2016 is going to be an eventful year in terms of sport with both the Olympic Games and the Euro Cup (soccer). This usually translates into sales peaks in the TV industry as consumers see this as a good excuse for renewing their AV installation. Why not enjoying the games with friends and family on a bigger and better screen? While these events are great marketing tools to boost sales, from a technology stand point there is not always real innovation breakthroughs. Manufacturers of course always try to push new technologies (or fake marketing ones) but it does not necessarily translate into interesting benefits at consumer level. A good example of this was the 3D technology, which has kept the industry busy for years while practically only a fragment of the market really picked up. More recently, the move to the 4K resolution has made a lot of buzz but the experience so far was not really convincing.
Regardless of this background, if you are in the market for a new dandy TV this year, I will explain why it is actually a good timing but you will have to carefully follow the guideline below.
New display technologies can bring a lot of benefits to the end user but to really make it a home run, a number of factors need to align.
Let's take the example of the Full HD technology.
Nowadays, everyone owns and enjoy full HD capable TV sets and there is no question that it offers tremendous benefits compared to standard definition. For most consumers, watching a DVD is almost painful as our eyes are used to higher resolution content. To get there however, it took years and a lot of combined efforts from various industries (Movie and TV studios, Broadcast networks) and the development a new physical format for the distribution (Blu-ray).
This also explains why until now 4K TVs have resulted in mixed experiences as the availability of content has been very scarce and people ran into numbers of issues in terms of compatibility and future proofing.
Fortunately, planets have aligned now and it becomes clear what should be the next generation TV in terms of specifications and what will be the various options to enjoy the most out of it. More importantly, beyond the simple resolution upgrade, a number of other technology breakthroughs should really help delivering a much stronger viewing experience.
Let's not wait any longer and explain one by one, the key features of your next generation TV. If you don't care for technical explanations and only want to know how to pick your next TV, I suggest to jump directly to the Ultra HD Premium chapter.
Ultra HD 4K resolution
This is the feature with which it all started. After 3D, the next big thing was always meant to be the 4K ultra high definition resolution with the new 3840 x 2160 pixel panels (or call it 2160p). Does this higher density of pixels necessarily translates into an upgraded picture? Yes and No.
Yes, if you plan to use all the new 4K content available: streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, Ultra HD Blu-rays which will become available in spring, and 4K TV subscriptions when those become available (some countries already propose 4K packages like BT in the UK with its sport package). Watching Full-HD material from Blu-rays and TV channels can also look really good on 4K TVs if you go for medium to high end models. Their electronics usually do a decent job upscaling the image whereas cheaper models would only provide unpleasant images, ruining the benefit of extra pixels.
No, if you are still watching DVDs and SD quality TV channels. If you belong to this category my advise would be to stick to a Full HD television and skip the 4K upgrade for another couple of years.
I will assume that if you read this blog and like great images, you will belong to the first category, especially since the amount of 4K material is now significantly growing and makes the upgrade worthwhile.
Now, you may wonder how much better the experience is going to be with a 4K panel. Let's just say that the bigger the screen and the more pixel you want to have as it will make up for the larger screen estate. There is however a distance to screen size ratio under which the benefit of Ultra HD vs Full HD is becoming less obvious. Check out the graph below:
The graph may inform you that to really benefit from the 4K resolution you should really get a huge screen. Let just say that this graph which has been shared on the web for a while now is there to moderate expectations on what 4K can really bring to the viewing experience. While it is fair to say that resolution is not defining the picture quality and that Full HD is in many cases good enough, I personally think the graph is a bit conservative and was conveniently used by people who did not believe in the 4K resolution to begin with.
Having more pixels on a display and the right content for it is never going to look worse and as you may have noticed the trend for larger screens is not really slowing down. Few years back the average size was 32 inches and it quickly grew up to 42 inches. Nowadays, you could say that it is more likely 48 to 50 inches. In fact, if you are looking for a mid-range TV today, you will likely not find anything below that size anymore and it will come with Ultra HD as standard anyway.
The good news is that people very quickly adjust to bigger TVs. You could probably compare this to smartphone screen size. A lot of people complained about the new iPhone 6 screen size until they used it for a couple of days. No one really looks back.
You may have not heard about HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, but it may actually create a greater impact on picture quality than the single 4K resolution will. Many in the industry see HDR as the real game changer.
The concept behind HDR is simple. The dynamic range is the difference between black and white and we usually refer to it using a contrast value. Until now, contrast has been mostly influenced by the capacity of the screen to provide deep black levels. Cheap TVs usually provides greyish blacks while more expensive ones offer deep blacks allowing viewers to watch their TV in complete darkness for a true immersive experience.
With HDR, the idea is to boost the peak levels in both black and white creating a high dynamic contrast in parts of the image. The result provides a much greater impact and more details in both shadow and bright light areas. In the end the picture will simply look much more realistic.
Obviously, the upcoming Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will include HDR in their specifications as well as Netflix and Amazon streaming services. Even some broadcasters are currently testing the possibility to include HDR in their ecosystem.
Bear in mind that HDR10 will be the goto feature as far as HDR is concerned but there are few other standards like Dolby Vision for instance which will be based on the same technology but may offer slightly different possibilities. Regardless of the HDR flavour your content is, a TV set compatible with HDR10 will always be able to benefit from the technology.
HDR has been very well received by studio directors in general which surely appreciate the artistic benefits of this technology. This means that the adoption should be going really fast now. Even better, many old movies are also planned to be remastered using high dynamic range technology and the first tests have shown tremendous potential, making the movies look like they were made recently.
