What's hot (and not) in televisions 2009

Looking to buy a new TV this year, but not sure what to look for? We go over some of the hottest new features promoted at CES 2009.

(Credit: Ty Pendlebury/CNET Australia)


CES is well and truly over for another year, so what lessons did we learn about up and coming television technologies? Yes, this year TVs were again the star of the world's biggest gadget show, but that's not to say that we saw anything revolutionary. Instead we saw a natural progression from the tech shown at last year's event.

So, if you're looking to buy a television this year what technologies can you look forward to, and what should you avoid? We sift through some of the advancements we'll see this year for the hits and misses.


3D

Yes, 3D technology is over 50 years old, but it hasn't stopped the big players from pronouncing it a "revolution" on their stands at CES this year. Of course, both Samsung and Zalman got there first last year.

At the moment, the only way you can watch 3D on a compatible television is if you have it hooked up to a PC, which MUST have an Nvidia graphics card in it. Got all that? However, Panasonic did announce it would release a 3D-compatible player in 2010 based on its new 3D Blu-ray specification, but we think it will be too little, too late.

Plus, based on the various demos we did at CES, the technology isn't getting that much better. While the 3D effect is quite striking, you can't sit with the glasses on for more than a few minutes at a time. It's a little like trying to concentrate on one of those 3D Magic Eye pictures for long stretches — your eyes start to lose focus, and eventually you'll end up with a headache. Watching a 3D feature film on a domestic television would therefore be a challenge.

VERDICT: 50-year old technology. Very limited at present. There are more exciting things to spend your money on.


Wireless HD

While a couple of stands were demonstrating "wireless HD" at last year's show — usually behind closed doors because it wasn't quite ready — it was everywhere at CES 2009. We had our first taste of it locally at the Uchi show in September 2008 with the Sony ZX1 and its 1080i wireless connection. But competitors like LG and Samsung are now able to offer full 1080p connectivity. Forget old-hat technologies like 2.4GHz or even 5GHz, the WirelessHD spec uses a high frequency 60GHz signal to transmit all your information in full high-definition.

At the moment, wireless and "slim" go hand-in-hand: as the thickness of the television diminishes you have a greater need to provide a breakout box to plug all of your sources in. This means you can easily mount the TV on the wall and not have to worry about routing cables all over the place. Of course, you will still need to have a power point underneath your wall mount.

Apart from this rather limited scenario we can see wireless HDMI solutions being used to provide HD streaming through walls in the future. The possibilities are pretty exciting, but until the companies can decide on a single standard — at the moment there are at least two — you're restricted to components from the one manufacturer. Thankfully, most of the big guns, including Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and LG use a technology called WirelessHD that eases compatibility. Still, a technology to watch for in the coming years.

VERDICT: Pretty exclusive (and therefore expensive) at the moment, but the potential for the technology is huge.


Slim cabinets

Samsung unveiled a series of slim LCD screens at CES 2009.
(Credit: Ty Pendlebury/CNET Australia)

There is one trend we can't understand: slim televisions. Why oh why should the thickness matter when you watch it from the front anyway? While the LG designers we spoke to in Korea spoke of their frustration at having to design slimmer televisions with wider bezels — this unlikely combination sells better apparently — they said they wouldn't have a job without them.

While plasmas are getting quite thin at an inch thick, it's in LCD where the most of the debate is centred at the moment. Cutting-edge LCDs use LEDs instead of fluorescent tubes for illumination, which take up less space. See LED-backlighting below for more information.

Of course, slimmer TVs are easier to wall mount and look nicer, and when used in combination with a wireless media box it makes a minimal intrusion on your living space. However, at the moment you'll pay handsomely, and we've yet to test the effectiveness of wireless HD so at present we're unable to recommend it.

VERDICT: We're all about picture quality here at the CNET towers, and slim cabinets may have to make too many compromises.


Yahoo widgets and networking

Download weather and more without the need for a separate box.
(Credit: Ian Morris/CNET UK)

We don't want to alarm anyone, but PCs are coming to a TV near you. After the relative failure of Viiv , television manufacturers are taking a softly-softly approach and building the PC into your TV without telling you. We've already seen a handful of televisions on the market with network capability in the past year and this trend is set to continue. In fact, LG's head of LCD told us that in the future a network port will be as important as an on-board tuner.

According to LG, adding an Ethernet port (and the attendant PC-like bits) adds about AU$300 to the cost of a TV. Given the added functionality, the roughly 10 per cent mark-up seems worthwhile. Yahoo widgets are one of the functions that make use of the TV's new-found computational capacity. This will enable you to check the weather, update social networking apps or do comparison shopping with your remote control.

