TVs typically make the most noise at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but cutting through the breathless marketing hyperbole can be a challenge. That said, if you look at year-over-year changes and patterns within layers of TV spec data, you can spot a few emerging trends.
We compiled specs for more than 70 TVs either demoed or announced at CES 2015, from the heart-stopping models that dominated the show floor to quieter models buried in press releases. In particular, we focused on five of the biggest brands: Samsung, LG, Sony, Sharp and Panasonic. We then compared what we discovered to data from years' past to make some educated guesses about where the industry is heading.
4K is the new normal
We were expecting to see a lot of 4K TVs at CES; we just didn’t expect to see this many. Of the 71 CES TVs we gathered specs for, 92 percent had resolutions of 4K or higher. Compare that to a year ago, when 4K was more of a hot novelty than a show floor standard.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that 4K TVs will make up 92 percent of each company’s 2015 lineup—CES announcements heavily skew toward new technology, and standard 1080p sets will inevitably still be the best sellers at BestBuy in 2015. But the day when 4K resolution becomes the new baseline standard could be closer than you think. For example, LG confirmed that more than 60 percent of its 2015 lineup will feature 4K resolution.
See LG’s CES show floor TV lineup in the chart below.
For reference, “4K” refers to the approximate number of horizontal pixels on the TV display. Normal HD sets have a horizontal pixel count of 1920 and vertical count of 1080, which is where the term 1080p comes from. Most 4K TVs double those pixel counts for each axis—for example, 3840 for the horizontal axis and 2160 for the vertical axis. While some 4K TVs will feature even more pixels, 3840 on the horizontal axis is generally considered the minimum required amount for “4K.”
TV screen sizes are holding steady
Between 2000 and 2010, the average TV’s screen size increased significantly, from just more than 30 inches in 2002 to 47 inches in 2010. (Note that these averages are based on individual models on the market, not total sales.) Since then, the market has held more steady, fluctuating between 45 and 52 inches.
At CES 2015, however, the average screen size among the 71 show floor TVs we compiled was 63 inches, which seems like a big jump at a glance. Indeed, the average screen size was 52 inches at CES 2014, and 45 inches at CES 2103.
In reality, however, that 11-inch increase from CES 2014 to 2015 is perfectly in line with what we call the “show floor bump.” It’s the same phenomenon you’ll see if you ever go shopping for TVs at Costco: In a sea of televisions, bigger looks better, so manufacturers tend to showcase their largest products.
For these reasons, we expect 2015’s average TV to fall right around 50 inches, just like last year. It seems that most TV shoppers ultimately don’t want a 70-inch display—at least for now.
Price per inch has been dropping, but 4K could change everything
After delving into screen-size creep, we turned to price-per-inch—or the cost for a single diagonal inch of a TV’s display. Price-per-inch numbers have been falling rapidly for the last five years, which makes sense: If we’re getting the same technology and the same basic features, the cost to make a display should only go down over time.
At CES, however, the average price-per-inch of our 71 surveyed TVs was $42. That nearly matches the 2010 rate, and is more than double what we saw in 2014.
To wit: In 2010, the average price-per-inch was $44. Back then, you paid a lot of money for emerging technology. But between 2011 and 2013, the price-per-inch numbers dropped from $37 to $33 to $27. Prices bottomed out at $20 last year, then rocketed back up to $42 at the show this January.
We should mention that the “show floor bump” shouldn’t be nearly as significant here. Sure, there might have been some slight price padding among manufacturers—say, aiming a bit high at the show before reducing prices in stores. But for the most part, the price-per-inch increase ties into the fact that this year’s show floor TVs were stuffed with ultra-high resolutions.
Indeed, the phenomenon here has nothing to do with size, and everything to do with 4K. TV manufacturers feel comfortable charging exorbitant prices for sharper resolutions, and they’re hoping customers feel just as comfortable paying the higher rates. And in fairness, even if manufacturers are only doubling their horizontal and vertical resolutions, this works out to four times the number of pixels. There are roughly 2 million pixels in an HDTV versus 8 million in a 4K TV.
Of course, TV makers are hoping that 4K won’t go the way of 3D, a similar (but failed) attempt to squeeze more money out of the everyday TV shopper. If there’s any silver lining for the 4K nonbelievers, it’s that the cost of “standard HD” sets should continue to fall, regardless of what happens with 4K.
Curvy and thin is in
The more we demoed TVs at CES, the more we felt like we’d left the world of tech for the fashion industry. From thin profiles to subtle curves, virtually every TV manufacturer was anxious to prove the same point: What’s on the outside counts just as much as what’s on the inside.
Predictably, Samsung was the curviest of the bunch, doubling-down on its flagship curved U8500 television from CES 2014 with a 2015 show floor filled with bendy, twisty displays. By our count, well over half of Samsung’s space featured a device with some sort of curve.
Not to be outdone, Sony emphasized thinness, another unsurprising move, given the petite pedigree of Sony’s Xperia phone and tablet lines. Their most hyped TV? The Sony XBR-65X900C, featuring a depth dimension thinner than an iPhone 6.
Finally, LG countered with the 77EG9900, a TV boasting a thin design, curved screen, and the ability to adjust to a flat style on the fly. Even if the constantly adjusting display set was a little gimmicky, the whole concept was undeniably cool.
All that said, we don’t feel entirely confident about the longevity of curved TVs. We do expect TVs to keep getting thinner and lighter, but we’ll have to wait another year or two to see if the curved, razor-thin display is here to stay.
Smart will soon be default
With Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go humming along, TV manufacturers are responding to the likes of Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV with much more enthusiasm. Of all the show floor TVs we tracked, we confirmed that at least 79 percent come with Smart TV features out of the box. In the end, that number is likely to be even higher, but a few of the high-concept models don’t have full spec and feature lists ready to go.
Add in the fact that Dish’s Sling TV—a $20 monthly streaming service for live channels like ESPN, CNN, and Disney—won the Best of CES award, and 2015 figures to be a particularly bad omen for cable providers. Even if customers are slow to cut the cord, a new 50-inch, 4K set with a curved screen and a built-in Netflix app may be all the convincing they need.