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CES 2013-Full Coverage

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Scott Wilkinson Summary

Another CES has come and gone; this was my 21st. Unlike most of my colleagues in the press corps, I really enjoy going to the show, in part to see all the cool new toys, but more to have some face time with people I otherwise don't get to see in person. Plus, I enjoy the over-the-topness of Las Vegas—not that I'd want to live there, but it's fun to visit.

Of course, the big home-theater news this year was 4K/Ultra HD. As I wrote in my report on press-conference day, the terminology used to identify the new video resolution is somewhat confusing. The commercial/professional version of 4K uses a pixel resolution of 4096x2160, while the consumer version, officially dubbed Ultra HD or UHD by the Consumer Electronics Association (which puts on CES), is 3840x2160.

Why the difference? Because 4096x2160 is exactly twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of commercial 2K (2048x1080), which is seen in most digital cinemas, while 3840x2160 is exactly twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of consumer HDTV (1920x1080).

Why not make them the same? Because commercial 2K and HDTV aren't the same, though I don't know why that is so. What I do know is that it makes sense to exactly double the horizontal and vertical resolution in either case to make upscaling mathematically simple and thus less prone to artifacts.

Unfortunately, many consumer-electronics companies use "4K" to mean UHD, resulting in much confusion. All you need to know is, if a company says "4K" in relation to a consumer product, it is talking about UHD at 3840x2160. For the remainder of this article, I'll use the term UHD, since I'll be talking exclusively about consumer 4K.

So here are the conclusions I drew after spending four days with 150,000 of my closest friends:

UHD is Not Stupid

Many of my journalistic colleagues believe that the high resolution of UHD is stupid, especially on what are now normal-sized screens—say, 50 or 60 inches—at what are now normal seating distances—say 10 feet or more. And they are right that the human visual system cannot discern the increased detail of UHD on a screen of that size at that seating distance.

And yet every time I see a relatively small UHD display showing native UHD images, even from a distance that should make it indistinguishable from 1080p, it does, in fact, look different to me—more nuanced, more dimensional, more like looking out a window. Am I deluding myself? I don't think so; I've noticed this even before I knew I was looking at UHD content on a UHD display.

And UHD does offer several other advantages. First, humans can indeed see the increased detail on very large screens. And with more normal-sized screens, you have much more flexibility in your seating distance—in particular, you can sit much closer than you would want to with regular HD.

Then there's 3D. I know, I know...many consumers don't care about 3D, but for those who do, a UHD TV can display 3D using passive glasses or no glasses at all with 1080 lines of vertical resolution—in other words, full HD for each eye without needing active-shutter glasses. Plus the thin, horizontal black lines seen in 3D images on current passive flat panels are much less visible on a UHD set.

Sports fans can watch four games at once, splitting the screen four ways, and each pane is still 1920x1080. Yes, each pane is only a quarter the size of the entire screen, making it harder to see any greater detail beyond a certain seating distance. But if each image is full HD to begin with, the TV needn't scale any of the images, eliminating any chance of artifacts.

If you take digital photos—and who doesn't these days?—they are probably at least 8 megapixels in resolution. A UHD TV provides 8.3 megapixels, which means you can see your photos in their full-res glory.

Finally, if you browse the web or engage in much social media on your TV, text will be much sharper and crisper on a UHD TV than it is on a 1080p display.

Of course, the biggest challenge facing UHD displays is delivering native UHD content. At CES, several forms of UHD delivery were demonstrated, including over-the-air terrestrial broadcasting from the Korean Broadcasting System, downloading UHD movies from Sony, and streaming UHD content from Netflix. Each of these delivery systems is in its infancy, and there are many obstacles to overcome, including bandwidth issues, copy protection, etc.

Until then, these TVs will have to upscale 1080p to UHD, and those that do the best job of it will be the most sought-after. As I said earlier, upscaling 1080p to UHD is relatively easy, but even so, I've seen examples of UHD TVs that do a poor job of it with certain difficult material. Most companies were showing native UHD content at CES, so it was difficult to judge this particular area of performance at the show.

3D is Not Dead

I was amazed at how many times I heard people say that this year's CES clearly demonstrated the death of 3D. From my perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, 3D was not being touted very much, except in LG's booth with its gigantic 3D video wall and other displays showing 3D, but that doesn't mean everyone else had forsaken it.

In fact, virtually all the new TVs on display—at least, those in a company's mid-level and high-end lines—had 3D capabilities. And Panasonic will include two pairs of active 3D glasses with its ZT60, VT60, and ST60 TVs, not just the flagship models as it did last year.

Among the 3D news at CES this year was glasses-free 3D technology from Dolby and Stream TV Networks as well as glasses-free 3D TVs from Vizio, Hisense, and others. And virtually all the UHD TVs at the show are 3D-capable, most with passive glasses. Several 3D projectors were also on hand from BenQ, Epson, Wolf, SIM2, and others.

On the content side, Vizio announced the availability of Sensio's 3D Go streaming service, and Netflix just announced 3D streaming of some original documentaries as well. Also, Lionsgate will convert several of its titles to 3D in a partnership with Samsung. And of course, 3D movies continue to be made for theatrical release, which means they will be available on 3D Blu-ray as well.

I agree with Chris Chinnock at Display Central, who wrote this week, "It proves that 3D is moving beyond the introductory hype phase into a sustainable product, market, and technology development phase...It is almost as if manufacturers are taking a 'yeah, of course it is 3D capable' attitude." Exactly!

CES is Not Irrelevant

Another comment I heard quite often was that CES is becoming irrelevant—indeed, that it is going the way of Comdex, the big computer trade show that ended 10 years ago. If CES is dying, no one told the 150,000+ attendees and more than 3250 exhibitors who unveiled some 20,000 new products, making it the largest in the show's 45-year history. Exhibit space occupied 1.92 million square feet, beating the previous record of 1.86 million square feet in 2012.

And that exhibit space was filled will colorful booths, such as the huge one built by Chinese manufacturer TCL seen in the photo at the top of this blog. Another Chinese company to watch is Hisense, which claims a growth rate of 10 percent per year while the Japanese stalwarts are drowning in red ink. Speaking of which, Panasonic's booth space was, in fact, much smaller this year than it has been for many years, though Sony, Sharp, and Toshiba were about the same size. And Microsoft did not exhibit at all, which some cited as evidence that CES is dying.

I admit that I didn't put as many miles on my pedometer as last year—23.5 versus 35—but I got sick during the show (as did many, many people), so I didn't make it to the Venetian at all, and I left a day earlier than usual. I normally stay to the bitter end because there's so much to cover, and this year was no exception, so I regret having to cut short my time there.

CES is becoming irrelevant? I say hogwash! From what I saw, the show is alive and well, with plenty of products and technologies to keep us all busy until next January, when we'll gather in Las Vegas to do it again. Meanwhile, stay tuned to Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity all year long for detailed coverage of some of the goodies we saw last week. Here's to a great 2013!