LAS VEGAS—Is it possible to have deja vu while staring into the future? For the second straight year, the CES show floor was dominated by the same two HDTV technologies. They're both being hyped as the next big thing, at least for oil tycoons and gold barons.
I'm talking about OLED and Ultra HD (or "4K") sets. And according to the vast majority of Las Vegas cab drivers I've surveyed this week, 4K and OLED sets are what most CES showgoers are talking about, too.
All that attention is warranted. If you've seen an OLED or 4K set in action, you probably want one. If you want one, you probably can't afford one. And if you can afford one, you probably should be watching it right now instead of reading this story. Shame on you, moneybags.
According to most people's eyeballs, OLED and Ultra HD sets produce a better-looking picture than you'll see on any of today's 1080p plasma or LCD sets. However, the picture quality of each type of set will blow your mind in a different way, and there are significant limitations for Ultra HD/4K sets in particular at this point.
The visible difference between OLED and 4K
They may both be hot TV buzzwords, but they're entirely different things. OLED is a display technology, while 4K is a display resolution. We've written about the technical differences between 4K and OLED; here, I'll translate what it means for your eyeballs.
On an OLED HDTV, colors pop like nothing you've seen before. There is no blacker black than the black you'll see on an OLED TV, and colors look vivid and twinkly against that pitch-black background. You also get ultra-wide viewing angles. Because of the display's fast response rate, fast motion looks fluid on the screen, and 3D content looks amazing. OLED TVs don't need a backlighting system, so they're the thinnest HDTVs on the planet; LG's first OLED set is less than 0.16 inches thick. An OLED display can also be malleable; both Samsung and LG showed off curved prototype OLED sets at CES 2013.
On the other hand, a 4K TV's strength is sharpness. There are four times as many pixels packed into the display as there are on a 1080p set, so you can see more granular detail than you can on a 1080p HDTV.
But even if you can afford a 4K set, you'll need the right set of circumstances to make it worth the investment. Unless the 4K set is really big or you're sitting very close to the TV, you may not be able to see much of a difference between the same picture displayed on a 4K set and a 1080p set.
What's more, many of the 4K TVs at CES were displaying true 4K video that isn't readily available to the public. Upscaled 1080p video from a Blu-ray player on a 4K TV looks a bit more defined than the same content on a 1080p HDTV, but you really have to be trying to find a difference.
If you want to thoughtfully examine the intricacies of a high-resolution image or read a book on your TV screen, you want a 4K TV. If you want your face pleasantly melted off by a majestic festival of light, OLED is the way to go.
A TV can be both a 4K and an OLED set, just like a 1080p TV can also be a plasma or LCD set. In fact, there were two 56-inch 4K OLED prototypes at the show: one from Sony, and one from Panasonic. The combination of tack-sharp 4K resolution, outstanding contrast, vibrant colors, and smooth motion exhibited by these prototype sets made my shoes fall off.
The first wave of OLED sets
LG will offer the first commercially available OLED HDTV this year with the 55-inch 55EM960V, a $12,000 set that's slated to hit the U.S. in March. Along with all the mesmerizing OLED magic, the 55EM960V features LG's high-end range of fancy in-set features, including its motion-and-voice-control Magic Remote, built-in Wi-Fi, a Web browser, app support, and passive-glasses 3D that might actually be worth watching.
Samsung will likely be next to market with the 55-inch F9500, an OLED set that cleverly tricks out its active-glasses 3D playback with a "Multi-View" feature that lets two people watch different channels on the same screen at the same time. It packs a quad-core processor, voice- and gesture-control features, and all the "Smart TV" whistles and bells. Two things it doesn't have are a price or release-date information.
Beyond that, it's hard to say who will offer OLED sets in the coming year, if anyone. Sony and Panasonic are the best bets, as the two companies have partnered up to develop OLED sets together, and their prototype 4K OLED showpieces were remarkably similar.
The first wave of 4K sets
Even though Ultra HD sets are faced with many more adoption hurdles than OLED in terms of available 4K content, sheer size, and prohibitive price, they're already available. Sony's 84-inch Bravia XBR-84X900 is on sale now for just $25,000, while LG's 84-inch 84LM9600 is a comparative steal at a mere $20,000.
For the extra $5000, Sony throws in a personal media server filled with 4K movies to watch on the XBR-84X900. At the show, the company also announced a Sony 4K World Ultra HD streaming and download service, which will somehow deliver 4K content to connected 4K TVs, assuming anyone's network can handle it. Sony also announced 65-inch and 55-inch additions to the XBR-X900 lineup at CES, which will be available this summer at unknown prices that are less than $25,000.
Slated for availability around the same time is Sharp's ICC Purios 4K set, which is the first Ultra HD TV with THX certification for reproducing 4K content as it was originally mastered. It's due in the summer for a mysterious amount of dollars, while a second Sharp Aquos Ultra HD set is due by the end of the year, also for (unknown, likely expensive price).
Toshiba will be active on the 4K front this summer as well with the 84-inch, quad-core-driven L9300, which has built-in Wi-Fi. The company is also planning to follow it up with 65-inch and 58-inch Ultra HD models.
Due in the second half of the year is Samsung's fetching S9 UHD TV, which will come in three humongous sizes propped up in a swiveling-blackboard-like frame: 85 inches, 95 inches, and 110 inches. Along with a quad-core processor and voice- and gesture-control features, it's the only 4K set announced at the show that has full-array LED backlighting rather than an edge-lit system. That means it will likely exhibit superb picture uniformity and cost even more thousands of dollars than you'd expect.
The most wallet-friendly 4K option of them all may come at the end of the year, thanks to Vizio. The company had its 70-inch XVT Ultra HD TV on display at this year's show, and the company is planning 65-inch and 55-inch versions of the set, as well.
Vizio says you can expect it by the holiday season, and although there's no pricing information just yet, the company's pricing schemes usually translate to excellent bang for the buck. With that in mind, here's hoping Vizio makes an OLED set soon.