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MacManus: Giant TVs and rollable screens at CES

At the start of every year in Las Vegas, the world’s biggest and gaudiest technology trade show takes place. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is where tech and electronics companies like Google, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony show off their latest phones, drones, headphones, robots and whatever else their R&D departments have dreamed up.

But if there is one staple at CES, year in and year out, it’s TV sets. The competition is always intense among TV manufacturers, all attempting to out-do each other with ever larger or wackier televisions.

The 2019 CES didn’t disappoint, with a rollable 4K display by LG, a shape-shifting TV from Samsung, and a giant-sized 8K TV from Sony among the more impressive entries.

LG’s rollable OLED TV is a groundbreaking invention. Basically, the screen rolls back into the base whenever you’re not watching it, so it doesn’t dominate your living room. Considering how big TV screens are nowadays, it’s a clever idea.

But will it go the way of the 3D TV; first introduced at CES in 2010, but ultimately a bust with consumers?

The main problem is, it’ll be prohibitively expensive. LG has warned it will “be priced at a premium level” when it’s released around March. So there’s a good chance the roll-up will be obsolete by the time most of us can afford it – perhaps in 2024, when LG announces its giant hologram TV.

The most interesting television announced by Samsung at this year’s CES was an upgrade on its “The Wall” product, first showcased last year. It’s a shape-shifting tv made of modular microLED panels, allowing you to configure the screen to different shapes and sizes - including stretching it to a jaw-dropping 219 inches. That's more than 5.5 metres wide.

The trouble is, as US tech blog The Verge pointed out, “microLED displays are incredibly challenging to produce at scale.” Since Samsung is the only TV manufacturer exploring this technology, it’s a risky strategy and one that may ultimately fail to get to market.

So far, the only clue around viability from the South Korean conglomerate comes in the form of a more modest 75-inch (1.9 metre) 4K TV built using the microLED panels, which Samsung brought to CES this year and hopes to make available to consumers in a year or two.

Each year at CES we get new concept TVs, like LG’s roll-up and Samsung’s microLED displays. Likewise, we’re also guaranteed to see larger television screens.

Sony is super-sizing its Master Series lineup of TVs this year, particularly with a new 98-inch (2.5-metre) LCD model catchily named the Z9G 8K. This product is Sony’s first consumer-bound 8K TV and, according to The Verge, “the company has created a lot of new technology to get optimal picture from its 33 million pixels”.

In the tradition of the many black-box algorithms that Silicon Valley has foisted on us over the past couple of decades (such as Facebook’s all-powerful news feed algorithm), Sony has apparently invented a proprietary algorithm that upscales 4K content to near–8K quality.

Even if Sony’s new algorithm works as advertised, you can expect to pay a hefty premium for its new mega TV. The pricing wasn’t announced, but as CNET wryly noted, “for reference, Samsung’s current 85-inch 8K TV costs 15 grand.” So it’s likely to be well north of $20,000 in Kiwi dollars.

LG, Samsung and Sony (in no particular order) are generally viewed as the top three TV brands these days. But in New Zealand, you’ll still see Panasonic TV sets well represented in your local home appliance store.

At CES, Panasonic announced its latest flagship model: the GZ2000 4K OLED TV. The company claims this is the “world’s most cinematic TV,” due to built-in Dolby Atmos speakers and its support of both Dolby Vision and the Samsung-backed HDR10+.

Let’s get back to a reality that most of us will be able to afford. One interesting development announced at CES this year was Apple’s partnership with arch-rival Samsung, to put iTunes movie and TV rentals inside Samsung smart TVs.

It’s a big strategy shift for Apple. With the exception of iTunes, historically Apple has been loath to allow its software onto competing devices. This move signals that Apple is making large investments into digital content, in particular movies and tv shows. In order to distribute this content as widely as possible, it has chosen to integrate its streaming software into Samsung devices.

The big unknown here is what this means for the Apple TV device? Perhaps Apple has finally recognized that Google has beaten them hands-down on the streaming box front, with its cheaper and (in my experience at least) much easier to use Chromebox device. I suspect the end of Apple TV is nigh, at least as a separate box-like device.

In addition to the Samsung partnership, Apple also extended support of AirPlay 2 across the popular TV brands. This will allow you to wirelessly stream video content from an Apple device direct to your TV. In the past, AirPlay has been a hit-and-miss technology. It either hasn’t worked or the streaming has been choppy. But Apple promises AirPlay 2 will be much better, and will even offer multi-room streaming capabilities.

Overall, CES 2019 was a good year for TV technology. Although personally, I won’t be able to afford any of the new television sets Samsung, Sony and LG announced at CES. So I guess I’ll have to be content with better streaming from my Apple devices to my fairly basic model smart TV.

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