There’s been a great deal of competition in the TV market as of late, and what was true just a few years ago about the best technology and leading picture quality doesn’t necessarily hold true today. With this background, The Tech Buyer’s Guru accepted an invitation for a full-day media demonstration at Samsung’s Quality Assurance headquarters in New Jersey to see the latest advances from the Korean electronics giant in the TV sector.
Of course, we had seen and reported on all of the announcements at CES 2019 in January, but as is often the case, a lot of products were in prototype stage, and final specs were still in flux. You can’t really blame manufacturers for not having all their ducks in a row in time for CES every year, although Samsung is fairly notable in always missing the target. But we’d seen enough to know that there was something interesting brewing from the world’s leading TV manufacturer, so we decided to have a look for ourselves.
First off, we should say that while Samsung paid our way to NJ for the visit, they in no way dictated what we had to report on. In fact, nothing at all was required of any of the members of the media present. So what follows are simply our honest impressions, positive and negative.
8K is the Resolution of the Future
Yes, 2019 is definitely all about 8K, at least from the manufacturers’ perspectives. Samsung released the first 8K model to the retail market in October 2018, and now there’s a veritable flood of 8K models coming from every direction. We were treated to Samsung’s 8K demos, and here’s what we have to report: 8K will eventually rule, but its time has not yet come. Our recommendation: don’t buy an 8K set in 2019, period.
First of all, there’s no content. Samsung headed off this criticism right from the start by stating that the lack of content doesn’t matter, given how good its upscaling was. But as we pointed out during the meeting, Samsung had cooked up an incomplete demonstration, comparing the Q900R, which has the latest AI-enhanced upscaling, to last year’s Q6F, which did not. Under questioning, Samsung admitted that its top-end 4K TV for 2019, the Q90R actually has AI-endowed upscaling hardware as well. Thus, while it has just ¼ of the resolution, for most material, upscaling with AI to 4K will look just as good a upscaling to 8K. The key enhancements are that AI upscaling can provide a sharper image without adding noise or color banding (this was really clear in the demo, by the way), while also avoiding the issue of the improper appearance of light in motion on glowing surfaces. Hard to explain, but obvious if you’ve ever seen that annoying shimmer on the side of a skyscraper in film or TV.
We also reminded Samsung’s reps that buying into 8K today doesn’t necessarily future-proof anyone; had you bought into 4K in 2014 (as we personally did by purchasing a Samsung HU8500), you would have missed out on the greatest benefits of UHD TVs, namely HDR technology. So since there isn’t any 8K content to watch today (apart from a few YouTube clips, which are highly compressed), hold tight to see whether HDMI 2.1 and increased competition brings any additional technologies to the plate beyond just a resolution bump.
HDMI 2.1 is Rolling Out in Fits and Starts
Speaking of HDMI 2.1, Samsung repeated a familiar refrain from CES 2019, namely that because the HDMI 2.1 spec is not ratified, it cannot legally market a TV as conforming to the spec. Ironic, given that LG does, but so be it. The good news is that we were able to draw out a bit more detail from Samsung this time around, specifically the following:
- The Q90R and the Q900R both share an enhanced chipset that enables 4K output at 120Hz and auto-low latency, two coveted features on the HDMI 2.1 spec sheet. So while Samsung will not call its ports HDMI 2.1 ports, these two high-end models have the capabilities most gamers will want for future-proofing. These sets, as well as a few others down the line, also use AMD’s FreeSync, which enables smooth output for variable framerate gaming.
- The Q90R and the Q900R offer Enhanced HDMI Audio Return Channel (EARC), which finally gets around the major issue that pumping a lossless Dolby Atmos or True Audio signal into a TV and back out to a speaker system converted it to a lossy Dolby Digital signal. In other words, you can actually use a single HDMI cable for high-end 4K-capable boxes, be they disc players or streamers and cable boxes. That’s fantastic news, and there’s even a possibility that EARC will be enabled in other TVs in the lineup, as it doesn’t technically require HDMI 2.1 ports. We wouldn’t hold our breath, but at least it’s a possibility.
HDR10+ Is an End-Run Around Dolby’s Licensing Fees for Dolby Vision
Oh, talk about a sore point for Samsung. Look, we all know that paying licensing fees for IP can be a pain, essentially creating a monopoly on tech, but Samsung is simply splintering the market with its not –quite-equal HDR10+ technology. Sure, it’s open source, but that doesn’t mean squat to consumers unless it lower prices, and our assumption is that that whatever savings Samsung gets from not paying licensing fees to Dolby to include Dolby Vision (which we estimate at $25-$50) won't actually be passed down to consumers. It’s not like Samsung’s top-end TV is going to suddenly be $50 less than a competing model from Sony or LG. Samsung talked up its big deal with Amazon, which updated all HDR content to include an HDR10+ mode, but simply put, this isn’t enough. If you want the best image quality today from the widest range of content, you need Dolby Vision. We anticipate that Samsung will eventually cave in on this, and we think it may come sooner than later, perhaps as early as 2020. With various streaming services reducing the amount of 4K content they are providing outside of their own productions, a format war is the last thing we need.
Ironically, Samsung repeatedly rolled out the “chicken-and-egg” dilemma to explain why it’s pushing out 8K panel technology now, given that content providers won’t publish 8K material without a solid installed base of 8K TV sets. But the continued dearth of 4K content suggests that the time is not right for anyone to be thinking about 8K quite yet, and HDR10+ is simply muddying the waters when content providers could focus on only supporting HDR and Dolby Vision to speed the transition to 4K media.
And we're going to hammer on a point that we mentioned in our Q80R review earlier this year: once Samsung abandoned the 4K disc player market in late 2018, it ceded any right to lead the format wars. Samsung made a huge splash in 2016 when it headlined its CES press conference with the announcement of the world's first 4K Blu-Ray player, the UBD-K8500. We gave it well-deserved accolades then, but it deserves an equal amount of criticism now for departing a market it created. We're going to leave it up to Sony, Pioneer, Panasonic, and the major streaming companies to decide what formats they'd like to support. Samsung doesn't get a vote, period. Guess what players it used during its 4K disc demonstrations? Pioneer and Oppo, folks. Samsung players were only found in a secondary display room that focused on TV setup. We use an Oppo 203 in our testing and it's fantastic, but because it's discontinued, we can't recommend it to our readers. On the other hand, we will gladly recommend the Pioneer Elite UDP-LX500, given that Samsung certainly thinks it's good enough to get the most out of its TVs!
OK, time to get off our high horse. Flip to the next page to read everything that Samsung is actually doing right!