For those of us who cover TVs, there was a lot to look at during CES this year—certainly more than we imagined just a month before the show opened. Not surprisingly, we saw some prototype TVs that wowed us. But the bigger news was that most of these TVs are actually expected to available by the end of the year.
One thing seems to have gotten lost, though, with all the conversation about new TV technologies such as OLED and Crystal LED: There are some incredible-looking standard LCD and plasma HDTVs heading our way this year, and they will be much more affordable than sets using the latest TV technologies.
Here are some of my favorite TVs of CES 2012, which include both prototypes and models that will start shipping in the next month or two:
Samsung and LG 55-inch OLED TVs
What's not to like? Except, perhaps, the prices (which will be revealed closer to the TVs' introduction). Most new TVs offer an incremental step up in picture-quality improvements. But with OLED TVs, even casual viewers will notice that something transformative is going on: deep, inky blacks, high contrast, vivid colors, and exceptional detail, all packed into a frame as sleek and sexy as I've ever seen.
Samsung is using RGB OLED technology, while LG employs white OLEDs plus a color filter, but it's too early to tell if one of them can offer either better picture quality or manufacturing advantages that would make them cheaper to produce. We'll have to wait until the very end of the year to find out how much these TV are going to cost, but I've heard estimates in the $8,000 to $10,000 range. Both TVs will be 3D-capable models with full Internet access, streaming movie services, and app markets.
LG 84-inch Ultra Definition TV
In addition to OLED, another new TV technology we heard a lot about at CES was 4K, or TVs with four times the picture detail of current 1080p sets. While there are several different 4K resolutions, including "true" 4K x 2K (4096 x 2160), LG's eye-grabbing 84-inch "Ultra Definition" TV—like some other sets—has a resolution of 3840 x 2160, which is a direct multiple of 1080p (1920 x 1080).
In addition to having more pixels, hence a greater ability to display fine detail, the LG set has all the company's bells and whistles, including passive 3D capability and its Smart TV Internet platform. The set will also have controls that allow you to adjust the depth of 3D images plus a new 3D Sound Zooming sound system that will sync to the onscreen 3D action. It will also come with a redesigned gesture-based Magic Remote that has added voice control to its bag of tricks.
Toshiba glasses-free 4K 3D TV
At CES, Toshiba once again tried to address a key impediment to 3D adoption for many people: the need to wear 3D glasses. Toshiba offered demos of a unique 4K 3D TV that didn't require glasses. To address one common problem with auto-stereoscopic 3D TVs—very narrow viewing angles—Toshiba's TV uses a powerful processor and the higher 4K resolution to create nine different views for viewers sitting in different areas in the room. The TV also has a built-in camera and facial-recognition technology to present the images correctly to viewers.
In the demo I saw, the technology still didn't seem to be perfected—there was some blurring when I moved off-angle, and the depth of the 3D effect didn't seem quite as impressive as with 3D TVs that use glasses—but it does offer a glimpse of the improvements being made to achieve glasses-free 3D. Toshiba told me that the TV, available in some foreign markets already, would hit the U.S. at the end of the year. No pricing was announced, but the TV currently sells for about the equivalent of $10,000 where it's available.
Sony's Crystal LED TV
Although some manufacturers would like you to believe you can buy an LED TV today, all the so-called LED sets currently on the market are really LCD TVs with LED backlights. AT CES, Sony actually showed a 55-inch prototype of a real LED TV, which is dubbed the Crystal LED Display. Although Sony says it has no plans to introduce any products using the technology in the foreseeable future—it is still experimenting with OLED technology as well—the Crystal LED set uses LEDs as the TV's light source, so no separate backlight is required.
Sony says the ultra-fine LEDs are mounted to each of the RGB colors, and the light source is mounted directly on the front of the display for better light-use efficiency. Based on the demo I saw, the Crystal LED display technology has many of the same advantages as OLED sets—most notably, a wider color gamut, better contrast, and faster response times than traditional LCD TVs. The improvements didn't seem quite as dramatic as with the OLED demos I viewed, but then again, the technology seems to be a bit further off on the horizon. Not surprisingly, pricing wasn't discussed.
