the Sharp brand, Hisense has actually seen more growth in value-priced TVs bearing its own name.
Of the two, Hisense has been the more aggressive from a technology standpoint, utilizing quantum dots in its flagship “ULED” TVs. At CES we expect the company to show off new Hisense and Sharp-branded TVs.
TCL may have similar ambitions, but it hasn’t yet been able to pull it off, at least here in the U.S. Last year the company showed off a high-end flagship model called the X1—it featured quantum dots, plus support for Dolby Vision HDR—but it never actually shipped in the U.S. But, like Hisense, TCL will hold a CES 2017 press conference.
5. LG May Get Company in the OLED TV Market
There have been a few rumors that a major Japanese brand would show an OLED behind the scenes at CES this year, for introduction later in the year. We also think that it’s possible that a Chinese brand could make a similar move, though frankly we think that’s more probably in the late 2018/early 2019 time frame than this year.
Gagnon notes that LG is selling its panels to a number of manufacturers worldwide, and that could be a key to deeper penetration of the U.S. market.
There’s not much debate that OLED TVs look great. But what’s still not clear is whether that stellar picture quality will be enough.
“Is OLED here to stay?” says Gagnon. “Sometimes even the best performing technology can’t overcome the economic advantage of its competitors. That’s why plasma died.”