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Originally published January 5, 2014 at 9:46 PM | Page modified January 6, 2014 at 12:03 PM

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Tune into Consumer Electronics Show for TV breakthroughs

The product that appears most ready to break through and enter the most homes over the next year is the “ultra-high-definition” TV, which provides roughly four times higher resolution than the plain old “high definition” TV sets people have been buying over the past decade.


Seattle Times technology columnist

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It's not surprising that 3D and OLED flopped, because most people quickly realized that... MORE

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We may have a solution to global warming at hand.

When things get too hot to bear, we can try bouncing the sun’s energy back into space by laying our flat-panel TVs, tablet computers and smartphones out on our roofs and yards.

At the rate things are going, we’ll soon be able to blanket most major cities with LCD panels.

This year and next, the gadget factories in Asia will use nearly 300 million square meters of the stuff, according to research firm NPD DisplaySearch.

That’s more than enough material to cover Seattle with a giant reflective glass umbrella.

Besides, we’ve got to make room for the newer, bigger and better TVs and computerized gadgets being unveiled this week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Battery-powered cars, wearable computers and tablets in all shapes and sizes are among the goodies that companies will be pitching to the 150,000 retailers, distributors, reporters and others making the pilgrimage.

But the product that appears most ready to break through and enter the most homes over the next year is the “ultra-high-definition” TV, which provides roughly four times higher resolution than the plain old “high definition” TV sets people have been buying over the past decade.

There’s really no urgent need for one of these TVs. There isn’t a lot of 4K content available yet and there are extra costs involved. Yet the picture quality on 4K sets can be strikingly brighter and more vivid, even mesmerizing if you can afford the upgrade.

These sets — referred to as “UHD” or “4K,” because they have nearly 4,000 lines of vertical resolution — trickled into the market in 2012 at ridiculous prices. Over the past six months they’ve fallen below $5,000 for large sizes from premium brands, and this week at CES, Polaroid will present a 50-incher priced at just $1,000.

Overall prices for 4K sets should average around $2,000 in North America this year and $1,100 worldwide, according to NPD.

As prices fall, sales climb. The number of 4K sets sold jumped from 30,000 in 2012 to around 3.1 million units in 2013, and this year will reach 20 million, according to research firm iSuppli.

It’s risky to predict the next big thing in TVs, which face the same challenges and sluggish sales as personal computers: Most people have a pretty good one by now and don’t see much reason to upgrade. Meanwhile, many have bought tablets, gaining another way to watch video.

This cannibalization never ends. Tablet sales are expected to slow next, because the market is saturating and people are turning to jumbo phones.

But at the end of the day we’ll still end up in front of the telly, and somehow people will find enough money and space for the biggest one possible.

In the U.S., people tend to buy a new TV every seven or eight years. Currently, more than 70 percent of homes have flat-panel sets that are on average only three years old, according to NPD.

No wonder the “big things” highlighted at CES the past few years fizzled.

One was TVs using the wafer-thin but wallet-busting OLED display technology. They’ve been making a splash at CES for seven years running but remain out of reach for most buyers.

TV makers also tried pushing 3D capabilities. It never took off but lives on as a little-used feature in higher-end sets. New 3D sets that don’t require glasses are expected at CES, but they still seem like a novelty.

Curved TVs will also be talked up this week, but the benefits — a purportedly more immersive experience — aren’t as clear and to me don’t outweigh the limitations a curved screen puts on placement and viewing angles.

Upgrading to a 4K set seems more natural and it doesn’t require headsets. But there are likely to be additional costs beyond the TV itself.

New cables are being produced to handle the bigger digital load of 4K video, and companies will be pushing new video players and services handling 4K content.

Movies are being shot in 4K, but most of the material you’ll watch on a 4K TV is likely to be lower resolution, perhaps 1080p content that’s been upscaled.

True 4K content also carries a premium price — even more premium than the extra dollar or two you pay today to rent a high-def movie. Sony in September launched a 4K streaming video service with about 100 movies that it rents for prices starting at $7.99.

Once 4K goes mainstream, it will also give Netflix, Comcast and others an opportunity to add a higher-priced tier for higher-resolution content.

Technologies to compress and stream 4K content are still evolving, including one that Google will reportedly be pushing at CES this week.

But even compressed, 4K content will put a new burden on our broadband infrastructure, which is already strained by online consumption of movies and TV shows.

I’ll bet this leads to more monthly limits on broadband services and tiered pricing schemes. Politicians will continue fretting about the need for faster broadband, but maybe they’ll stop pretending that it’s needed for health care and education.

The biggest challenge of all, though, will be figuring out what to do with the hundreds of millions of plain old 1080p TV sets we bought in the past few years.

Someone in Seattle will probably figure out a way to recycle and sell them as roof tiles or green coffee tables, and use the proceeds to buy a new 4K TV.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com



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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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