10 bit panels with extended colour space
By now your new TV already has higher resolution and greater dynamic range so it's time to also improve the colours.
For decades TVs and video content in general have been using 8 bit colour depth which results in 16M colours. This may look like a lot of colours but the reality is that your eyes are much better than that. This is why when you watch pictures of a sky on a screen for instance you always see a colour gradient with noticeable steps resulting in visible lines see example on the graph).
It took some time but now the Ultra HD content will be officially encoded in 10 bit colour depth which boosts the possibilities up to over 1 billion colours. This will provide a much better potential for colour rendering and much smoother colour gradients.
To make sure that colours of the TV truly benefit from this extended palette, TVs will have to comply to much wider colour spaces. A good reference is that the TV should cover at least 90% of the DCI-P3 colour space (used for digital cinema projection) and accept the Rec.2020 container which is going to be used by 4K content going forward.
Note that there is no technology available to date that can cover the REC.2020 colour space, so there is room for improvement on the technology side.
HDMI 2.0a & HDCP 2.2 support
To make sure your purchase is sustainable and does not turn into a compatibility nightmare, you will have to make sure that the HDMI connections are 2.0a compliant or at least some of them. If not, you won't be able to receive HDR content via an external player (UHD Blu-ray player or media player). Simply don't buy anything that does not offer these connections.
HDCP is a content protection system which basically avoids pirate copies of the digital audio and video content. All the next generation players like UHD Blu-rays or media players and set top boxes will adopt the 2.2 version and your TV won't be able to receive any content unless it shares the same version.
Luckily, most new 2016 TVs should provide these specs as standard but if you are eyeing onto a 2015 model, watch out as they did not always provide the desired specifications.
Nice to have features
HEVC (H.265) & VP9
The key sources of 4K video content to date are streaming services with Amazon and Netflix leading the pack. To enable 4K video streaming, they had to use very smart compression algorithms to limit the necessary bandwidth on your Internet connection. HEVC which stands for High Efficiency Video Coding, in its H.265 version does just that. It allows to dramatically limit the amount of data needed. Actually, even UHD Blu-rays will use this encoding method to limit the space required on the disc but unlike streaming services, the disc will be decoded in the player and thus does not require the TV to decode the video stream.
So why is this a nice to have feature and not a must have?
Well if you intend to use the smart TV solution directly from your TV, then your TV need this decoder indeed. If you however plan to use a more powerful media box like the nVidia Shield Android TV or an Apple TV, these boxes will do all the decoding themselves and therefore will not require the TV to do so. Looking even a bit forward it is very likely that your future set top box will include a Smart TV portal with these streaming services as well.
With regards to VP9, it is basically the same story except that it is the coding solution used by Youtube and it serves the same purpose as HEVC. If you like watching Youtube and don't want another box in your system, make sure your TV decodes VP9 then.
Smart TV with 4K streaming services
You already understood from the previous chapter that having a built in Smart TV platform is not necessarily a must have feature. For many people though it will be all they need and they won't mind the shortcomings of using such solution.
Why choosing an external Smart TV solution over the built in ones?
As you may have already experienced yourself, TV manufacturers are far from being experienced with software solutions. Their unstable and buggy platforms and their inability to provide regular updates already created massive frustrations in the market. Although some are getting better (LG, Samsung and Panasonic for instance) you still don't have the guarantee that the service will survive the screen. Having an external box, being a set top box or a media player is an annoyance but not really a deal breaker. For less than 200 USD/EUR you will find much more powerful solutions with regular updates and if your media player does become obsolete, you can simply replace it and your TV will still be good to go.
All these reasons lead me to the conclusion that built in Smart TV platforms are not a key criteria and an absolute necessity. It's like tuners, all TVs have one yet most users don't use them and have external set top boxes instead.
Ultra HD Premium: the reference label
The video industry as a whole took a long time before aligning on these standards, making the situation complex to grasp and the technology overwhelming. Fortunately, last year the whole industry from TV makers to broadcast providers and studios sat down and joined forces in what is called the Ultra HD Alliance. Thanks to this initiative they were able to line up standards which resulted in the above list as prerequisites for the next generation TVs.
To make things even clearer to the mainstream audience, they decided to create the Ultra HD Premium label.
Any TV with this label will basically tick all four boxes listed in the must have features making your choice easy while browsing the shopping aisles. If there was one thing to remember from this post then it is clearly to look for a TV with this label.
The first models should hit the market in late February and by the end of spring most 2016 models should be out. It is not clear yet whether there will be mid-range models. So far only high-end models were announced during CES which means you may need to wait for the end of the year discounts to get a better price or simply wait for next year and the introduction of more affordable models.
As explained in the introduction, 2016 is a turning point in the TV industry as technologies and standards have finally settled for the next years to come and the Ultra HD Premium label is there to help consumers providing the guarantee that the TV has all the necessary functionalities. Although still limited to premium models at first, the complete benefits of Ultra HD television should soon become a standard for everyone to enjoy.
As per these summer games, the lucky early adopters will be able to get their first Ultra HD Premium TVs early enough as new models traditionally start entering the market from February onwards. They will be able to enjoy the games on a beautiful screen which will surely impress anyone laying their eyes on.
I hope this article helped you understand the latest development of the TV industry and that you found the answers you were looking for. If you still have any questions though, please feel free to post in the comments below and I will be happy to answer you.
Thanks for reading!
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