Top 5 TV Trends at CES 2016

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One of the great things about the annual CES electronics trade show is that it helps set our expectations for technology in the coming year. At CES 2016, which kicks off January 5th in Las Vegas, a lot of the news will involve TVs. We should see televisions with brighter images that really pop thanks to high dynamic range (HDR) technology, the advent of 4K Blu-ray players, and new competition in the small but growing OLED TV business.

We'll also see new players competing for your attention. In the past year, struggling companies such as Sharp and Toshiba have given up on the U.S. TV market, licensing their brands to obscure-sounding TV manufacturers. (Have you heard of Compal, which now sells Toshiba TVs? We didn't think so.) Meanwhile, some Chinese companies, notably Hisense and TCL, are now pushing hard to build their own TV brands.

Here are details on the top TV trends we expect to see at CES 2016.

1. More Brands Will Offer OLED TVs

We're fans of OLED TVs—they dominated our list of the best TVs of 2015—but so far LG Electronics has been going it alone. We think that will change in 2016 as a few other brands jump into the OLED TV market. No companies have yet announced such plans, but we wouldn't be surprised if Panasonic and Sony were among them. It's also possible that some Chinese TV brands could enter the fray. In any case, we're hoping to see more companies offer OLED, so that manufacturing economies of scale and heightened competition can help drive OLED TV pricing lower.

2. The First 4K UHD Blu-ray Players Arrive

At CES last year, we were told the first UHD Blu-ray players would arrive by the end of 2015. For a variety of reasons—ranging from standards to licensing issues—that didn't happen. But we fully expect several companies to introduce their first UHD Blu-ray models in the first half of 2016. Panasonic and Samsung have already shown players, so they are the most likely early candidates. Sony might also join in early, since it owns a Hollywood movie studio. Prices for these early Blu-ray players won't be cheap, but they should come in under $500, which is less than we originally expected. Pricing will be important if Blu-ray players and discs are to compete with 4K streaming options, which will also expand in 2016. But 4K Blu-ray will have a key advantage over streaming media in one important regard: superior picture and sound quality.

But that's not the biggest reason that UHD Blu-ray matters...

3. More TVs Will Have HDR and Wider Colors

The best thing about the upcoming arrival of 4K UHD Blu-ray may be that it has helped push the industry toward finalizing UHD standards, including those for high dynamic range (HDR) and wider color gamuts. HDR is the term used to describe a wider range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks in an image, so contrast is significantly improved. Television manufacturers cite studies indicating that, for most people, HDR and a wider range of colors are more noticeable than increased resolution. Based on our own limited experience with HDR demos on a few Samsung and Sony UHD TVs, when done well the enhancements can sometimes be striking.

A small number HDR-ready sets have been around, but with the exception of a few film and video clips we use for testing and some HDR streaming there's been very little content available. One of the reasons was that there were at least three HDR technologies—from Dolby, Technicolor, and Philips—competing for acceptance.

The good news is that we expect that to change in 2016 as new 2016 UHD TVs support the SMPTE standards for HDR, which are named for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Those TV makers that also choose to support another HDR technology, such as Dolby Vision, will include that as an extra feature.

All TVs that conform to that baseline standard will be able to play SMPTE-based HDR content—and that frees up content providers, including Hollywood movie studios, to start investing more in HDR. In a separate effort, the CTA— the consumer electronics industry's trade association—is working with manufacturers to ensure compatibility between brands and different HDR-capable devices, so that if you buy a new Panasonic UHD Blu-ray player with HDR, for example, it will work fine with your Samsung UHD TV.

At CES, we expect almost all of the major TV brands to announce support for HDR in their top-of-the-line models, though we won't get the details‚ including how much more you'll pay for an HDR-capable set, until we're at the show.

To round out the technical discussion, we expect all new HDR-capable TVs to have HDMI 2.0a inputs, which will be required for transmitting HDR data. The sets will also support HDCP 2.2—the copy-protection scheme used for UHD content—ensuring that they can play 4K content from a UHD Blu-ray player or USB device.

HDR Confusion?

That all sounds good, but if you go shopping for an HDR set a few months from now, you will need to avoid some pitfalls. As it turns out, not all HDR displays will look equally vibrant.