The other advantage of having a networked TV is that you stream movies, music and pictures from the internet or a home-based server — eliminating the need for a separate set-top box or games console. At present, the list of supported formats is fairly limited, but hopefully we'll see a greater number in the future.

VERDICT: We've always been a fan of "convergence" and products that make information more accessible for everyone are only a good thing.


"Hurtz"

Oh dear. What a boring "race" this one is. And not only that, but the continuing Hertz one-upmanship is confusing for us consumers. 100Hz, 200Hz and now 400Hz is on the table. While these technologies are designed to combat a number of different image problems, the most important for LCDs is reducing motion blur — a common problem for these displays. But these systems also have unwanted side-effects, such as image haloing and making movement look unnatural.

The prominent technology uses interpolation to calculate the difference between two frames and "draw in" the difference with up to three extra frames (for 200Hz). Of course, LG has a different method it calls "backlight scanning", which effectively strobes the backlight at a crazy frequency and effectively "animates" the scene, as you would with a flicker book. This is supposed to make the image smoother and apparently doesn't suffer from interpolation artefacts. However, at CNET Australia, our favoured technology is still plasma and this doesn't suffer from blurring problems, and we're more than happy to live with motion judder (the other artefact removed by Hertz technologies) from movies and NTSC-sourced programs.

VERDICT: "100Hz", along with dynamic contrast ratios, are like the "PMPO's" of the television world.


LED-backlighting

In what could be one of the most significant advances in LCD technology yet, LED backlighting has started appearing in the current crop of televisions. It offers excellent contrast, better colours and less "backlight clouding" issues than other illumination methods.

At present, there are two different types of LED backlighting — edge and direct — with each one having its set of advantages. The most prevalent is direct lighting which positions the LEDs behind the screen in banks and allows for sections to be turned off, which can result in better contrast. Edge, on the other hand, is as it sounds, with the edges of the screen being lined with LEDs. While this means the screen can be thinner, we are concerned that there may also be a little bit of light bleed at the corners due to the greater concentration of LEDs there. But still, better than fluorescent tubes, and better for the environment too.

VERDICT: LED-backlighting — provided it's done properly — is one of the most important evolutions of the humble LCD screen.


Green-friendly

Sony has a new range of TVs which will turn themselves off after a set amount of time.
(Credit: Ty Pendlebury/CNET Australia)

Remember the good old days when you had a physical "switch" which let you turn electrical goods on and off? With the advent of remote controls, these became standby switches instead, which can suck up a lot of power. Thanks to Sony — and others — the switch is back! No more rooting around behind the TV to turn the set off at the point. Admittedly, standby uses a lot less power than it used to, with modern sets using less than 1W, but this is still a good step for the anal retentive amongst us.

Most manufacturers have a green technology or other which is designed to use less power, but in the case of LCDs it usually involves an LED backlight instead of fluorescents. However, Sony has invented a new type of tube called a Hot (as opposed to Cold) Cathode Fluorescent Lamp which uses a lot less power. This, in addition to a motion-sensor on the TV, will turn off the screen after a set amount of inactivity.

Nevertheless, we think the whole "environment-friendly" angle is irrelevant given the current economic situation, and if companies re-jigged their sales pitch as "money saving" then they'd be on a winner.

VERDICT: We've mixed emotions about "common sense" being marketed as "green", but saving money is always a positive thing.


OLED

LG won't sell one for a few years, but its OLED screens were gorgeous.
(Credit: Ty Pendlebury/CNET Australia)

Two and a half thousand US dollars for 11 inches? Unfortunately, we're not talking about medical enhancements here — that would almost be worth it. No, we're on about OLED televisions.

While at least two manufacturers — Sony and LG — had OLED screens on display this year, no one in their right mind thinks this is a viable technology yet. It may be super-bright and feature deep blacks, but the size is still quite small and the price astronomical.

We spoke to Sony Australia representatives at CES and they told us the XEL-1 would be available here very soon. They were unable to elaborate on pricing, but given the value of the Aussie peso at present we're guessing in the region of seven grand. Insane! Nurse, forceps please…

VERDICT: Beautiful looking televisions, but nowhere near ready for the big-time yet.


Conclusion

Want to get some of this sweet tech right now? Well, you better cool your boots because we're not going to see it until the middle of 2009. But if you ask us, none of these technologies are worth waiting for as most are already available in one guise or other. If you need a TV now, then get one. Of course, take your time and try as many TVs as you can in your price bracket, but we've found it's never worth waiting for the next best thing.

Ty Pendlebury travelled to Korea and CES as a guest of LG.

Tags:
TVs
About the author

Ty Pendlebury reviews televisions in CNET's New York office. He originally hails from CNET Australia. Ty's interests include gaming, indie music, hi-fi, streaming media, movies, literature, and cycling.

 

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