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14 January 2021

MiniLED minefield envelops CES media day

CES media day can only be described as a microLED minefield. Back-to-back virtual press presentations from all the usual electronics giants risked blurring into one as Faultline flitted from Hisense, to LG, to Samsung in a swirl of similar slides, then onto almost identical proceedings from Panasonic, Skyworth, and TCL.

Very little set the six apart at the opening day of CES, with each boasting their own breakthroughs in the next generation of panel technology to take microLED/miniLED technology into the mainstream.

Some splashed budgets on impressive visual effects, with a pair of horses even gracing the stage at one point, while others embraced the first all-digital CES with reserved decorum.

Hisense had the honor of opening Monday’s media day and the Chinese multinational corporation was arguably the most ambitious of the electronics heavyweights, with VP Fisher Yu going big on laser TV and what the company is coining the “TriChroma” era of TVs.

Unveiling its ULED Mini-LED TV range at CES 2021, in both 4K and 8K models, Hisense is claiming breakthroughs in silicon technology that will allow it to mass produce chips for Mini-LED TVs. In short, miniLED technology is the latest development of backlight technology behind the LCD panel – where thousands of smaller LEDs can light up smaller areas of a screen to produce higher contrasts and brighter colors. Mini or MicroLEDs are an evolution from edge-lit TVs and in turn allows the panel itself to be thinner by using ultra small elements.

Hisense’s new Mini-LED TV series was, however, playing second fiddle to the company’s laser TV ambitions. This is contentious given that miniLED panels look a more lucrative area in the consumer electronics market, with convenience and falling prices of panel-based TV sets consistently coming head and shoulders above what projection-based display technologies currently offer.

We cannot fault Hisense’s ambition though, flaunting the latest iteration from its laser TV department – TriChroma Laser TV – exactly five years on from unveiling its first generation laser TV. This works using a short-throw projector positioned below the screen itself, which to the untrained eye would look like a traditional set top.

Hisense spent plenty of time at this week’s all-digital CES trying to justify its own decisions. It claimed rapid growth since 2015, citing that overseas sales of laser TVs increased 288% in 2020 across 17 countries, including the US, Mexico, and Australia. Of course, Hisense presenters did not reveal shipment figures, so a 288% increase of very little would still be very little.

Hisense was also the only of the big six electronics firms to directly call out its chief rivals, but instead of using the opportunity to undermine the competition, Hisense sought to back up its own R&D efforts. The presentation referenced Samsung launching 4K laser products, followed by LG quickly expanding its laser TV product line, and then Sony joined the party, recently launching a 4K laser product targeted at the high-end TV market.

We got the impression Hisense is attempting to capitalize on the demise of cinemas over the past year, noting that laser TVs share technology origin with cinema screens.

The TriChroma Laser TV display technology contains and controls every laser within the screen separately for purer color display, while the RGB laser achieves a 128% wider color gamut. The big claim is that the TriChroma Laser TV range is the first display of its type to meet the BT.2020 color standard set by the ITU.

LG was up next, picking up on themes from CES shows gone by of artificial intelligence and the ThinQ app, which it claims has evolved into a fully-fledged lifestyle platform expanding out from the TV as the nucleus of the smart home.

LG described its own MiniLED play as the most advanced LG TV technology to date. Called the LG QNED, the latest panel technology from the South Korean firm features MiniLED technology in ultra-large sizes – again promising brighter pictures, deeper blacks, and stronger colors. “The only way for LED to bet bigger is for details to get smaller and more precise,” was the message from LG’s CES presentation.

LG also flexed the muscles of its fourth generation Alpha-9 intelligent AI processor, of which the original version was a big upgrade on the Alpha-7 when it was embedded in 2018 TV sets. Into 2021, the new processor pledges to bring improved upscaling using deep learning, as well as a feature called AI Picture Pro which detects and processes scene background objects independently for better rendering. This feature can automatically detect content genre and scene conditions and ambient light conditions.

