Gadgetry goes into ultra-high (definition) gear
By The Washington Post
Published: Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
LAS VEGAS — Televisions wider than sedans and thinner than a deck of cards will be on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show here this week. They will be packed with so many more pixels that individual blades of grass will stand out on a football field, as will every pockmark and wrinkle on celebrities.
Computer screens will be small enough to fit on your wrist and durable enough to be stitched into clothing. They will come in flexible plastics that can bend and twist so that an e-book can be cupped in the palm of your hand.
America's seemingly endless appetite for new gadgets has fueled a boom in device innovation, particularly the size and quality of TVs and mobile electronics' screens.
LG unveiled a 55-inch TV that sports “ultrahigh-definition” resolution with four times the sharpness of regular HD television sets, kicking off what is likely to be a mini-obsession with the latest super-clear format at the annual International CES gadget show.
The model announced Monday is the smallest in a 2013 lineup that includes 65-inch and 84-inch versions. But the smaller size — and smaller price tag — begins the parade of TV makers that are seeking to bring ultrahigh definition to the masses.
Also known as “4K,” ultrahigh-definition screens are 3,840 pixels wide and 2,160 pixels tall, or more than 8 million in all. The higher resolution will let TV screens get larger without degrading picture quality, though initially the price tag will limit those sets to technology's early adopters.
LG said the 55-inch and 65-inch versions will be available later this year in the United States. No price was announced, but it will be less than $10,000. The 84-inch version that went on sale late last year cost $20,000.
Electronics makers will showcase these products as they try to play catchup to the breakthroughs by Apple and Google, which have made the tablet and smartphone must-have wares. Those firms are working on wearable tech, such as Internet-connected glasses, driverless cars and smartphone watches.
But you won't see much of that innovation at the world's largest tech show, where leading Silicon Valley giants rarely introduce new products amid a flood of competing tech news.
Instead, rivals Samsung, Intel, Sony, LG and Microsoft will dominate the tech show-and-tell with a slew of whiz-bang products — often improvements on familiar technology — meant to keep consumers buying new gear.
“It's a multi-screen world, and the trend is that they're all connected,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner Research, who said it has become more challenging for makers of televisions, PCs and electronics.
“It's less about the device than it is about the screen size, how it's connected and where it will be used.”
Many of the products on display at the International CES won't make it to retail, if the past is any guide. But the companies are scrambling to come up with products to pique customers' interest.
Consumers own nearly six devices, compared with four gadgets five years ago, according to the Yankee Group research firm, and that number is expected to rise.
Microsoft, late to the mobile revolution, will push its Windows 8 tablets and devices after slow sales during the holidays. Intel and Dell will again pitch tablets and ultrabooks — the industry's slimmed-down PC invented as a response to the iPad, Kindle Fire and Galaxy tablets.
About 213 million high-definition televisions were expected to have sold globally by the end of 2012. TV makers need to keep consumers coming back, so they are introducing Ultra HD televisions that make the HDTV of five years ago look outdated. Showcased by Samsung, LG, Panasonic and Sony, these televisions have 8 million pixels — four times the number of previous versions. The show organizers are calling the Ultra HD technology “4K” and say it is meant to be “immersive” television viewing. Or as LG says, “You'll feel like you're living, not watching, your favorite shows.”
Ultra HDTVs are also super jumbo. Westinghouse is expected to unveil a 112-inch TV, and Sony, Samsung and LG will display 84-inch screens — so big that the screen seems like it draws in a whole room. That makes it harder to sell in many countries outside the United States, where houses are smaller and walls sometimes aren't even that wide, analysts say.
Samsung and LG are going super small, too, with 5.5-inch flexible screens to be used in future e-readers, smartphones and tablets for sports and military combat. They are more durable for commuters and can be knocked around in classrooms.
The companies will showcase better picture quality through organic light-emitting diodes, or OLED TVs, which don't use backlighting. That enables manufacturers to make their screens as thin as four millimeters. OLED images change faster and have greater contrast of colors, the manufacturers say. LG, Samsung and Sony will have those screens on display as they did last year, and they are just starting to take orders — at about $10,000.
But do consumers want to pay up to $20,000 for an extra 6 million pixels? There is very limited content available for the super-definition technology, companies say.
Analysts say many of the televisions and multimedia devices at CES this week won't make it to retail shelves. For example, recent pushes for 3-D and Internet-enabled TVs haven't appealed to mainstream consumers.
“Device manufacturers are trying to drive a change in consumer behavior, which is a very hard thing to change,” said Carl Howe, vice president of Yankee Group.
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