In fact, while the CTA has focused on compatibility issues, another organization, called the UHD Alliance, has been working to develop performance benchmarks, meaning that the TVs will have to meet or exceed minimum levels of performance when it comes to things like HDR and a wider range of colors. The UHD Alliance is a diverse group, consisting of TV makers, Hollywood studios, distributors (such as DirecTV and Netflix), and technology companies, so its input should carry a lot of weight.

We'll find out more about the specific details at CES, but it appears that there will be two levels of HDR performance, including one for "premium" UHD TVs that are able to meet higher minimum quality specifications. One of the sticking points, we've heard, has been the issue of peak brightness, since OLED TVs don't get quite as bright as LED-backlit LCD sets. However, they are capable of much deeper blacks and therefore high dynamic range. We think that there will be a separate, slightly lower brightness requirement for OLED TVs.

But in a potentially confusing scenario for consumers, other UHD TVs that don't meet the "premium" specifications for things such as HDR and wide color may be designated as "HDR-compatible" sets. This means that they won't have the all the necessary specifications to fully support HDR, but they can process the HDR metadata and make adjustments to their settings—such as those for brightness—to simulate an HDR-like experience.

Finally, there will also be some non-qualified UHD TVs that simply present a 4K image without any additional enhancements, such as HDR or a wider range of colors.

So when you go into a store or buy online, how will you know exactly what level of performance your TV can deliver? Again, the details will be announced at CES, but it appears that the UHD Alliance is developing a certification and logo program, so that TVs will be tested to make sure they meet certain performance benchmarks. TV makers will then be able to use a new logo, either on packaging or the TV itself, to let consumers know that the TV can meet either a premium or standard (or "ultra premium" and "premium") level of UHD (and HDR) performance.

How this will be handled will become a lot clearer at CES, and its certainly one of the things we'll be asking manufacturers about. But it's easy to imagine that consumers could end up facing a mess of new marketing jargon, especially if individual TV manufacturers start creating proprietary names to designate the different levels of performance. That would make TV shopping more confusing for everyone. We're hoping that the logo program will help make this clearer to those of us looking for a top-performing TV in 2016.

4. Chinese TV Brands Make Their Move

Chinese TV manufacturers have been on the rise globally for several years now. According to research group IHS Technology, both Hisense—which will control the Sharp TV brand in the U.S. as of January 6—and TCL are now among the world's top 10 LCD TV brands, trailing only Samsung, LG, and Sony. And their shares of the U.S. market are expected to climb in 2016.

Hisense, which now has a CES presence that rivals that of LG, Panasonic, and Samsung, may be the company to watch. This year, Hisense surprised many in the industry with a 65-inch "ULED TV," the Hisense 65H10B, a quantum-dot-based UHD set that did very well in our Ratings (and even better after a firmware update). At CES the company will show off new Hisense- and Sharp-branded TVs.

Another brand to watch: TCL, which originally entered the U.S. market using the RCA brand. Now the company is looking to promote the TCL brand. At CES last year the company showed a 55-inch UHD TV—the TCL 55H9700—that also used quantum dots, and which was billed as the first TV to use a 4K version of the Roku TV smart TV platform. As far as we can tell, the TV never shipped here in the U.S. but, like Hisense, TCL will be holding a CES 2016 press conference this year. We're looking forward to seeing what both companies have in store.

5. You'll Hear More About 4K Broadcast TV

We've already written a bit about ATSC 3.0, which will eventually be the new digital broadcast standard for over-the-air TV reception. It's something to watch because, at some point, the standard will be rolled out and the tuner in your current TV will no longer work. How long it will take is still something of a question, as standards still have to be finalized and broadcasters will need to upgrade their equipment and existing infrastructure.

Among the benefits of ATSC 3.0 are the ability to handle 4K broadcasts, greater interactivity, and the ability for signals to be sent to both fixed and mobile devices simultaneously. Over the past several months we've heard about a few ATSC 3.0 trials, and at CES we expect to see live demonstrations of 4K broadcasts, including some with HDR content. Since additional data streams can be sent along with video, we expect to get a glimpse of other imagined services.

That's our short wrap-up about some of the key TV trends we expect to see at CES 2016 in January. Our editorial and tech teams will be headed to the show, so keep checking back for all our coverage of the show.

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