Gaming is also high on LG’s new year agenda, teasing that Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce Now features will arrive on TV sets later this year.

Faultline then had to double take as a virtual presenter took to LG’s stage, pining for the return of her glamorous lifestyle as a well-traveled social media influencer, which is kind of strange with her being virtual and everything, but it was a neat gimmick from LG.

Despite being the largest of the companies strutting their stuff at CES Media Day, Samsung’s showcase was the most disappointing of the bunch. CES is typically a place where companies come to brandish their entire product portfolios, which often means the big-hitters are guilty of overcomplicating their CES presence when a streamlined focus would be better suited.

Cramming a year’s worth of product developments into one brick and mortar trade show spanning five days is difficult enough, let alone a 30-minute virtual presentation. Samsung did reveal that its MicroLED TV technology will become available in March 2021, in line with the competition, with a focus on making the TV set customizable to lifestyles. Samsung plans to tie in customizable services that adapt around daily routines.

Panasonic had probably the least emphasis on TVs from the six, although its new JZ2000 OLED TV was on display, featuring an improved processor using AI to identify the type of content being displayed from where it optimizes picture and sound quality accordingly. Like LG, the new OLED TV suite is built for gamers, with the Japanese giant describing gaming as the best way to socialize safely during a pandemic.

 

Circling back to China, Skyworth enjoyed running us through its OLED journey before revealing its new line up of 2021 TVs. After establishing its OLED laboratory, Skyworth launched China’s first OLED TV in 2013. Then by 2015, the company had mass produced 4K OLED TVs, pushing OLED technology into UHD interfaces and in the years since has succeeded in breaking into North America, where it boasts achieving a 136.9% increase in online sales last year and is intent on cementing its position as an established TV brand in this part of the world.

This year, Skyworth will release five new series of TVs featuring 16 different models, including a new 4K OLED series.

However, the company seemed more excited about the arrival of Android TV 10 OS on Skyworth TVs, providing access to over 700,000 movies and Google Search to access multiple streaming services. Skyworth cited new apps coming soon like Google Duo, for staying connected with loved ones, and of course AV1 codec support to stream 4K content over lower bandwidth.

Last but not least was TCL, another Chinese state-owned electronics firm that was this week’s surprise takeaway.

 

Among all the big claims being thrown around at CES, TCL’s argument that it launched the world’s first miniLED TV in 2019 sends out a significant message to its larger rivals which have invested heavily in developing the technology and in promoting their own miniLED developments at this year’s show.

TCL introduced the OD Zero Mini-LED technology at CES 2021, using thousands of local zones to adjust brightness in real-time in corresponding backlight areas. The ‘Zero’ in the OD Zero product name represents the distance between the LED backlight and the diffuser plate (LCD display layer) within the TV panel, which typically has a distance of between 10mm to 25mm. TCL has managed to crush this distance down to 0mm, claiming that such a feat was impossible before TCL developed smaller LEDs with more light sources, which allowed it to minimize the distance between the light source and the panel.

As well as improving the consistency of brightness, it decreases the thickness of the panel and allows TCL to shrink unsightly bezels down for a more invisible viewing experience.

Also on display among the strong TCL portfolio was a 6.7-inch AMOLED rollable display, the world’s first printed OLED scrolling display, and the company’s first Google TV which will arrive to market later this year.

Bizarrely, TCL issued a press release shortly after its virtual CES appearance to quash rumors that it had withdrawn from the North American market, which were started by a South Korean media outlet called Money Today.

“The company has entered the North American markets for many years, and its business in North America is currently carried out as planned. In the future, the company’s business strategy in the North American markets will remain unchanged and will be further strengthened,” stated TCL.

Sony’s absence was the elephant in the room (or not) from Monday’s CES 2021 Media Day – as the Japanese giant preferred to conduct its own series of CES announcements and showcases independently of the digital venue.