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TVs

Curved TV isn't dead yet. Thanks, Samsung.

Last year sales of curved TVs actually rose, but without LG in the mix will their popularity flatline?

Sarah Tew/CNET

When the first curved TVs appeared more than three years ago I asked whether they were a gimmick.

As a TV reviewer I had to give the curve a fighting chance, however, so I took a curved Samsung home to live with my family for awhile, in addition to subjecting it to a full CNET review.

In the end, I answered my own question with the headline "Great picture quality, but the curved screen is a flat-out gimmick." Since then most of the video geeks I know, including just about everybody I hear from on Twitter, Facebook and article comments, pooh-poohs curved TV screens as a useless distraction.

A curved TV takes the traditional flat screen and bends it along a gentle arc. The edges end up a bit closer, ostensibly providing a slight wraparound effect. Curved TV makers, citing huge curved screens like Imax, call their sets more "immersive" than their flat counterparts, but in my experience that claim doesn't hold water at in-home (as opposed to theatrical) screen sizes and viewing distances.

The only real image-quality benefit I saw to the curve was a reduction in reflections in some cases. That benefit wasn't worth the slight geometric distortions introduced by the curve, not to mention its awkwardness when hung on the wall. That said, the curve doesn't ruin an otherwise good picture.

In TVs, assuming similar prices, curved vs. flat boils down to a choice of aesthetics.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Curved Samsung LCDs vs. flat LG OLEDs

With all that negative press and word of mouth, you might expect curved TVs to follow 3D TV into the gimmick grave. But curved TVs are still going strong, a fact that surprised even me (maybe I'm living in a flat-TV news bubble).

Market research firm NPD says that among TVs 55 inches and larger, the percentage of curved TVs sold in the US actually rose last year, from 8 percent in 2015 to 11 percent in 2016. It adds that TVs 55 inches and larger represented the vast majority (95 percent or more) of curved TVs sold over the last two years, and that most curved TVs sold during that period were LCD-based televisions, not OLEDs.

The two main TV technologies available today are LCD and OLED. LCD TVs are made by just about everybody and represent the vast majority of TV sales. OLED TVs are made by LG and also sold by a couple of other brands (namely Philips, Panasonic and soon, Sony) and comprise a tiny slice of the market. According to NPD, OLED made up just 1.5 percent of total US TV unit sales at 55 inches and above in 2016. In our tests, OLED TVs outperform LCD TVs, but they're also more expensive.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The two main purveyors of curved TVs over the last couple of years have been Samsung and LG, which also happen to be the two biggest TV makers in the world. (Sony's lone curved foray, the KDL-65S990A, came and went without a peep.)

Since 2014, Samsung has pushed curved TVs full-throttle, offering a wide variety at various sizes and prices, especially premium 4K and HDR models. Its best-featured, most expensive flagship TVs like the HU9000 (2014), the JS9500 (2015) and the KS9800 (2016) series were all curved. So was its only OLED-based TV to date, the late, great KN55S9C from 2013.

LG's earliest OLED TVs were primarily curved too, starting with the 55EA9800 in 2013, but recently it had transitioned to flat. Last year the OLEDC6P series was LG's only curved OLED television, while it offered three other series (the B6, E6 and G6) with flat screens.

Notably, the B6 and C6 OLED TVs cost the same and had largely identical feature sets (with the exception of 3D), leaving customers with a relatively straightforward aesthetic choice: do I want a curved versus a flat TV? Samsung, on the other hand, has generally charged more money for its curved sets.

LG drops the curve, Samsung presses on

And now there's one. At CES 2017, the annual January convention where most of the year's new TVs are introduced, LG confirmed that it would no longer be selling any curved TVs. All of its new OLEDs will have flat screens.

"While the first OLED sets were curved, once flat versions became available, it became clear that the flat version was preferred, especially by videophiles," explained LG's Director of New Product Development Tim Alessi. "Since the appeal of curved is purely aesthetic and it does nothing to enhance the picture quality, we prefer to focus on flat form factor for the TV itself."

That leaves Samsung as the only brand selling curved TVs in 2017, and it's not backing off. Among its premium QLED TVs a spokesman told CNET there will be an "equal proportion" of curved and flat TVs. The flagship Q9 series will be flat instead of curved this year, the step-down Q8 will be curved, and the Q7 series will have both flat and curved options. Samsung says the price difference between curved and flat TVs varies model by model, but hasn't yet released all of its official pricing.

"From our point of view it's a question of choice for consumers," the Samsung spokesman said via email. "Our after purchase consumer research indicates that some consumers note a more immersive experience, some prefer its aesthetic appearance and some refer to both as being factors that led them to purchase a curved set."

Both LG and Samsung declined to share specific curved vs. flat sales data with CNET, but Samsung says it has seen year-over-year growth in curved TV sales since they were introduced, especially in the 50-inch and larger size categories. No wonder it wants to keep the curve alive.

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A concept highly-curved OLED display from LG.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The future of curved TVs (and monitors?)

So will LG's decision to stop selling curved TVs presage the beginning of the end? After all, Samsung dropping 3D in 2015 basically killed that feature off.

Not so fast. "I suspect LG's decision will have just a small impact on the numbers, as the market for curved TV has been mostly Samsung," said NPD analyst Steve Baker. "The impact everywhere from LG not producing curved OLED TVs anymore will be minor."

As long as curved TVs continue to sell relatively well for Samsung, I'm guessing it will continue making them. As for LG, Alessi says "Although we currently believe our customers prefer a flat configuration for their OLED sets, we will always listen to the market and respond accordingly. In the meantime, we think the best use of curved display technology is in the monitor category."

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Since you sit closer to the screen with a corresponding increase in immersion, and can monopolize the single sweet spot in the center (negating the jerk effect of curved TVs), curved monitors might make more sense. In her recent review of the HP Envy Curved All-in-One 34 (above), my colleague Lori Grunin writes:

It takes some acclimating to a curved display. There's a fine balance it needs to strike: too much curve and it's distracting, too little and defeats the purpose of the curve. For the 2017 model, HP slightly decreased the curve radius and trimmed the bezel significantly -- though it's the same size panel as the old model, it looks much bigger and vastly more attractive. However, you really do notice the curve, even when working on something in the center of the screen.

I've never used a curved monitor for any length of time, but just like TVs I'd have to be convinced there's a real benefit before I switch. And for TVs, I'll continue to ask Samsung to send me the flat versions of their 2017 sets for review.