Sony and Panasonic: New Entrants in OLED TV Race

This story has me scratching my head a bit; Sony and Panasonic will partner in developing OLED TVs. According to the press release, the two companies will pool their “core and printing technologies” to develop a “printing method-based next-generation OLED technology.” Perhaps the most puzzling part is that they “aim to establish mass-production technology during 2013.”

Wow! This strikes me as two drowning swimmers throwing each other cement life rings. Both companies have gone through very public financial difficulties. Sony has failed to catch any of the recent technology waves, and is awash in red ink. They have lost their traditional dominance in the television and personal media markets, and their PlayStation platform may get wiped out by Microsoft’s Xbox.

Panasonic is in no better shape. The company doubled down on plasma technology when flat panels started to take off, and consumers responded by choosing to pay a premium for brighter LCD models. It is losing billions of dollars annually, as the plasma TV market share continues to dwindle.

In general, these two Japanese electronic giants have spent the last decade watching the Korean and Chinese companies (both mainland and Taiwan) steadily eat their lunch (and their breakfast and their dinner for that matter).

Yes, Panasonic has some enormous production capacity that it is not using. Yes, Sony was out early with an OLED television (that was not high-definition and terrifyingly expensive and didn’t sell many units at all, but who’s counting?) Both companies do have a history of developing innovative technologies, however, and it’s possible that they could come up with a winner. If they can produce successful OLED TVs using printing methods instead of the less efficient and slower vacuum deposition batch methods currently in use, it could be that they could lower production costs enough to steal a march on LG and Samsung, and compete on cost sooner with the incumbent LCD models.

But can they accomplish this by next year? That seems to be a very tall order, given the early stages of development for metal oxide backplanes and OLED materials (especially the problematic blue emitters). It’s hard to see just how they might manage to pull this off.

Alfred Poor on Video about HDTV

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of discussing HDTV and related topics with David Gewirtz of ZDNet, which he captured on video. We covered a wide range of topics, including OLED HDTVs, 3DTV, screen sizes, Smart TVs, and “direct LED” TVs. The video runs almost a full hour and was made during a Skype video call. (David has invested a lot of time and effort to develop a pretty sophisticated “Skype Studio” for recording interviews like this, and he gets some impressive results.)

So here’s the video if you want to hear more about my latest thoughts about buying HDTVs. If you or someone you know are thinking about getting a new set, you’ll probably find some helpful information here.

If you have any questions, you can email me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com or send a Twitter message to @AlfredPoor.

Look, Ma! No Wires!

You’ve got a beautiful, big flat screen television. It’s so thin that you’ve put it on a wall mount and it just seems to float in space. Maybe it will just float away! Wait a minute; no, that can’t happen because it’s tied solidly to the ground by a mass of cables that should be enough to connect the Space Shuttle to its launch gantry. There should be a better way.

Fortunately, there’s one industry group working to solve this problem. The Wireless Home Digital Interface Group (WHDI) has developed standards that allow high-definition signals to be sent wirelessly to display devices. This means that all you need is a power outlet and a small receiver at your television set; all the other devices in your home entertainment system can use WHDI to send the picture (and sound if necessary) to your television.

We’ve had this level of convenience for a while now with wireless surround sound speakers, but it’s great that this technology is becoming practical for the more-demanding video part of the equation. Solutions like HDMI could help lead to two important developments in our living rooms.

First, it makes it more practical to put the entertainment components next to the seating area where they are easy to reach, instead of across the room next to the television. If you want to watch a DVD, doesn’t it make more sense to have it in an end table next to the sofa, or built into the coffee table?

The other idea is a bit more radical; maybe the time has come for “dumb” TVs. All most people need these days is a big display. They don’t need tuners because they don’t connect their sets to an antenna. They don’t need their televisions to have Internet support because so many other devices already provide that function (or it’s inexpensive to add using a network media player). And the TVs don’t even need to have complex scalers or video processing built in; other devices such as Blu-ray players already have those features, and can take care of the task of converting other signals into a simple 1080p stream that a dumb TV can understand.

So with just a power plug and a single HDMI port (or built-in WHDI support), a dumb TV would be ready to do just about everything that the average U.S. viewer would want from it. Let the intelligence and source switching be handled by some other box in the room. What do you think? We have nothing to lose but our wires!

Panasonic Dozen-Foot Diagonal Display

Once again, Panasonic has move the goalposts in the “Mine Is Bigger than Yours” contest. The latest is a 145-inch diagonal plasma television; that’s more than 12 feet from corner to corner. According to a news report by Tech-On, the behemoth was a joint effort with NHK (Japan Broadcasting System) and was produced in one of Panasonic’s idle plasma panel fabrication lines. It’s not a big surprise that NHK is involved, because they have been at the forefront of higher-than-1080p resolutions for a long time.

