ANALYSIS: 4K TV

Look on the bright side

4K is the saviour of the TV market and 8K is on the way. How can retailers put consumers in the picture? Steve May investigates

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

Dickens may have written that in 1859, but it could just as well sum up the TV business in 2016. Technology is moving so fast, even the world’s biggest TV brands are struggling to keep up.

4K HDR is the latest can of worms retailers need to sell. To help, you have the newly-minted, industry-agreed, UHD Alliance Ultra HD Premium standard. Only it comes in two completely different flavours, one for LED LCD and the other OLED, and they don’t look anything alike. Undoubtedly confusing, but there are sound reasons for this, suggests LG Home Entertainment product manager Robert Taylor.

He explains to ERT why the divided standard is actually a good thing: “The good point is that the UHD Alliance recognises that OLED is a separate device. In the initial rounds of the UHD premium standard, people were failing to acknowledge OLED as different, treating it like an LED even though it works completely differently.”

Mr Taylor adds: “OLED picture quality is really moving forward quickly. We’re seeing some big changes to OLED in terms of picture performance, including increased brightness and wider colour gamut achieving up to 99 per cent of DCI P3 colour. What I’ve found so surprising is how quickly it’s all moved forward. Last year, HDR was just a tagline.”

According to research carried out by industry analyst IHS, OLED TV shipments passed the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2015, representing a sevenfold increase on the year before. LG currently accounts for some 90 per cent of all OLED sales.

Sony XD93
Sony XD93

Certainly, OLED is finally gaining traction with other manufacturers. Philips is widely expected to launch its first 55in OLED panel at IFA this year, despite being initially sceptical, and Panasonic could well debut a flat OLED at the same show.

Danish manufacturer Bang & Olufsen has also announced an OLED product in 2017. Even Samsung, which put OLED fabrication on ice several years ago, is tipped to re-enter the OLED market next year.

Of course, not every manufacturer is reading from the UHD Alliance script. Sony caused quite a stir when it announced that it would not be using the UHD Premium logo as part of any marketing. Could Sony’s simplified strategy actually end up benefiting retailers?

“Our approach actually makes it easier for the consumer to see the step up in our TV range. The message is simple: 4K is better than Full HD, and 4K HDR is better than 4K SDR,” insists Gavin McCarron, product training specialist for home entertainment and sound.

“HDR ties in with our premium large-screen message. It’s the buzzword for FY16, and it’ll help drive the premium end of the 4K market.”

Mr McCarron argues Sony’s decision to effectively snub the UHD Premium badge reflects a wider commitment to the 4K market. “We’ve decided not to use the UHDA logo, preferring our own logo instead. It signifies HDR compatibility across different models and different categories. At the moment, it’s on displays, but in the future it will appear on a lot of different products as well.”

Sony UK and Ireland country head John Anderson says the retailer shouldn’t underestimate the sophistication of the consumer when it comes to HDR. “What we have to do is have confidence that there is always a consumer out there who wants higher quality,” he tells ERT. “Years ago, before we launched 4K, people would say that picture quality had got to the point where people couldn’t tell the difference, that it was all about design and smartness. But 4K has proved that consumers aren’t so silly, that they can see the difference, and everyone can see the difference with HDR.”

Panasonic head of vision Craig Cunningham agrees: “HDR may be a tricky thing to sell this year, but while HDR TVs may not all perform the same, all HDR content will be authored to a certain level, and you will still clearly notice the difference between an HDR set and a non-HDR set. Even on entry-level models. You can watch HDR content on our 700 Series, but you’ll clearly see a difference between that and our non-HDR 600 Series.”

John Anderson Sony UK and Ireland
John Anderson Sony UK and Ireland

Mr Cunningham confides that the incoming Panasonic 700 Series achieves a peak of around 350 nits of brightness, while the 750/800 Series hits around 500 nits. “We’re not going to be talking about nits this year,” he cautions. “We’ll simply say that this TV can accept HDR, so you can watch HDR content on it. It’s up to the consumer to decide what level of performance they want.”

However, as the first supplier of an Ultra HD premium-certified TV, in the shape of the DX902 Series, Mr Cunningham understandably puts great store by the UHD Alliance certification.

“Any standards that come along are helpful to the consumer. And we try and comply with them.” However he admits consumer confusion is probably inevitable, citing rivals that intend to launch Ultra HD Premium sets that use edge-lit, rather than a full-array LED backlight. “Trying to get a 1,000 nits from an edge-lit panel will bring in other artefacts. Whereas a TV that doesn’t have that certification and isn’t trying to achieve that brightness might, overall, give you a better picture,” he cautions. “Our DX802 Series doesn’t have Ultra HD Premium certification, and is edge-lit, but it’s not trying to drive 1,000 nits of brightness. So, the overall contrast and panel uniformity might be better.”