While all the above sets provided interesting demonstrations of new technology, it looks like price-wise they'll be out of the reach of most consumers. That's OK; there are plenty of mainstream sets heading our way this year that should please even the most finicky viewers. Here are a few that I'm looking forward to getting my hands on in our TV labs:
Panasonic VT50-series plasma TVs
Panasonic's flagship plasmas, offered in 55- and 65-inch screen sizes, get some upgrades this year, including full Web browsing capability with Flash support as part of the Viera Connect Internet platform. Both VT50-series models use the "one-sheet-of-glass" design we saw on last year's VT30 series and are active-3D-capable sets with built-in Wi-Fi. Based on the quick demo I saw at the booth, this year's TVs boast better black levels—they include Panasonic's Infinite Black Ultra panels—but we'll have to officially weigh in on that after we get the sets in our labs.
Vizio CinemaWide 21:9 TVs
While most TVs we saw at CES were thinner, Vizio went wider with line of 21:9 CinemaWide 3DTVs, which were initially planned for last year. Three models will be offered, in 50-inch (XVT3D500CM), 58-inch (VT3D580CM), and 71-inch (XVT3D710CM) screen sizes, all with a higher 2560 x 1080 resolution due to the added width. These new 21:9 TVs are likely to appeal to movie buffs, as they will be able to display the many movies that are shot in the wider 2.35:1 or 2.39:1 aspect ratios without black bars appearing above or below the image.
The TVs can also scale 16:9 programs and movies to fill the wider screen, so there won't be any black bars on the sides, or you can choose to simultaneously display a full 16:9 full-HD image with apps appearing in a window on the side. All these sets will be full-featured models that use Vizio's passive 3D technology and include its VIA (Vizio Internet Apps) Internet TV platform. The two smaller sets use edge LED backlights with local dimming and include 120Hz technology, while the 71-inch model has a full-array LED backlight with local dimming and 240Hz technology.
Samsung ES8000-series LCD and E8000 plasma TVs
All these sets are active 3D-capable models that include Samsung's Smart TV platform plus a full Web browser and access to Samsung's apps, including a TV-friendly version of Rovio's popular Angry Birds. The TVs get a bump in processing power, with new dual-core processors. Also new is Smart Interaction, which lets you use gestures and your voice to control the TV.
The sets also have facial recognition, so they can call up a customized TV interface for each user. And they'll also have have a feature called Smart Evolution, which is a slot in the TV that can accept an optional kit—both hardware and software—that can be added to the TV to update features and performance. The ES8000 LCD TVs get edge-mounted LEDs with a new local dimming (micro dimming) process that divides the segments into smaller zones. Bigger 65- and 75-inch sets will arrive this summer.
Sony Bravia Bravia HX850-series LCD TVs
Sony's new flagship LCD TV series, offered in 46- and 55-inch screen sizes, are active 3D-capable TVs with the company's Motionflow XR 960 technology (for a 960Hz-like effect) to reduce motion blur, a dynamic edge LED backlight with local dimming, and built-in Wi-Fi. The TVs, which sport Sony's elegant frameless Monolitic design and Gorilla Glass, are also Skype-ready for use with an optional webcam and feature the Sony Entertainment Network online platform: This now includes the Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited streaming services, plus a new cloud-based family-memories-and-photo service, called PlayMemories Online, that will launch this spring.
Sharp Aquos LC-80LE844U
Admittedly, Sharp LCD TVs have been inconsistent performers in our Ratings, but I couldn't help but be impressed by the sheer size of this 80-inch monster. This top-of-the-line set is a 3D-capable model that uses a new version (Quad Pixel Plus II) of Sharp's four-color Quattron technology, and it includes a full-array LED backlight, 240Hz technology, built-in Wi-Fi and access to Sharp's Internet service. Like all LED-based Aquos LCDs, it comes with Aquos Advantage Live, a service that connects owners to a technician who can help with set-up, trouble-shooting, calibration, and even remote diagnosis. Despite the huge size, the Energy Star-compliant TV is expected to use only $22 worth of electricity per year, according to Sharp's estimates.
Although we're just weeks into 2012, it's already shaping up to be a great year for TV enthusiasts, whether you're actually in the market to buy or you're just watching developments from the sidelines. If you do think you'll be buying a new TV this year, let us know what new models and features are capturing your attention.
—James K. Willcox