There are several points of interest about this demonstration. First and foremost is the resolution; the panel has 7,680 by 4,320 pixels. I’ve done the math for you already, and that is the equivalent of sixteen 1080p resolution panels tiled together. The tiled panels would be only about 36-inches diagonal apiece, which is on the small size for current plasma products. As a result, the display has a pixel pitch of 60 ppi, which is smaller than a typical 42-inch plasma. This means that each sub-pixel is smaller and has less surface area for phosphors, which would mean that the panel can emit less light per pixel. This is one of the limitations of plasma technology.

One detail that is a surprise is that Panasonic engineers have come up with a way to divide up the scanning signals for these panels. Apparently they scan multiple horizontal lines at the same time, in order to refresh the 4,320 lines without flickering.

Finally, the article quotes Yoshio Ito, director of Display Devices Business Group and senior vice president at AVC Network Co, Panasonic: “It is possible to experience video with realistic sensations from a distance of 1.6 meters, which is the optimal viewing distance.” That’s just over five feet, folks. (That’s just about the distance that I’d recommend for a 36″ 1080p screen, which would have the same pixel size.) So I don’t want to hear any more complaints when I recommend a bigger screen for your viewing distance; here’s the SVP from Panasonic saying that five feet from a 12-foot diagonal screen is “optimal.”

Pay for Online Purchases with Cash

From the What Will They Think of Next Department:

Do you enjoy the convenience of shopping in your BVDs at any hour of the day or night, but still feel a little queasy about sharing your credit card information on the Interwebs? Are you the type who thinks that “left pocket, right pocket” is all you need to know about domestic bookkeeping? Do you still prefer to use old-fashioned “folding green” to pay for your purchases?

If so, here’s a back-to-the-future innovation from Walmart that you’re going to love: pay for your online purchases with cash! No, they don’t come out to your house and install a tiny reverse-ATM on your computer. Instead, you place your order online, and then you have 48 hours to get to any store to pay for your purchase. Walmart will then ship your order; you can choose to have it shipped directly to your home or to the nearest store.

According to the Walmart press release, the FDIC reports that about a quarter of U.S. households do not have access to a credit card or bank account. For these people, cash is the most convenient payment option. Until now, however, this has left them shut out of the larger product selection and special discounts available through online shopping at Walmart’s website.

So when you’re shopping for your next consumer electronics device — or perhaps even an HDTV — you now have the option to shop online and still pay with cash.

Best Buy Breaks More Bad News

The fourth quarter of every year for consumer electronic retailers is like the rainy season for farmers; it’s a make-or-break time of year when you have to compensate for the slower sales from the other three quarters. So it was like the  Dust Bowl when Best Buy posted a $1.7 billion loss. This is not quite as bad as it might seem, because their fiscal year ends on March 3, so this only includes December’s sales from last year. Also, the bulk of the loss was due to one-time charges for items including its mobile phone business and the closure of its big box stores in the United Kingdom.

All the same, $1.7 billion is a big number, and the company has announced plans to deal with the loss. It will close 50 of its United States big box stores this year and cut about 400 additional jobs. In spite of these $800 million cuts, the company expects to increase its presence by opening more stores with much smaller footprints.

Clearly, the landscape for consumer electronics retailing is changing in this country. There appear to be more forces at work than just the down economy, as the Internet gives consumers more places to shop and to compare prices. Best Buy is trying to survive these shifts, but looking at the recent history of retailers such as Circuit City, CompUSA, and 6th Ave Electronics suggests that this could be a challenging task.

My HDTV Buying Advice [a Slashdot video]

Do you ever wonder what I tell people when they come up to me at a party and ask “What should I buy as my new television?” The website Slashdot wondered, and they commissioned a video interview of me that they call “HDTV Expert Alfred Poor Tells You What to Buy and What Not to Buy“. (The interview was conducted, recorded, and edited by my friend and colleague Robin Miller.)

I won’t recap the whole conversation here, but at the end, you’ll find out the specs for the television that I would buy today if I were replacing our current television.

The big news, though, is about what happens when a story about your site ends up on the home page of Slashdot, like mine did yesterday. Because there was a link to the HDTV Almanac in the piece, curious visitors flocked to this site. Perhaps I should say “flooded” the site, sort of like a digital tsunami. Within an hour of the video being posted, my site was down because the monthly bandwidth allocation had been exhausted. (Needless to say, that has never happened before.) Thanks to the great folks at our hosting service, Advanced Network Hosts, the site was back up and running in just minutes. By the end of the day, more than 12,000 visitors dropped by to check out the HDTV Almanac yesterday.

