The World of TVs According to Sony, LG, and Samsung
There's just no doubt about it: 4K is here to stay. In fact, the latest market reports suggest that at the end of 2017, sales of 4K TVs outnumbered sales of 1080p TVs for the first time. So if 4K TVs are now mainstream, what could possibly be left to talk about at CES 2018? Well, dear readers, we're going to keep you in suspense for a bit here, leaving the very best for last!
That means we start with the grand-daddy of TV manufacturers, Sony, which last year shocked pundits by licensing LG's OLED technology and releasing its own line of OLED TVs. As they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And based on what we saw at CES 2018, Sony has no intention of backing away from this hybrid approach. In fact, it's doubling down for 2018, and doing what it probably should have done last year: releasing an OLED TV that actually looks normal. Last year's crazy A1E had a kickstand, which made it a lot more awkward to use, but this year's A8F looks like.... basically every other TV on the market. Yes, indeed, Sony is playing it very cautious here.
The one thing that continues to differentiate its OLED TVs from the LG competition is that it uses a unique audio system that vibrates the TV's glass panel to generate sound. It's a very interesting concept that certainly helps to project audio at the viewer better than the little side-mounted speakers most TVs employ, and Sony assured us at the show that they've done plenty of stress testing to make sure that the vibrations don't damage the actual panel. That being said, we just can't help but point out that most people spending upwards of $5,000 on a TV probably have an AV system to pair it with, so paying extra for the technology (and marketing) that went into this unique audio subsystem probably doesn't make a lot of sense. Note that Sony made no claims about the A8F actually outperforming the A1E in terms of video, so we assume that other than styling and a tweaked audio system, it's identical. Sony had a prototype "X1 Ultimate" processor that it says will boost image quality down the line, but current models still rely on the "X1 Extreme."
All right, back to the true OLED pioneer, LG. Sure, Sony invented the OLED way back when, but LG has the foresight to create the fabs that could bring OLED to the TV market, and they have been dominant ever since. Alas, however, it seems even LG is stuck in a rut of sorts. It announced a 77W8 "Wallpaper" TV that for all intents and purposes was identical to the 77W7 that blew away showgoers last year. In fact, LG's rep told us that the biggest impovement to its TVs this year is the integration of Google Assistant, with the second biggest change being the "α9" processor. And take note: LG press releases have touted 120fps capability in what seems like a case of deja vu, and sure enough, when pressed on this, LG's rep told us that this does not mean 120Hz panels are being used. It just does a better job this year of taking 120fps content and displaying it on a regular old 60Hz panel. The analogy LG gave us is that it's sort of like applying HDR effects to non-HDR content. No, it's not really HDR, it's simulated, and similarly, no, it's not really 120fps, it's simulated. Frankly, in the demo LG had running on the wall, we couldn't tell the difference, although we saw lots of people (lemmings?) nodding their heads at the images.
When we put all the puzzle pieces together (i.e., read between the lines at the Sony and LG booths), it appears that OLEDs ascendance has run its course. Neither LG nor Sony claim to have made any great strides in 2018 in actually enhancing the quality of their OLED screens. Both touted the potential benefits of new processors, and while they surely make a difference, they will ultimately be limited by the panels themselves.
And that brings us to Samsung. It became a bit of a laughing stock last year when it released its "QLED" TVs, a clear copy-cat move in the face of a superior offering by its Korean neighbor LG. Well, things are starting to look up for Samsung in 2018, based on what we saw at CES this year. First of all, it had by far the most crowded booth at the show, thanks to its ground-breaking 146" MicroLED panel, which is based on technology it developed for large outdoor displays. As Samsung's representatives explained to us, one of the big advantages to retail customers of using this tech is that it uses small panels (by our estimation, about 15" x 12"), and is assembled at the destination location. That means you can actually have a 146" TV where it wouldn't otherwise fit through a doorway.
The long and short of it is that Samsung has developed a self-emissive LED technology, and these new MicroLEDs are going to challenge OLEDs for supremacy. In fact, as Samsung's engineer explained, the biggest technical difference is that OLEDs are organic, while microLEDs are inorganic, but in not requiring a backlight, MicroLEDs are ultimately more like OLEDs than LEDs. Samsung is rightfully proud of this new tech, and in fact the photo we've included here was snapped on our smartphone (appropriately enough, a Samsung Galaxy model), as LG had apparently been caught taking close-up photos earlier in the day with a digital SLR, and Samsung decided it had enough of potential corporate espionage. That meant we had to put our trusty Nikon DSLR down to snap the photo you see here - don't expect to glean any trade secrets from it!
In reality, it was our private briefing in the Samsung Innovation Room (attended only by TBG and a journalist from Hi-Def Digest), where we weren't allowed to take any photos at all, that truly showed what Samsung had in store. While the basic concept of QLEDs has remained the same (using "quantum dots" to improve image quality), Samsung is releasing a TV in 2018 that it likely would have liked to have ready last year. That's because this model has an improved optical black layer and an anti-reflection coating to further boost contrast and clarity, and full array LED lighting, a huge improvement over the edge lighting used on its top-end TV for 2017, the Q9F. The result: a picture quality that is simultaneously blacker and brighter (would you believe 3000 nits?!?!) than LG's OLED. Trust us when we say that this TV is so mind-blowing that it really ought to have a new name, one that demonstrates that it's actually something new, different, and better. We said as much to Samsung's PR rep, but he lamented that the QLED nomenclature is probably here to stay.
In any event, Samsung doesn't have a model number or price for this TV, and as we've mentioned, we weren't allowed any photos at all (not even of the specifications slides), so you'll have to trust us here: it's going to be worth the wait! One last thing we should mention is that Samsung's 2018 QLEDs are going to pack in HDR10+, which offers all the benefits of Dolby Vision in terms of scene-specific lighting, but is backwards-compatible with HDR. That means you can master content in HDR10+, and users of older HDR10 TVs will still get many of the benefits. A film mastered only in Dolby Vision does nothing for HDR10-only TVs. Note that Samsung has not yet officially announced whether these TVs will have HDMI 2.1.
And get this: in the next few years, Samsung is going to combine the technology it's rolling out in its 2018 QLED with the MicroLED technology of its ultra-large display (which we'd consider a tech demo at this point, honestly), to provide the best picture possible at very competitive prices. Stay tuned for next year folks, because things are going to get interesting for all the manufacturers who have pinned their hopes on OLED!
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