The most promoted technology theme at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year is Ultra HD (also known as 4K) TVs.|
All major TV manufacturers — and some lesser-known makers, notably Chinese companies — are featuring 4K TVs in spectacularly large and elaborate displays.
For instance, Samsung built a huge tiered display for its new Ultra HD TVs with the 85-inch screens on the first level and 110-inchers on the second and third levels. The new TVs are suspended in swiveling stands, not unlike an ultra-modern version of a schoolroom chalkboard.
It's tough to get a feel for the scale of these larger-than-ever TVs, but even the smaller-sized screen would be wider than your typical family room sofa. Prices for the behemoths are expected to be about $25,000.
Ultra HD or 4K offers about four times the resolution as HDTVs. For now, there are two standards for pixel count, but it's enough to know that there are approximately 2,000 horizontal pixels on the screen, compared to 1,080 in full HDTVs.
Can you see the difference? Yes. Even with your nose right up against the screen, you won't see individual pixels as you do on an HDTV. Essentially, it's like Apple's iPad retina display for the TV.
However, it will be some time before we see 4K content — broadcast, streaming or physical media. In other words, this is a cool product, but still far too early in the market to be practical.
OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs have taken a backstage to the 4K hoopla, but LG will begin selling its 55-inch OLED TV in March for about $12,000 — still pretty steep for a TV.
Chinese companies may offer less-expensive alternatives for these cutting-edge technologies. For the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show, Chinese manufacturer HiSense was at the entrance to the Central Hall across from Intel, a spot that Microsoft had occupied for years.
HiSense showed off a 110-inch 4K TV, as well as smaller models. It also had Google TVs that act as a computer-TV combination, as well as a prototype for a glasses-free 3D TV. Another Chinese company, TCL, located across from Panasonic, also had sets with newer technologies, including Google TV. No prices were released, which is not unusual at the CES.
Voice control was offered by most TV manufacturers. But TV voice recognition comes nowhere near the likes of Siri on an iPad or iPhone. For instance, in Panasonic's soundproof demo room, voice commands were limited to simple things that must be said in a given sequence, such as "search stored content for 'The Avengers.'"
Keep in mind that only files you've stored in the system can be accessed — the search function won't work across apps such as Netflix. Gesture control was a big deal at Samsung, but again, didn't live up to the hype.
While not a headliner, Panasonic displayed a new plasma TV system that was far more exciting on the show floor than its brief demo at a news conference. Panasonic's new touch pen transforms the TV into a write-on board that holds great potential for family fun.
A pack of two pens will sell for $99 and are compatible with Panasonic's 2013 Viera TVs, ranging in size from 42 to 65 inches (no pricing yet). And with the iO and Android apps, drawings can be swiped easily to smartphones and tablets.
As for content, a CES panel composed of executives from Verizon, Starz Entertainment and DISH Network said the news was not good. While cable providers are aware that many customers can't or won't keep paying more for their cable services, and really want unbundled or a la carte channels, it's not going to happen, panelists agreed.
Two companies account for about 50 percent of the cost of content, according to Dave Shull of DISH. Without naming the providers, he said one was a company that had a logo with mouse ears.
Unbundled, the cost of the priciest channels would be spread across fewer subscribers, which would mean far higher prices. Mini packages of related shows such as outdoor sports and family programming that subscribers can pay for on top of basic cable are about as close to a la carte cable as the industry will get.
The panelists agreed that rates for cable can't keep rising at 8 to 9 percent per year. And the number of cord cutters and shavers (those that are cutting back on services and premium offerings) are growing, particularly among households with net incomes of $55,000 and less.
So if there's no real future for a la carte cable, how about making a mobile app such as HBO Go available without a subscription? John Penney, managing director of Starz Media, was adamant. "Absolutely not," he said. "You have to have a subscription somewhere and that's where we're going to stay."
Ogden, Utah-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question? Email Leslie Meredith at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her at AskLeslie on Facebook or Leslie Meredith on Google+.