CES 2021 TV Technology: Beyond 8K, Mini LED and Advanced Image Processing Dominate Trends

It’s strange to try to make sense of all the TV announcements at the virtual CES when you’re not able to actually look at the sets themselves. But as I think about what I’ve seen and heard at the various online press conferences, a few trends stand out.

Of course, it’s true that we’re seeing more 8K sets. PC Mag’s Will Greenwald explains how more affordable 8K TVs are coming, but why you probably don’t need one yet. I’m going to focus more on the underlying technologies that help make for a better picture.

On the technology front, the biggest leap seems to be that mini LED technology is going mainstream, with most of the major manufacturers incorporating this technology into a number of their premium and even mid-range sets.

Some background: the two basic technologies used in today’s displays (not counting projection TVs, which are a niche market) remain LCD (liquid crystal displays) and OLED (organic light-emitting diodes). As the name suggests, in an OLED display, the individual pixels are turned on and off, displaying the light. This allows for “perfect blacks” (because when the pixels are all off it doesn’t emit light) and maximum contrast, though not always the brightest display. These are now common in smartphone displays, but require a different process for larger displays, which is why OLED TVs, monitors, and laptop displays are typically premium products. The TV market is dominated by LCD displays, in which a backlight shines through a liquid crystal, a color filter, and in recent years, often “quantum dots” for more vibrant color. In the past few years, quantum dot technology, which brings with it better High Dynamic Range (HDR), has gone from being a premium feature to something you can expect in a lot of mainstream sets.

Almost all LCD TVs now use LED backlights (which is where the LED TV moniker comes from), and options include edge backlighting (where the LEDs are on the edge of the display) and “full array” backlighting where you have multiple LEDs behind the screen that act as multiple dimming zones, so you can turn down or off the backlight to get different levels). Mini LED allows a TV vendor to put many more individual LED lights behind the screen, thus giving it much more control over brightness in more discrete parts of the screen.

The technology has been around for a few years, but is becoming more mainstream. But it’s still a premium offering, available in the highest-end LCD TVs.

Samsung introduced a new line it calls Neo QLED, which adds mini LED backlighting to the quantum dot technology used in its existing QLED series, in what the company is calling Quantum Mini LED. Samsung says this will be 1/40th the height of a conventional LED, because instead of using a lens to disperse light, it will have very thin micro layers filled with more LEDs. This will be available in the firm’s flagship 8K and 4K models.

LG for the first time showed this in its new QNED Mini LED TV line, offering close to 30,000 LEDs and close to 2,500 diming zones in its highest-end LCD sets. This is now available in 4K and 8K sets from 65 to 86 inches. This is notable because the company talked a lot about the improved contrast and high dynamic range features, even as those are the selling points of its even higher end OLED line. QNED apparently stands for quantum nano-emitting diode, reflecting the fact that such sets also use quantum dot technology. (As far as I can tell, virtually every set that has mini LED also has quantum dots.)

TCL claims it was the first company to introduce mini LED in the U.S. in 2019, and this year introduced OD Zero mini LED with “tens of thousands” of mini LEDs and thousands of local dimming zones. The big change seems to be the “zero” referring to the distance between the top of the backlight and the LCD panel (diffuser plate), which TCL says is usually about 12mm. By lowering the optical distance, TCL says it can reduce crosstalk and provide a better picture. This will be available later this year.

Hisense as well talked about how it now offers mini LED and 8K in its ULED line. This line has always been distinguished by the large number of dimming zones.

Advanced Processors

The other technology that just about every major TV vendor was talking about involved improvements to the image processors that the TV use to improve picture quality, and to upscale images to 4K or 8K.

Neo QLED (Image: Samsung)new NeoQuantum Processor designed to take HD content and upscale it. This is said to use up to 16 different neural networks for different kinds of content. Samsung’s 2021 line will include a Game Bar, which lets players adjust the aspect ratio and optimizes game play. Another new feature makes it easier to connect your PC to your TV, or to directly access Office 365 through the TV’s web browser.

