The case for online HDTV firmware updates

CNET editors ruminate on the positives and negatives of HDTVs getting firmware and software updates.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
3 min read
Should firmware and software updates be available to HDTVs via an Internet connection? CNET Networks

Anybody who has a Sony PlayStation 3 knows all about software and firmware updates. Every month or two, Sony sends out an update notification telling users that it's time to head over to the update section of the menu and wait 10 minutes to an hour to download and install the latest features, bug fixes, and what-have-you.

Personal computers have been doing the same thing for years, via Windows Update for example, and now that the PS3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii are Internet-enabled, it seems that game consoles are also firmly aboard the update bandwagon.

The same goes for TiVo, cable boxes, and satellite receivers, the latter of which are updated so frequently that as reviewers, we find it impossible to keep up--despite two major updates of the Dish Network DVR review and three of the DirecTV DVR review, firmware and software updates have made those reviews increasingly out of date. I think HDTVs that connect to the Internet should also allow firmware updates.

Among HDTV makers, I suspect Samsung will be the first to offer an "update" service on its Internet-connected HDTVs. When I heard about models with Ethernet connections, such as the LN46A750 announced at CES this year, my first question to the company's reps was whether that jack allowed firmware updates. I was frankly surprised when the answer came back "no." In the last couple of years, Samsung has issued numerous firmware updates for its HDTVs, including the LN46A750, the PN50A650, and the LN-T4681F, but they've only been available via download from the company's Web site.

To update your TV, you not only have to know about the existence of an update, but you then have to download it to a USB drive and install it on the TV yourself. Granted, the Samsung updates so far have fixed minor performance issues, typically 1080i deinterlacing, but I think most HDTV buyers would be interested in improving the performance of their sets regardless of how minor the update.

Many HDTVs available today have Ethernet connections, such as numerous Samsungs, the Sony KDL-Z4100 series, Pioneer's PDP-20FD series and Elite Pro 1FD series, and the Panasonic TH-PZ850U series, but as far as I know, none of them can utilize those connections to perform firmware updates. The Panasonic models do allow updates of additional Vieracast content, but that's not the same as update-able firmware to fix performance or modify features intrinsic to the TV.

The flip side of this argument is that HDTVs shouldn't need updating--they're fine as is, and their only purpose is to display content, so why would they need updates? My answer is that updates can seriously improve performance. A great example is the Samsung LN-T4671F from 2008, which was the company's first attempt at an HDTV with 120Hz de-judder. The initial firmware shipped with that TV didn't allow users to actually turn off the de-judder processing if they didn't want it. The firmware update, again available only via download to a USB drive and only to people who knew about it, fixed that issue, improving the performance of the TV as noted in our review. It's true that firmware updates can't fix light black levels or poor off-angle performance, but they can evidently improve video processing at least.

Another argument is that firmware updates allow manufacturers to rush imperfect products to market, knowing they can fix the problem later. With a little more quality assurance testing, for example, perhaps those issues wouldn't have occurred with the Samsung TVs mentioned above. But we notice performance issues all the time during HDTV reviews, and in the majority of cases they're not addressed at all. Offering a fix to a problem, even if it's relatively late, is better than ignoring it as far as I'm concerned.

If done correctly, as with the PS3, firmware updates to HDTVs via the Internet can be painless, instill a sense of confidence, and ward off obsolescence. If you've ever appreciated the added functionality or performance after a PS3 or satellite box update, you know what I mean.

What do you think? Should firmware updates be available directly to HDTVs, or are they too confusing for the average user? Will it happen in 2009?