Richard Bass, head of B2C business at Hitachi Digital Media, says 4K will be key for the Hitachi brand in 2016.

“We launched our first range of 4K models towards the end of last year and we have seen strong sales, especially in 43in, and will expand our range during 2016. We’ll bring HDR models later, we want to make sure that we launch products that are fully compatible with the industry standards.”

He concedes the brand has been very aggressive with pricing, but he suggests that’s mainly a response to the Black Friday phenomenon.

Aggressive

“Increasingly, we have seen a shift with retailers towards more aggressive short-term promotions,” he comments. “As some other Japanese brands have reviewed the direction of their TV business, we have seen our business grow and our share increase to make us the number-five brand in the UK. Our focus is on delivering affordable, well-featured TV sets for the UK market. As a well-known Japanese brand, we are proud of our reputation for high quality and reliability and will not compromise on this point just for the sake of gaining market share.”

And when it comes to retail advice, Mr Bass suggests keeping things simple. He says: “Focus on UHD and how to explain the benefits to consumers.  We need to ensure that all of us as an industry work together to deliver a clear message about the benefits of both UHD and Premium UHD.”

According to FutureSource, the double whammy of 4K and large screen sizes have become the main driver for TV replacement, with global shipments up 14 per cent this year. This against a backdrop of declining sales – the overall TV business dipped eight per cent in 2015 due to continued price erosion.

Craig Cunningham, head of vision, Panasonic
Craig Cunningham, head of vision, Panasonic

Fourteen per cent of all TVs shipped in 2015 were 4K UHD models. Sales are growing at an average annual rate of 40 per cent.

While 3D is no longer a consumer must-have – Samsung, LG and Philips have binned their funny glasses while other brands are streamlining 3D-compatible ranges – smart continues to be a valued proposition. However, as the market matures, issues have begun to arise, as vendors seemingly abandon early platforms.

Owners of Samsung Smart Hub era TVs have recently seen their connected screens become less capable, as the manufacturer turned off the On TV home page. Once a handy thumbnail browser for live TV channels, the screen now offers just row upon row of empty boxes. Apps still work, but this smart TV no longer looks that clever. It seems the average life of a Smart OS could be significantly less than the panel itself.

Stuart Tickle, managing director of Loewe distributor AWE, says the trend could fast become an embarrassment. “In the retail world, it’s a clear benefit to have a good looking, simple-to-use smart platform,” he tells ERT. “Access to video on-demand services in particular is vital, although how much the features beyond that get used, is questionable. However, there is a problem being introduced to the TV world that was never a consideration before – ‘when will the software become unsupported?’ ”

Even the app scene is becoming unreliable, he notes. “There are people with early smart TVs that no longer support BBC iPlayer. A few years ago, everyone wanted Love Film, and now we want Netflix and Amazon. Just last week, I got a message on the TV mounted to my bedroom wall that the Skype app is no longer operational and will not be updated. I don’t use that TV for Skype, but what a pain if I did.”

While a smart TV should be fully updatable for the lifetime of the set, he believes this level of support will be unlikely. “Companies want a reason to make people upgrade, unless they start losing sales because of consumer annoyance. All this leads me to question whether a smart TV is better off just having a really good interface, but with all OTT/VOD services coming from a set-top box, stick, dongle or similar.

Panasonic 4K TV range
Panasonic 4K TV range

“I guess the argument is that you can buy a TV with everything built-in and then add a dongle when needed, but is that ideal? Ease of use and upgradability should be key.”

Providers

It’s not just technology that’s changing user habits, suggests AWE sales director Paul Mott. “Even the programmes we like are moving between different providers,” he tells ERT. “If I want to watch the continuing antics of the three presenters formerly known as Top Gear, I will need to acquire an Amazon box. I expect to see a lot of programmes or sports events move between different content providers. That in turn changes the way I catch-up with these programmes. Should a smart TV attempt to try to build all that in?”

Intrinsic functionality trumps apps, suggests AWE’s Mr Tickle. “Loewe’s smart TV platform gives buyers a host of practical smart TV features, including a customisable home page, Follow Me technology and shortcuts to inputs and photos.”

Inevitably, there’s more tantalising turmoil to come. The Rio 2016 Olympic Games will be a test bed for 8K Super Hi-Vision, with NHK shooting the next-gen format alongside 4K for comparative research. One hundred and thirty hours of 8K will be relayed from Brazil to Japan, including live coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies. This 8K feed will be accompanied by 22.2 channel surround sound. Someone, somewhere is going to enjoy quite a show.

And just in case customers ask, there will be no 4K consumer coverage from the games. If they ask why, just shrug and quote Dickens.