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Sony, Samsung Introduce OLED Ultra-HD TVs, but Will Consumers Buy?

Carol Kopp

I just saw The Hobbit in a theater with 3-D effects and HFR (high-frame-rate) projection. Gandalf shared some words of wizard wisdom, but I couldn't concentrate on them. I was distracted by the vast landscape of pores and wrinkles that was Ian McKellen's face. At one point, a scrape on poor little Bilbo's knuckles made my stomach lurch. And don't get me started on the troll boogers. Even worse, the endless battle scenes were a dizzying whirl of colors and shapes. You couldn't get far enough away from this screen to see them properly.

The point is, whether it's in a movie theater or at home, the current standard "def” is quite "hi” enough, thank you very much.

And I'm telling you this why? Because the world's manufacturers are falling all over each other at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to show televisions that are way bigger and much, much sharper. 

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There are two new catchwords involved here that consumers will hear much more about all this year:

OLED TV. This is an acronym for organic light-emitting diodes. Prototypes were shown at last year's CES, but never showed up in stores. The technology produces a sharper display, so sharp that it is capable of displaying "absolute black” pixels, as if anyone is fretting about the quality of blackness in their pictures. More importantly, that dense image can be blown up a lot without losing clarity, so much bigger, thinner, and lighter OLED televisions can be built. Ultra high-def. Also known as 4K. This means four times the usual standard for a high-resolution image, or 3,840 pixels wide and 2,160 pixels tall, for more than 8 million pixels total. That means you can blow the image up without it getting fuzzy.

For starters, there's a format problem here. About 50 movies, mostly big-bucks action flicks like Skyfall, have been filmed in ultra high-def. A few older classics have been converted, too. But the rest of the world's programming is not ready for ultra high-def. Television programmers are not prepared to produce new shows for it. And, of course, consumers who purchase an ultra high-def TV will find that their home video libraries are toast yet again.

Gadget geeks may be agog out there in Vegas, but there's little evidence that most consumers crave either bigger or sharper televisions than they have now.

Here's an ominous note from consumer research firm NPD Group on the results of its latest Tech Innovation Study:  "Consumers are content with the electronics devices they have on hand and most aren't too concerned about getting more…”

The survey concludes that 68% of consumers are satisfied with the technology products they currently own. Even younger consumers expressed no urgency about upgrading.

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On televisions specifically, this contentment follows several years of rapid adoption of the flat-screen television, the first must-have innovation since color became widely available in the 1960s. The manufacturers churned them out so fast that prices fell sharply. Overall sales fell 2%, and average prices hit a record low of $364 during the holiday season that just ended, according to NPD Group.

So, here are a few highlights of products introduced at CES that are unlikely to be widely adopted this year:

Sony (SNE) announced it will bring out ultra high-def TVs in 55-inch and 65-inch models. No price was revealed, except that they will be more affordable than the company's current 84-inch model, which costs $25,000.

The company also plans to launch an ultra high-def video service so that its customers have some programming to watch.

LG (003550) expects to get its first OLED TVs in stores in the US in March, priced at $12,000. A prototype was shown a year ago at CES but never actually produced.

Samsung (SSNLF) delivered a vast array of TVs—ultra high-def, LED and OLED—but its biggest attention-grabber is an 84-inch model. The price has not been announced, but probably will be roughly in the range of that $25,000 that LG's version cost.

Samsung also proved that it's thinking hard about usability in this world of 800 channels plus the infinite Web. A new Smart Hub feature is designed to help users sort and organize programming. The feature will be installed on new models, and available as an add-on, called EvolutionKit, for existing Samsung TVs.

Alone among the big manufacturers, Panasonic (PC) is bucking the trend. It didn't introduce anything ultra or OLED at CES. Instead, it unveiled My Home Screen, a personalized desktop that can help owners of its SmartViera television line group together apps or services like Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu for easier access.

A smarter TV sounds useful. Bigger or sharper? Not yet. Maybe not ever, if the programming involves trolls.

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