Photo: Kevin Smith/Business Insider
As expected, television was the biggest story out of the Consumer Electronics Show this year. Every major tech company from Samsung to Panasonic to Sony had its own take on what the future of television would look like.
There were two common threads:
First were the 4K TVs, or sets with screens capable of displaying images about twice as sharp as the HDTV you probably have in your living room right now.
Then there were the web-connected Smart TVs that let you download apps and stream content from services like Netflix, Hulu, or Pandora. Samsung had the most impressive Smart TV, one that could suck in data from your cable or satellite provider and recommend shows for you to watch. It’s a very similar concept to the one Apple is reportedly working on.
But none of these technologies accomplish what even companies that don’t normally make TVs are trying to do: be the first to revolutionise TV the same way Apple revolutionised the smartphone with the first iPhone.
It was one half-baked failure after another.
The evidence was everywhere at CES, but I’ll provide just a few examples to make my point.
The 4K Trend
Every single TV manufacturer, even some Chinese companies you’ve never heard of, had 4K TVs on display at CES. They looked good. Really good. So good that showing you photos or video of them won’t do them justice.
But even if you wanted to run out and buy a 4K TV right now, you wouldn’t be able to. Most won’t be available until later this year or early next year. Even if you do hold out that long, you’re going to be spending a lot. A 4K TV will cost you tens of thousands of dollars. For example, Samsung’s 85-inch 4K TV will cost about $38,000 when it goes on sale in Korea.
Now let’s say money is no object and you’re willing to spend the equivalent of a 3 Series BMW on your next television. You’re still not going to get high-quality 4K content because most networks don’t support it yet, kind of like most didn’t support HD in the very early days of the technology.
(Yes, there was a lot of talk about companies like Sony boosting the resolution of some content to work with 4K TVs, but most of what you watch will still just be in regular HD.)
So even though “4K” was the buzziest of all buzzwords at CES, we’re still several years from it being affordable and readily available.
Smart TVs have been around for years, but there was an increased emphasis on them at CES as most companies gear up for whatever Apple has up its sleeve for television.
I took a walk through the CES floor and nothing made me jump out of my skin.
Panasonic’s TVs had mobile apps that let you “flick” photos and videos from your iPhone or iPad to your TV. Toshiba’s Smart TV home screen had a bunch of Android-style widgets that showed you stuff like the current weather and your calendar appointments. LG let you beam games from your smartphone to you TV, using the mobile device as a controller.
These were all interesting concepts, but none screamed revolutionary to me.
The Real Answer
If a company is going to “fix” TV, it’s going to be because it figured out a way to discover the content you want when you want it, not because it was able to bring smartphone-like experience to the big screen with a bunch of apps and widgets.
At the end of the day, it’s still about watching stuff. “Content is king” and all that.
That also means fixing the ugly menus that ship with the box from your cable or satellite company (likely) and/or providing a la carte shows and networks (much less likely). No one has pulled it off yet.
But Wait, What About Samsung?
Samsung came closer than anyone else to perfecting TV, but after demoing its new device twice, it became clear that it still has a lot of work to do. The voice recognition didn’t always work. The gesture controls felt more like a gimmick than something I’d actually want to use. It wasn’t quite clear how to navigate back to a “normal” channel list of stuff that’s currently playing.
(Granted, I wasn’t looking at the final version of the software, but I was told it’s pretty close.)
Then there’s the upgrade problem. Samsung will let you buy a new module that plugs into the back of your TV so you can get the latest Smart TV software updates. That sounds nice, but I’ve heard the module could cost a few hundred dollars, a lot to ask someone to pay every year after the initial ~$2,000 investment for the TV set.
Samsung gave it a good shot, but one has nailed it yet.