The 2013 TVs of CES are bigger and smarter, but what about the picture?

The 2013 Consumer Electronics show is a wrap, and now that we know something about the hundreds of new TVs models, it's worth asking whether all those new technologies will improve what matters: picture quality.

I expect great things out of the Panasonic ZT60 plasma. Sarah Tew/CNET

Will flat-panel TV picture quality get even better in 2013?

I'm guessing "Yes" in the case of the Best of CES nominee Panasonic TC-PZT60 and the re-engineered Samsung UNF8500 , very likely the two best-performing TVs of 2013 under $10,000.

But those two are hardly the TV hardware poster children of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, where all the headlines touted expensive 4K and OLED sets -- still stupid and chronically under-delivered , respectively -- as well as new gadgetry of questionable usefulness. Finger-gesture control , anyone?

I got a chance to see both the Panasonic and the Samsung plasmas in extended private viewing sessions and suffice it to say, I think both will be able to surpass the mind-bogglingly good Panasonic TC-PVT50 of 2012 at doing what TVs are supposed to do best: make beautiful pictures. I can't wait to review them, nor to test a few other TVs that stood out from a picture quality perspective.

Other TVs that piqued my videophile interest

  • Panasonic's entire plasma lineup Based on what I saw at the show, last year's reviews and this year's pricing so far , I wouldn't be surprised if the 2013 Best TVs list at CNET looked as top-heavy with Panasonic plasmas as the 2012 list. Each of the company's 2013 plasma series models, with the exception of the lowest-end X60 perhaps, should be among the best-performing in its price class.
  • Sony KDL-55W900A The successor to our favorite edge-lit LED TV of 2012 , the W900A keeps the company's excellent local-dimming scheme but is unfortunately only available in one size: 55 inches.
  • Vizio M series Meanwhile our second-favorite edge-lit LED of 2012 has a whole litter of descendants in various sizes, and all of them do local dimming too. The company is proud of its home-grown dimming, and from what I saw on the 2012 M3D0KD series, the M should be a solid performer. It's also noteworthy that select sizes in the very affordable E series will be the first to do dimming from a "direct LED" configuration.
  • Samsung UNF8000 series The biggest TV company is pushing its revamped Smart TV suite to the world, but to me its engineers talked up the fact that this flagship finally put real local dimming back into its highest-end LEDs. Both the F8000 and the F7500 can dim the letterbox bars, which leads to big improvements in perceived contrast for ultra-widescreen movies, but only the F8000 gets dimming across the whole screen. From what I saw of an early sample it looked great, and color was also exceedingly accurate.
  • Samsung UN85S9 The winner of the TV category for Best of CES got there partly with unique style and buzz-worthy 4K resolution, but what put it atop other 4K sets I saw was the inclusion of local dimming from a full-array LED backlight. It's Samsung's first so-equipped TV since the excellent UN55B8500 , and my bet for the best-performing 4K TV of 2013. I just hope it doesn't fall over and crush me during the review.
  • Sharp Purios The company's first shipping 4K TV will also be the first to receive THX's 4K display certification -- not a guarantee that it'll be a good performer, but still a positive sign. I saw an encouraging demo where the Purios' image processing, dubbed ICC (integrated cognitive creation), seemingly revealed a bit more depth and detail than a comparison model. I also liked the company's new "Moth eye" screen finish, which straddles the line between matte and glossy and in demo form did a great job suppressing reflections. I was told the finish might not make it onto the shipping Purios, but I hope it does.
  • LG Hecto laser projector At $10,000 the Hecto has the distinction of being the cheapest 100-inch-or-larger TV shown at CES 2013, trumping the 110 -inch LEDs by a few hundred thousand dollars. Essentially a deconstructed rear-projection TV, this short-throw laser projector includes its own screen and even has speakers. It's the only product of its kind from a major maker, and I'm excited to see how it competes against similarly-priced 80-inch LED TVs.
  • LG LA8600 Even LG's best TVs last year had disappointing performance, but the company's engineers promised me they've done better this year. I assume LG's best non-4K 2013 LED, the LA8600, will showcase those improvements.
  • LG 55PM9700 After more than 10 years of doing what I do, I'm more excited to review LG's OLED TV than I've ever been to review any product. Ever. Will its color-filter WRGB technology affect the jaw-dropping contrast and color response I expect from OLED? What about off-angle, color accuracy, even passive 3D? I hope to know soon how our third Best of CES nominee fares.

It's gonna be tough to find an OLED TV in stores.

Uh, what about 4K and OLED?
In our preview we called out both of these buzz-grabbing trends as the stars of CES, but it's important to remember that showstopping display technology usually takes years to go mainstream. You'll be hard-pressed to find 4K TVs anywhere on store shelves in 2013, and OLED will be as rare as a Tesla Roadster . The TVs with both, introduced by Sony and Panasonic , were prototypes that are still years away.

TVs with 4K, or Ultra High Definition (UHD) resolution, were front and center in nearly every major maker's booth, and their huge screens and slow-moving, short-looping demo material often looked very good (although often worse than I expected). No pricing was announced for any of the major makers' new 4K sets, however, and product managers I pressed on the question were universally more tight-lipped than usual -- not a good sign.

If Samsung's 85-inch 4K TV costs less than $20K, I'm a monkey's uncle.

Sony mentioned "a cost that is right around that of a premium HDTV" for its smaller XBR-X900 sizes, and I'm guessing that means $5,000 for the 55-incher. While LG's smaller 4K models might cost a bit less than that, I don't think you'll be able to buy a non-Chinese 4K TV for less than $4K this year. I'll be interested to test new sets from Chinese makers like Hisense ( its 4K TVs go down to 50 inches ) and TCL, but I'm not expecting them to match the picture quality of the established brands.

And then there are OLED TVs, which LG says will finally be shipping in March for $12,000 . Even if you have that kind of cash I'm guessing it will be nearly impossible to lay your hands on one -- initial quantities will be extremely limited. The only other TV maker close to production is Samsung, which says "this year" for its KN55F9500 . But the company still hasn't released a final design, and I'm still skeptical the TV will ship.

Whizbang doodads, newfangled thingamabobs, miscellaneous frippery
No CES TV wrap-up would be complete without passing mention of all the extra bullet points TV makers will pack onto specification sheets that have nothing to do with the core mission of making great pictures. I'll try to get it all into one paragraph.

The fire hose: Samsung TVs now have more than 2,800 apps.

Samsung, the king of featuritis , has a new Smart TV suite that can control your cable box as well as recommend upcoming shows and consolidate searches of on-demand video sources (just not Amazon). Sony is pushing NFC pairing , a second-screen app, and DirecTV-friendliness. LG also touts NFC, along with improved voice control and a better motion remote . Panasonic wants to entice you with an optional pen accessory for marking up documents onscreen (huh?), voice control, a touch-pad controller, and a pop-up camera on some models . Vizio has M-Go, a studio-sanctioned streaming app, as well as a new streaming-3D service and HTML5 support in higher-end sets. Everybody has dual-core processors, built-in Wi-Fi, and tons of apps that you'll never use. But at least they all have Netflix.

In the preview I wistfully asked for a dumb TV with all the picture quality enhancements of a flagship model for a bit less money. None was announced. Maybe next year.

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