So if you encountered a strange error message yesterday, or perhaps the site loaded a little slower than usual, that’s what was going on. And if you’re one of the new visitors who cam here by way of Slashdot, thanks for dropping by! I hope you’ll keep checking back for the latest independent news and commentary on HDTV and related home entertainment topics.

I write about lots of different technology stuff that I find interesting; please consider following me on Twitter — @AlfredPoor – or Google+ — Alfred Poor — to hear about some of my latest articles.

We Control the Channel! (Well, We’re Trying)

Are you old enough to remember the opening sequence of “The Outer Limits”?

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. [Source: Wikipedia]

Well, it’s not science fiction, but the major television brands are trying to exert control of their own. Instead of trying to control the image, however, they hope to control the channel. And by this, I don’t mean the broadcast channel; they hope to reign in the retail channels.

Panasonic, Samsung, LG, and Sony each announced new pricing policies recently. The Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) has been a common fixture in consumer electronics in recent years, but retailers were free to set the actual selling price for most models. The manufacturers protected their higher-margin specialty vendors by having certain models that only they could sell. The high-end custom installer business has taken it on the chin in the past ten years, however, and it has become more or less a free-for-all in the market.

As a result, the manufacturers’ profits have been squeezed down to paper-thin margins. Now, they are trying to put the genie back in the bottle. The plans vary from one company to the next, but in general, they are setting minimum sale prices for specific models. In most cases, these apply only to the premium models in the product lines, though some mid-priced models are included as well. And the stick behind the policy is that any retailer who ignores these limits risks losing the right to purchase the products wholesale. If this works, both the manufacturers and the authorized retailers may see slightly better margins on these products with protected pricing.

We’ve seen this attempted before in other industries. I remember the early days of the personal computer when the major brands were facing competition from inexpensive brands. The result was a strong gray market for the “price controlled” products, where retailers would purchase more units than they needed in order to get a price break, and then would sell off the excess inventory to other unauthorized discounters.

Will the TV makers be able to make these new policies stick? My guess is that in the long run they can’t, but for now it could mean that finding a bargain on some models will become more difficult, and your manufacturer’s warranty may not be valid if you purchase from an unauthorized dealer. If you plan to purchase one of the top-of-the-line models from one of these brands, plan on spending a little extra care when you shop.

More Bad News for Sears

Times have been tough for Sears Holdings, the company that owns Sears and Kmart retail stores. In the fourth quarter of 2011, which is the season that retailers hope to post most of their profits for the year, Sears reported a loss of $2.4 billion. As a result, the company is looking to raise money by shedding some of its assets. According to the company’s announcement, it plans to sell an additional 11 stores in 2012. In addition, it will spin off the Hometown and Outlet stores. The company also plans to reduce inventory and implement other cost-savings measures.

This is not good news for the company and its shareholders, but it could mean that you’ll want to keep a close eye on sales at your local Sears stores. It’s possible that they may have to move some of there electronics inventory at aggressive discounts in order to raise some cash, and you might be able to snag some attractive bargains.

A Sound Idea

Futuresource Consulting has just released a free analysis report that highlights their observations about consumer electronics products and trends at CES 2012. One of the points that they made in their announcement press release caught my attention:

Ever-thinner TV displays boosted interest in speakers, soundbars and home theatre systems.

I confess that I’ve been a bit puzzled over the fascination with thin when it comes to HDTVs. I understand that it’s cool, and that it generally results in a set that weighs less, but those don’t strike me as compelling features. When you think about it, the thickness of the display is one of the few features that you can’t discern when you’re actually using the product. From straight on, a 4 mm-thick OLED display looks the same depth as a “bulky” rear-projection display.

Now the Futuresource report points out another drawback for thin TVs. I grant that the sound system quality for most flat panels rivals that of the dashboard speaker in my 64 Mustang, but making the drivers ever thinner can’t help matters any. I remember Pioneer engineers showing me all sorts of clever designs they had to get better sound out of a flat panel HDTV, but is it really worth the effort? In many cases, a $25 desktop computer speaker set with a subwoofer will outperform the sound quality of the flat panel. If I thought it would save them some money, I’d recommend that manufacturers just drop the charade and sell their thinnest TVs without speakers at all. (Howver, I suspect that they’re not spending enough on the sound components to make much difference.)

So while you’re dreaming of a razor thin HDTV for your living room, remember to budget a little for a separate sound system; there are some bargains in compact home theater surround sound packages. You don’t listen to the movie soundtrack through an AM radio at the local cinema, and you should not have to do the same at home, either.