LG’s Alpha 9 Gen 4 supposedly uses AI Picture Processing to recognize objects such as faces and bodies and can tell the difference between foregrounds and backgrounds, to optimize the picture quality. LG calls this AI Picture Pro. The processor also includes new sound features, such as auto volume leveling, so the volume is consistent when you change channels, or switch from broadcast or cable TV to a streaming service.

Sony pushed its Cognitive Processor XR, an upgrade to the processor for its high-end Bravia XR line. The previous generation, the X1 processor, could detect objects in a scene, such as things like people, furniture, and backgrounds. The company says the XR version can now analyze multiple elements at once and compare these to an internal database to improve color, contrast, and detail, resulting in better pictures. It can also enhance sound quality to 3D surround sound. Sony will offer this in its high-end OLED and top-end LED TVs.

Other vendors also touted enhanced processing to improve sound and audio. For instance, Skyworth talked about how it was using DolbyVision IQ, designed to understand the content and ambient light to adjust the picture to the context.

Alternative Displays: Micro-LED, Laser Projection, and OLED

While LED-backlit LCDs dominate the market and are getting better with features such as quantum dots and mini LED, a number of vendors touted progress with alternative technologies.

One of these is Micro-LED, which actually is a very different technology from conventional LCDs. This uses modules of larger, light emitting RGB diodes to produce a picture, which is closer to OLED, but has higher brightness. The modules are larger, so to date it has mainly been used in very large digital signs, but is now shrinking so that it can be used in large and still very expensive TVs. Samsung made a big push for this a few years back with its “The Wall” technology, and more recently announced a 110-inch version. It is now being rolled out in 88- and 99-inch models, all with 4K resolution.

Projection TVs remain a niche part of the market. Hisense continued to stress its Laser TV line, a projection TV that uses RGB lasers to show pictures on screen. The company pushes how this allows for a very wide color gamut. The technology was first shown at CES in 2015 but has now been upgraded to work on screens up to 300 inches, with new models including features like a built-in camera for karaoke.

On the OLED front, LG introduced what it called OLED evo in its new G1 series, offering better luminosity and higher brightness. This will be used in an 83-inch set, with features such as auto volume level, and now G-Sync compatibility and a game optimizer, as well as the company’s new Alpha 9 Gen 4 display processor. LG’s OLED TV line covers 48 to 83 inches, and the company also announced a new 31.5-inch 4K OLED monitor.

Sony introduced new OLEDs as part of its Master Series, talking about how these are also brighter, and Skyworth too introduced a new high-end OLED set, its flagship 9300 OLED model.

Samsung, which makes a large number of AMOLED displays for phones but not for TVs, introduced new OLED panels for laptops, now including 13.4-, 14-, and 16-inch displays. It expects the number of OLED laptops displays will grow by 500 percent this year.

NXTPaperNXTPaper is a new reflective display (meaning it uses natural light, as opposed to backlights or LEDs) that offers full color but uses 65 percent less power than LCDs. TCL showed a table with an 8.8-inch 1,440-by-1,080 NXTPaper display that it plans to bring to some markets (but not the US) this spring.

Rollable Screens

The other big display technology that I found fascinating are rollable displays. These aren’t brand new this year. LG showed its rollable TV first in 2019 and actually introduced a TV in South Korea last year.

LG Rollable phonephone display that can expand and is widely rumored to be launching in a phone in a few months.

Meanwhile, TCL—which was going out of its way to show off technology demonstrations created with subsidiary CSOT—showed off a rollable phone with an AMOLED display that changes from a 6.7-inch phone to a 7.8-inch tablet, while keeping the phone less than 10mm thick, less than most foldable phones. It also showed a 17-inch printed OLED scrolling display being rolled up in a tube, and expanded to full size, including what it described as 100 percent color gamut. TCL said the display is just 0.18mm thick.

So far, I haven’t been completely sold on phones with foldable displays, nor have they made a huge impact on sales, but the concept is certainly appealing.

January 20, 2021
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