CES 2010: Here Comes 480 Hz!

The arms race continues. When you have a product category where the competing products do not differ significantly, manufacturers must find a way to make their product stand out. Almost all televisions are now thin and flat and have 1080p resolution, so what can they do? Competing on price is difficult, with margins already cut thin and retail prices still dropping by 20% a year. So you have to make a difference with features. In most cases, consumers can’t see the difference in the image quality, so manufacturers have to rely on differentiation based on specifications. Everyone knows that a bigger number is better, so in terms that “Spinal Tap” fans will understand, manufacturers are figuring out ways to get their dials to go to “11”.

Leading the charge at CES 2010 was Toshiba, which announced a new line of CELL TVs. These are named for their CELL Engine processor, which reportedly packs 143 times the processing power of a typical HDTV. There’s no doubt that TVs are now being asked to perform a lot of complex calculations on the fly, and these new Toshiba sets can even convert 2D programming into 3D in real time.

But this processing power is also being used to attack LCD motion blur as well, raising the stakes with Toshiba’s “ClearScan 480” feature. Starting with the standard 60 frames per second (60 Hz) provided by the source signal, the processor creates three intermediate frames for each original frame. This results in an image with 240 frames per second (240 Hz).

Toshiba's new ClearScan 480 technology creates three new frames for each original frame, then uses a scanning backlight to simulate a 480 Hz image update rate. [Photo credit: Steve Sechrist]

The set then strobes the backlight at twice the frame rate (also known as “black frame insertion” or BFI), which simulates a 480 Hz refresh rate. I say that it simulates that rate, because it is not presenting 480 different frames per second: just 240.

The bigger question is whether or not you can see the difference between it and a 120 Hz LCD HDTV. I don’t think that it’s a big improvement, and I’m not at all sure that most users could see the difference, even with two sets side by side.

In any case, this is yet another salvo in the specifications war. Before long, we can expect to have LCD HDTVs that go all the way to “12”.