The 'Oh, myyy!' behind Sharp Quattron (Powerpoint)

CNET editors take in Sharp's presentation on the company's Quattron technology, which adds a fourth, yellow pixel to the original three.

David Katzmaier
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.
David Katzmaier
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Sharp's Quattron presentation

The new commercial, featuring actor George Takei of "Star Trek" fame, not only makes little attempt to demonstrate the product difference, it comes within a whisker of self-consciously pointing up the absurdity of attempting to demonstrate the product difference. -- adage.com

We first heard about Sharp's Quattron technology at CES 2010, when every other manufacturer was talking about 3D TV. On April 29 we met with Sharp's representatives to get an in-depth presentation on the technology, which adds a fourth subpixel, yellow, to the standard red, green, and blue arrangement used on pretty much every other flat-panel TV (and monitor, and projector, and smartphone, etc.) ever sold. Besides assuring us that they, too, were working on a 3D TV and would have one "available later this year," company reps did their best to overcome our skepticism that the addition of yellow would improve picture quality.

Though the company did have some demo models on-hand, we won't render a verdict until we get one to review in the lab, something Sharp assures us will happen "soon." In the meantime, however, we feel the innovation is unique enough to merit some preliminary explanation, so here's Sharp's story in Powerpoint form, with our initial thoughts sprinkled in.

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Subpixel comparison

Here's what a white screen looks like under magnification. If you have a magnifying glass and are viewing this slideshow on an LCD monitor, feel free to check it out yourself.

You'll see something like the image on the left. That's because each pixel on most display devices is made up of three subpixels, one each for red, green, and blue. Sharp's Quattron sets have an extra yellow subpixel.

To drive the point home, Sharp's demonstration areas in stores will have an actual magnifying glass affixed to the screen, so you can "see it to see it," as the commercial urges.

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Quattron LED roadmap

As announced earlier, three series of Quattron-equipped sets will be available. All use edge-lit LED backlighting; sizes range from 40 to 60 inches; and the base 810 series will be available at major retailers like Best Buy and Sears, whereas the 820 models are aimed at regional and specialty retailers. The 68-inch size announced at CES, however, has been postponed until next year.

Pricing starts at a relatively expensive $1,500 for the 40-inch 810. Check out current pricing at the links below.

LC-LE810UN series

LC-LE820UN series

LC-LE920UN series

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Specs summary and comparison

Differences between the 810 and 820 are mostly cosmetic; the 820 has a flush glass front. We don't expect the dynamic contrast ratio differences to have much impact on picture quality. We asked Sharp to send us an 810 for our review.
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Panel technology overview

Sharp's X-gen panel, which was also used in 2009 models like the LC-LE700UN series, is said to allow brighter images since there's no electronic circuitry running across the face of the pixel.
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Panel technology, Quattron claims

Here's Sharp's take on the main advantages of Quattron.
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Panel technology claims, brightness, and expanded colors

Our take? We have no problem believing the brightness claim. Yellow is the brightest of the four pixels, and should allow the TVs to produce more light with less power. Sharp's reps said they expected these TVs to be among the brightest on the showroom floor.

But TVs, in our opinion, are plenty bright already, so from a picture quality standpoint we don't really care about that. From an efficiency standpoint, however, more light for less power is always a good thing.

As for color, it's certainly reasonable to assume that these TVs have an expanded color gamut, but that's not necessarily a good thing.

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Improved color reproduction claims

This diagram shows the range of color, or gamut, the Quattron can produce compared with the standard HDTV color gamut (spelled out in Rec 709).

Is a bigger gamut better? Not from a color accuracy standpoint. Most critical viewers, including CNET, prefer to have the TV's color gamut match 709 as closely as possible (more info), and we take note of TVs that can't in the "color accuracy" section of the review. According to Sharp's reps, none of the TV's presets is designed to hit 709 without adjustment. It remains to be seen whether the sets' color management system allows correction of the gamut.

Sharp's reps expected our question on this topic, and claimed that the TVs' processing is specifically designed to translate incoming signals color space to best take advantage of the extra space in the displays' gamut. That might be the case, but our contention is that color should be reproduced according to an accepted standard to come as close as possible to the source material.

A rep also claimed that Quattron TVs will be able to produce more colors than current TVs, but we're skeptical that major differences will be visible. It's hard to say for sure, however, and since this technology is so new, there could well be other color-related consequences, beneficial or otherwise, to having an extra yellow pixel.

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Smoother color transitions claim

(Update May 6, 2010) The company's presentation at first included a slide claiming "Ultra High Resolution" as an additional benefit of the extra pixel, and we expressed skepticism. After CNET published this slideshow, company reps sent us a new slide as a replacement (shown here) that they claim better represents the point they were trying to make.

Instead of claiming higher resolution, Sharp is now saying that "color transitions are smoother on the 920 series because it uses newly developed compensation technology to allow color steps within each pixel as opposed to from pixel-to-pixel." And yes, this technology is only available on the step-up 920 series; the less-expensive 810 and 820 models were developed earlier, according to Sharp, and so couldn't incorporate said benefit.

We're still pretty skeptical that this benefit will be noticeable to any but the most careful viewers. In general we find transitions between colors quite smooth already.

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Power consumption claim

Again, we have no problem believing that an extra yellow subpixel can produce brighter images using the same amount of power. Since these sets are edge-lit LEDs, the most efficient TV style available, we expect Quattron to be among the most energy efficient televisions ever produced.
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Energy Star 5.0 compliant

Quattron sets are the first we've heard of that are compliant with the most stringent level of Energy Star yet devised. Version 5.0 won't even be put into force until 2012 (more info).
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Aquos Net improvements

We liked the Aquos Net apps suite last year, and for 2010 there are plenty of new services. Netflix is the most important, although we're surprised that Vudu's video and apps service will only be available on the flagship model. The flagship 920 also includes a wi-fi dongle free in the box.

(Update May 03, 2010) Sharp originally told us that the step-down models also include the free dongle, but in fact they do not. The company offers no wi-fi option, free, dongle-based, or otherwise, with the 810 and 820 models.

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Aquos advantage live

The sets will also include the same in-depth customer support we liked on last year's model.
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USB networking

Sharp's file streaming lags behind the pack, with video via USB reserved for the high-end model only, and no DLNA, for streaming over a home network, on any set this year. Reps did say DLNA would be standard on all models next year, however.
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User intarface upgrade

Sharp has finally modified its menu system, and even offers a new remote for the first time in five years.
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'Oh, myyy!'

It's worth reiterating that, unlike George here, we at CNET have not yet donned our lab coats in the presence of a Quattron, so we can't render final judgment on performance. When we do subject them to our image quality tests, however, we'll be sure to include lots of sunflowers and yellow tropical fish.

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