TVs at CES 2016: The 4K, super-ultra, high dynamic range definition of the future

From rollable and modular TV concepts to humble OLED, SUHD and 4K Roku TV models shipping soon, the big displays had a strong showing at the premier tech show on Earth.


The TVs of the future are getting cooler, but they might also get confusing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

With one hand, CES 2016 gave me some amazing new glimpses of current and near-future TV technology.

With the other, the show took away any hope I may have had that issues like buyer confusion, marketing hyperbole and future-proof compatibility would be seriously addressed anytime soon.

In classic CNET review style, I'll start with the good.

LG and Samsung are the real giants of the global TV marketplace, and both showed exceedingly cool, highly compelling takes on how big-screen TV tech could evolve over the next few years. LG also copied Samsung's SUHD name.

LG's 18-inch rollable TV takes my favorite TV technology, OLED, to places no screen could fit before. The ultra-thin display acts more like a piece of paper than a television yet maintains an amazing picture. It's easy to imagine rolling it up to hide away when it's not in use, moving it around the house to watch anywhere, or sliding rolled-up into a bag to take on vacation. The next step is making it bigger.


Samsung's 170-inch modular TV can get as big as you can imagine. It's composed of multiple modules of LCD screen, each extended to the very edge so when they're joined together, they create a virtually seamless whole. I think of it as Lego TV, and an ingenious way to solve for the problem of shipping gigantic TVs all over the world.


Those concept displays are tailor-made to wow attendees at CES, but I also saw some good news in the form of products that will actually ship this year. LG continues to expand its OLED lineup and most of the screens are flat, not curved. OLED's world-leading picture quality gets brighter highlights and wider color, as well as compatibility with both major HDR standards (more on that in a bit). I'm also psyched to see OLED screens in laptops, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga and the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S tablet computer.

Samsung didn't announce any OLED TVs of its own, but it did show me some great-looking HDR demos with its new Quantum Dot SUHD displays, which are my odds-on favorites for second-best image quality of 2016. Samsung also deserves credit for baking Smart Home control into its TVs, as well as continuing to make its Smart TV suite simpler and more robust.

Speaking of simple smarts, I like the idea of any new Roku TVs, and TCL will ship the first 4K versions later this year. The Android TV system available in Sony TVs is getting better too.


Land of Confusion

To the chagrin of manufacturers, CNET reviews also include the bad, and if I was reviewing CES 2016's TV news, I'd have plenty to put in that section.

This year I sense a disturbance in the TV force: more confusion than ever. The average TV buyer is always going to be overwhelmed by the gaggle of new specifications, terms and fancy technology descriptions that TV makers cook up to justify higher prices. CES 2016 throws even more into the mix.

High dynamic range, or HDR, is the newest. It signifies improved content on TV shows and movies, and the brand-new televisions that can display it. The most concise pitch I've heard is "not just more pixels, but better pixels," and a lot of the HDR I've seen is very impressive (just don't confuse it with HDR for your camera).


TCL is the latest TV maker to support Dolby Vision.


Very few of the TVs sold last year can play back HDR content, but in 2016 most of the major-brand TVs with 4K resolution are HDR compatible. Based on what I saw in tests last year, however, they don't necessarily look any better than non-HDR TV, and in some cases HDR looks worse. Some TVs will even purport to make regular content look as good as HDR.

Worse is the brewing HDR format war. Only a few TVs -- namely LG's 2016 OLEDs, TCL's X1 and Vizio's Reference Series -- support Dolby Vision HDR. That HDR format is available from Netflix and Vudu streaming services, new 4K Blu-ray players and is used in some major Hollywood films. Like, you know, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

Most HDR TVs will not support Dolby Vision, however. Samsung says it's committing its full support to HDR10, the other HDR format (every HDR TV I've seen, including those that support Dolby Vision, support HDR10). So, when Star Wars comes out on 4K Blu-ray, those brand-new 2016 Samsungs won't be able to take advantage of the Dolby Vision HDR goodness.

Is your mind boggled yet? Don't look now, but I haven't even touched on quantum dots, wide color gamuts, proprietary terms like SUHD vs. Super UHD vs. ULED, 1,000 nits peak brightess, UHD Alliance Premium Certification and all of the other new terms to emerge recently.

I won't know how these things affect actual picture quality until I can test the TVs themselves. We'll have our hands full at CNET once again this year, unraveling all of the marketing used to sell TVs. I'm looking forward to another year of big, pretty pictures, no matter how many thousands of words it takes to explain them.

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