Last week's Consumer Electronics Show was a great opportunity to check out the two newest TV technologies, Ultra HD and OLED—sometimes in side-by-side comparisons.
During a live webcast in which I was interviewed along with USA Today's Mike Snider, we were asked which of these new kinds of TVs we'd personally buy, if money weren't an issue.
I didn't have to think very long before replying, "OLED."
Of course, not everyone will share my view. And once we're able to get a few Ultra HD TVs and OLED sets in our labs for testing, perhaps I'll change my mind. But based on demos at the show from several major TV brands, the OLED TVs I saw represented the most impressive change from what I'm currently getting from my 1080p TVs.
Don't get me wrong—there's a lot to like about Ultra HD TVs. Certainly the high-resolution 4K screens look great and let you get incredibly close to the TV without seeing any visible pixel grid (called the "screen-door effect"). For many of us, this means that you'll be able to get a larger screen while maintaining the same seating distance.
And for now, OLED manufacturers are having a tough time making larger OLED sets; the current size limitation is about 55 or 56 inches. At CES, we saw Ultra HD prototypes as large as 110 inches, and the few already being sold are 84-inchers. During the show, several companies announced models in the 55- to 75-inch range, a more suitable size for most prospective buyers, although I question whether a 55-inch Ultra HD TV can adequately showcase the higher resolution.
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It's also likely that Ultra HD TV prices will fall faster than those of OLED sets. Ultra HDs are essentially LCD TVs with a higher pixel density, so they can be manufactured on the same production lines as standard LCDs. OLED TVs require a new manufacturing process, and yields so far haven't been great, which will likely keep prices high for a longer period of time.
But that's also Ultra HD TV's weakness: These 4K sets essentially remain LCD TVs, with many of that format's drawbacks—most notably backlight-uniformity issues, limited viewing angles, and often, mediocre contrast levels. Yes, the images look sharper, but most viewers will notice it only with top-quality source material, and 4K Blu-rays are at least a year away.
OLED, however, is a new type of TV, and it's the perfect vehicle for demonstrating that image detail is only one of a handful of attributes that contribute to great-looking picture. OLED TVs feel to me like an entirely new TV-viewing experience. Blacks levels are so deep that you to need see them to believe them.
In the first OLED demo I ever saw a few years ago—in room that could go almost absolutely dark—the TV seemed to disappear when the lights turned off; the images seemed to float in space. (When we tested the first production OLED TV, Sony's $2,500 11-inch XEL-1, we had to buy new test equipment to measure its black levels.)
OLEDs also deliver ultra-high-contrast images, with bold, vibrant colors that jump off the screen. Add with better-than-plasma brightness, unlimited viewing angles, and energy efficiency that trumps even LED-based LCD TVs, OLED delivers a dynamic viewing experience I just didn't get with the Ultra HD sets I saw.
Of course, the next iteration of OLED TVs will be sets that also have 4K Ultra HD resolutions. There were several 4K OLEDs on display at CES, and of course, they looked great. But even when I was watching clips on the 1080p OLED sets, never once did I think, "Boy, if this set only had four times more pixels..." When TV is doing everything else right, you get the impression of a sharper, more dynamic image, even when the resolution hasn't been increased.
As always, I'm looking forward to getting some of these new TVs into our labs this year for thorough testing, and I'm curious to see if our head TV engineer, Claudio Ciacci, will share my initial opinion. Either way, both Ultra HD and OLED are exciting developments for those of us who spend a lot of time looking at TVs.
But with prices expected to be north of $10,000 for TVs using either of these technologies, we'll be a little more excited by yet another development: making them affordable for the average consumer.
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