Sunday, January 20, 2013

Samsung and its rivals show off the future of TVs

Edward C. Baig
January 7, 2013

Tech titans Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook rarely come out of hiding at the annual International CES. And after years on center stage, Microsoft has pretty much applied for the CES equivalent of the witness protection program.

So with apologies to a formidable list of consumer electronics show stalwarts that includes LG, Panasonic, Sharp, Sony and Toshiba, Samsung is arguably the biggest of the Big Cheese consumer electronics mainstays left exhibiting at these proceedings.

Above all else, CES is still about televisions. Samsung, as much as any of its rivals, serves as a proxy for where the industry hopes to take you. The path leads to Ultra High-Definition models that boast four times the pixel count of today's 1080p HDTVs. Gee, it was only a few years ago that you cozied up to the thin — and yes, affordable — HDTV that now graces your living room.

Make no mistake, Samsung's upcoming 85-inch flagship UN85S9 UHD TV takes your breath away. It's just that you may have to take out a small mortgage to own this stunning TV, not that you can even buy it yet. Samsung isn't saying what it will cost or when precisely it will go on sale, but says the model will ship this year. I should also point out that there's precious little content out there to take advantage of all those extra pixels — a familiar chicken and egg scenario that slowed the launch of early HDTVs.

The splashy cutting-edge sets are expected to fetch in the $20,000 range, says tech and media analyst Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications. Still, if UHDs go the way of HDTVs — and myriad other consumer electronics categories before them — prices might drop sooner than may now seem likely, though I wouldn't bet a lot on the prospect. (I am in Vegas, after all.)

Samsung executive Joe Stinziano calls the TV a "statement piece" -- to my mind, code-language for, "if you have to ask what it costs, you can't afford it". He says the pixel density of the panels in the set is very expensive to manufacture.

Fortunately, the new TV flaunts other features that will be available on less-expensive 2013 models, notably a newly designed Smart Hub interface. Through the early years of Smart TVs, the various TV makers have done a generally mediocre job when it comes to screen interfaces, perhaps one reason behind all the talk of an eventual Apple-branded television.

My initial impression of Samsung's new Smart Hub is positive, though, as always, you can't really judge these things until you use it outside the boundaries of a trade show.

Samsung's Smart Hub consists of five panels: The "On TV" panel shows the channel you're watching now in a window that's adjacent to a half-dozen smaller windows representing other shows airing at the same time. Below are thumbnails revealing shows that are coming up. The visible content is based on Samsung recommendations generated from your viewing habits.

A "Movie & TV" panel, also based on your viewing history, reveals on-demand flicks, movies available to you as a subscriber to certain services, and material you may have purchased.

Other panels cover your personal "Photos, Videos and Movies," "Apps" (where you'll find Netflix, Hulu Plus, Spotify, Pandora, etc.) and "Social" (feeds and videos from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on).

You can manipulate the Smart Hub with a new remote that has a touch panel, as well as left-right, up-down slide bar controls.

Samsung also says the voice interaction in its latest TVs — advancing the state of the art from last year — has improved to the point where the TV understands complete sentences. You'll be able to say "I want to watch CSI" and the TV will serve up all the likely matches. Or you might say, "go to South Park," or, "go to ESPN," since the TV can distinguish the name of a show from a channel.

Inside the UHD TV (and other new models) is a quad-core processor that Samsung claims is 3.6 times faster than last year's dual-core models. No you won't change the channels any faster. But you can speed up the time when you stop watching a stream from one content provider and start searching on

It's fair to say that all the consumer electronics companies with a diverse portfolio of products at this show want you to keep it in the family. So it goes with Samsung. If you have Samsung phones, tablets or home appliances, for example, you can take advantage of "AllShare" features that tie the TV to compatible devices. Via an onscreen TV app, you might be able to monitor the wash cycle of your Samsung washer-dryer or change the temperature of the air conditioner without having to pause the TV content. Samsung will let you stream from the TV to one of its mobile phones.

Moreover, Samsung will soon start selling the Smart Evolution kits it announced at last year's CES, which will enable folks to upgrade certain 2012 (but not older) models to the quadcore generation. You get the new remote control as part of the kit, and can add the latest Smart Hub interface. The kit is likely to cost between $200 and $500, Samsung says.

Not that there's anything wrong with your current HDTV, which you'll be able to safely enjoy watching for quite some time. Samsung expects it to take several years before UHDs begin to overtake today's popular HDTVs. But UHD does reveal a lot about where Samsung, and its industry counterparts who are pushing the same or similar technologies, are directing the near and longer-term future of television.

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