Curved TVs: Gobsmackingly great or goldbrick gimmick?

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From CRTs to OLEDs, TV manufacturers have continuously redefined our most beloved appliance, and now they’re literally throwing us another curve: Curved screens that promise to deliver an immersive IMAX-like experience in the living room. Backed by a healthy dose of hype and a smattering of scientific evidence, these sleek sets carry huge price tags—in some cases 30- to 40 percent more than comparably sized flat-screen TVs. Let's take a deeper look at what they offer.

The eyes have it

If you believe LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony, curved TVs aren’t just pleasing to the eye, they are what the eye craves. The crux of the “more immersive” argument has to do with the shape and structure of the human eyeball.

Though TVs have evolved to employ a flat screen, your eye is round. That means your field of vision isn’t limited to what is directly in front of you but also takes in the action happening at your sides. Curved TVs purport to replicate this real-world experience by wrapping the image around you and making you feel more enveloped by what’s on the screen.

They eye’s anatomy also plays a part. Our retinas contain two types of photoreceptors called cones and rods. In simplest terms, cones are responsible for our color sensitivity and are concentrated at the center of the retina; rods, both more sensitive and numerous, perceive motion and are denser on the periphery. A curved screen's wider field of view is said to better stimulate the rods in our eyes, “activating our senses to perceive amazing panoramas rivaled only by the natural vistas of our great outdoors,” according to Samsung.

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To get maximum benefit from a curved screen, you need one that's at least 70 inches wide (measured diagonally).

The upshot of this biology lesson is you will perceive greater depth (because the image exists on multiple planes), richer contrast, (because the curve focuses the light toward the viewer rather than dispersing it over a wide area), and sharper images at the edges of the screen (because the curve tracks the shape of your eye).

Absolutely none of this is revolutionary. Many movie theaters have been using curved screens for years for all the same reasons. But as you’ll see, that doesn’t necessarily mean a similarly designed TV will deliver a more cinematic experience in your living room.

Size matters

Curved screens work in commercial theater environments, where the screen can run wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, because the entire audience sits within the curve. Everyone is “immersed.”

In a typical living room environment, with a smaller-but-more-affordable 55- or 65-inch curved TV, the immersive area is effectively reduced to a sweet spot directly opposite the center of the screen and at a slightly shorter viewing distance than for a comparable flat screen. In the typical home, that spot can only accommodate just one or two viewers.

Anyone unlucky enough to be seated outside that area will have a more, well, bittersweet viewing experience. In fact, once you sit around 35 degrees to either side of that sweet spot, the image closest to you appears foreshortened compared to the far side. Some viewers find this fatiguing as well as annoying because of the brain’s attempt to compensate for the distortion. Sit even farther to the side, and the screen's edge might completely block the near side of the image as it curls in front of it.

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Panasonic expects to ship its 4K Viera TX-CR730 curved-screen TV later this year.

That sweet spot, however, grows in direct proportion to the size of the TV. That means you can remedy most of these problems by buying—you guessed it—a bigger screen. By most accounts, 70 inches is the minimum size needed to experience the immersive effects of a curved screen, but be prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege: Samsung’s 78-inch 4K UHD HU9000 Series Curved Smart TV sells for $6000 at Amazon.

Reflections and distortions

While bigger is better, it doesn’t solve all the issues you can encounter with a curved TV. Two of the most troublesome are reflections and geometric distortions.

All TVs reflect ambient light. You know this if you’ve ever seen an image of your living-room torch lamp shining back at you from the corner of your flat screen. The problem can be caused by light fixtures, windows, ambient light bouncing off walls or picture-frame glass, brightly colored furniture or clothes—basically, any light source opposite the screen. Some folks meticulously design their living rooms—or pay big bucks for someone to do it for them—to minimize these reflection problems. Most of us, however, just live with them.

Reflections from a curved TV can be more difficult to ignore. Unlike a flat screen, which merely reflects the light source back at you, curved TVs act like a fun house mirror, enlarging and distorting the reflection across a much wider swath of the screen and making it near impossible to tune out. The only way to minimize this phenomenon is to give considerable thought to where you position your TV in relation to the room’s light sources and adjust as necessary. Even then, your best bet is to use the TV in as dark a room as is comfortable (cover your windows with room-darkening shades and invest in some smart dimmer switches or plug-in modules).

Reflections in an HDTV Michael Brown

Flat-screen TVs can turn into mirrors when there are sources of bright light opposite them. Curved TVs can be even worse. 

Other distortions are tougher to tackle. Some viewers have reported a bow-tie effect when viewing letterboxed content, with the top vertical black bar stretching up at the edges and the bottom bar similarly stretching down. The degree of distortion— and distraction—seems to depend on your viewing position. Similar distortions have been reported watching any type of content if your vertical viewing position is too high or too low.

Wall hang-ups

For all the technological advantages of flat-screen TVs, it’s easy to forget that a big reason consumers originally embraced them was that you could hang them on the wall where they took up a trivial amount of space. And unlike bulky, boxy tube TVs, flat screens are easier to incorporate into a room’s décor and easier to ignore when they're not in use.

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A curved TV hanging on the wall will look much different than a flat-screen TV will.

Many of the older curved TV models can’t be wall-mounted, and though some of the newer generation can, they look downright awkward that way. The curved edges extend out from the wall, eliminating any unobtrusiveness the thin screen otherwise affords. While that not a deal breaker for everyone, it’s something to consider if aesthetics are important to you.

Approach curves with caution

Manufacturers seem adamant that curved screens are the future of TV, but there’s plenty to be hesitant about. There’s enough truth to the claim they facilitate more immersive viewing that you can’t dismiss them as a gimmick, but given the amount you’d currently need to spend on a screen big enough to take advantage of the benefit—not to mention the size of the room needed to accommodate one—they’re definitely a luxury.

If you don’t mind paying a premium to bring tomorrow’s TV into your home today, make sure you get at least a 70-inch model and only after you’ve carefully considered your viewing environment. Otherwise, give it another 12 months or so. By that time manufacturers will have worked out most of the kinks, or the curve will be passé and they’ll be ready to pitch you something entirely different.

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