Ultra HD TV set to make impact
CONSUMERS have made it clear: They don't want a lot of gimmicks in their TV sets.
In an effort to improve sales, though, TV makers have tried gimmicks: They have praised 3-D TV, promoted voice controls and highlighted Internet-streaming interfaces.
None have really moved the needle. The latest big selling point - ultra high-definition (UHD) displays, also known as 4K - also faces an uphill climb.
But unlike many of the gimmicks and features before, 4K is one we will probably adopt. And with one brand-name 4K TV set available for US$1,000 (S$1,270), this could be the year that starts happening.
From a technical perspective, the term 4K refers to displays with twice the vertical resolution and twice the horizontal resolution of high-definition (HD) TV. The UHD designation combines the higher pixel count of 4K with improvements to on-screen colours, making the on-screen picture brighter and more realistic. The terms are used fairly interchangeably, and most TV manufacturers tack on both.
There is no doubt that with the right video playing, 4K simply looks better than HD. History shows that better-looking TV sets with bigger displays will win us over, as long as the price is right.
"Pretty simple message, right?" asked Stephen Baker, head of hardware analysis at retail research organisation NPD Group. "I think it's clearly a sales catalyst, if only because it gives the TV brands and the retailers something to talk about that doesn't require them to explain a whole bunch of other weird things."
UHD, like high definition before it, seems to be the natural evolution of TV technology: A quality improvement that is prohibitively expensive at first and limited to TV sets of unusual size, but soon becomes mainstream in smaller sets at lower prices.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, it took six years of HD TV sets being on the market - from 2003 to 2009 - before 50 per cent of American households had them. Now, nearly 90 per cent of households have one.
Mr Baker said he did not expect big sales numbers any time soon for 4K TV sets because they will be large and expensive in the immediate future.
"The real revolution comes when we get better quality products in smaller screens," he said. "It's all dependent on, obviously, the costs."
For the last two years, electronics makers like Samsung, LG and Sony have been selling 4K TV sets with huge screens and matching prices.
Samsung made headlines with its 85-inch TV set with built-in stand, which retailed for US$45,000 (it has since come down to US$40,000). Smaller UHD TV sets started at US$5,500.
Sony announced 4K models last year that cost US$5,000 for 55 inches and US$7,000 for 65 inches, and LG's prices have been similar.
But those prices have come down significantly in just a year. A 55-inch Sony 4K TV set can now be found for US$1,800; Samsung's feature-filled 65-inch 4K TV set with curved design and next-generation LED is a surprisingly tempting US$2,800.
Vizio, the budget-price electronics maker, has just introduced its P series of UHD TV sets that start at US$1,000 for a 50-inch model.
Mr Baker said an offer like that is likely to have an effect.
The adoption of 4K TV sets will also depend on the programming available in the higher definition. Without extensive 4K programming available, people have less incentive to buy the sets. And if few people buy them, there is less incentive to make videos in 4K.
So far, no channels are broadcasting in 4K, and very few DVDs come in 4K quality.
That means if you have such a TV set now, the video will probably have to be "upscaled" to match the higher resolution. The results can be choppy.
More 4K programming is being made, though. Some movie studios are shooting films in 4K. Sony is pushing video makers to 4K with its devices.
Netflix streams some of Sony's movies and TV shows, and it is shooting some of its original series in 4K, including House Of Cards and upcoming series like Marco Polo.
But streaming 4K has its own next-generation requirements. It requires Netflix's most expensive US$12 monthly plan and a fast broadband connection.
As for that upscaled HD content, Mark Coxon - a former high-end audio-video installer - offers advice for shoppers.
Look at an HD TV set and a 4K TV set side-by-side and ask the store to put the same channel on both, he said. "If you like the 4K TV better, you'll like your choice."
Of course, wait for the holiday sales price, too. The less you have to pay, the more you will like your choice.