While Samsung's presentation consisted of fairly run-of-the-mill marketing pitches, Sony seemed to be taking the weight of the consumer tech world on its shoulders by focusing on elevating the entertainment experience. Sony is the grand-daddy of entertainment companies, and its experience in this arena is evident in the way it focuses not just on tech, but on the user experience. That said, it was pretty clear that Sony President and CEO Kazuo Hirai has something else on his mind: dollars (or would that be yen?). He used the term "profitability" at least five times in his talk, no doubt to head off criticism that Sony is the tech world's Titanic and is sinking fast.
Sony says its refocusing its efforts on profitable markets, which apparently include the PS4 and Sony's widely-praised Alpha series of Interchangeable Lens cameras. Of particular note is the ultra-high-end Alpha 7 Mk II, which is now well over a year old but apparently is a huge profit center for Sony, judging by how much time Sony spent talking about the camera today. But a renewed focus on profits didn't stop stop Sony from burning some of its new-found cash announcing yet another attempt to market high-res audio (a worthy idea that simply will never take off in today's music consumption arena), or a new ultra-high-end HDTV, the X93D, which has to compete against models a tenth of the price:
The X93D's beauty is more than skin deep, as the picture truly is astounding. In addition to the 4K HDR branding (denoting high dynamic range), it also features a backlight that provides exceptionally-dark blacks and fantastic contrast. The back-to-back images on display were definitely pretty convincing. Unfortunately, a photograph just wouldn't do the technology justice, and like most of Sony's high-end entries in recent years, this model will probably have a hard time finding a big audience.
The State of 4K
Unlike Samsung, Sony seems to be abandoning physical 4K media, instead focusing heavily its own limited selection of Sony Pictures films to be released for download at some unspecified time in 4K, and on streaming 4K content provided by Netflix and Amazon. This sounds like a recipe for late night broadband meltdowns to us, but maybe Sony has seen a future where cheap and fast broadband internet is common.
And alas, that's not the worst of it. 4K UltraHD discs will actually come in two flavors: standard HDR, and UltraHD Premium (made for Samsung only?). Get a load of the crazy labeling on the latest X-Men movie. The barely-visible UltraHD Premium label in the lower-right-hand corner is what signifies that this is the best of the best. And to make things ultra-confusing, some of the movies being released will come both in standard HDR and HDR UltraHD Premium versions. What? Seriously? Does that mean there will be different discs for different UltraHD players? Not good, not good.
So the UltraHD debut isn't looking too promising with regards to a transparent user experience, but one thing we do like about Samsung's HDTV lineup for 2016 is the emphasis placed on the content selection experience. Samsung's TVs have menu options that bring set-top boxes, game consoles, and streamed TV together on one menu screen, allowing you to select your favorite Amazon or Netflix show as easily as you'd flip to channel 5. Samsung seems to be ditching the "app" model by incorporating the streaming services into the main menu, but whether that will get a bit cluttered remains to be seen. In a world, however, where everyone has multiple content services they rely on, and few people actually care about physical media any more, it makes sense that we shouldn't have to search for content app-by-app or device-by-device.
We came to CES in part to find out whether 2016 would be the year that the real 4K would stand up for consumers. Nothing in Sony's or Samsung's presentations had us convinced that the lack of content is going to be resolved any time soon.