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At CES, TVs Steal the Buzz From Mobile

An attendee takes a photograph of a Sony 65-inch 4K LED television at CES 2013 in Las Vegas

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

An attendee takes a photograph of a Sony 65-inch 4K LED television at CES 2013 in Las Vegas

This year’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas featured portable gaming devices, smartphones sized for André the Giant, and electronic forks that let you know when you’re eating too fast. But let’s not kid ourselves: Everyone was really there to talk about televisions. There were TVs featuring higher-than-high definition, TVs in sizes that would dwarf most living rooms, even TVs that took a flat screen and curved it, Cinerama-style.

In recent years, tablets and smartphones have been the main event at CES, where technology companies introduce their products to an audience of thousands. The shift in focus to televisions is a little strange, given that the technology has been around since the Roosevelt administration. But much of the action in smartphones and tablets is about software—or the stuff Apple (AAPL) is up to.

The TV chatter at past shows had centered on 3D, a technology that’s gotten a lukewarm reception from consumers. A 2012 study from market researcher NPD Group showed that only 14 percent of respondents called 3D a must-have feature on their new television. This year 3D has been replaced by the buzzwords OLED, 4K, and UHD. OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays provide better picture quality and are thinner and more energy-efficient than current models. Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics showed off OLED displays so thin that they’re curved to increase the viewing angle. As the technology improves, displays could roll up like sheets of paper.

Some TV makers announced ultra-high-definition (UHD) sets, also known as 4K. UHD TVs have four times the pixels of a 1080p high-definition display. The UHD images shown at CES were spectacular, but the technology has many hurdles to surmount before it’s ready for prime time. The TVs are extremely pricey: Sony (SNE) sells an 84-inch model that costs $25,000. It says it will introduce less expensive 55- and 65-inch models later this year, but they will likely still cost in the five figures.

UHD is at its best when displaying content that’s been shot in UHD, which is almost nonexistent right now. And UHD content uses an enormous amount of data, making streaming nearly impossible. A feature-length film would take up about 10 terabytes (10,000 gigabytes), or 2,500 times the data of a typical HD movie. “When 1080p came around, there were Blu-ray players that could take advantage of it right away, but there aren’t such players for 4K,” says Srini Pajjuri, an analyst at investment bank CLSA.

Besides display technologies, TV manufacturers are creating on-screen interfaces that make it easier to find something to watch. Voice and gesture controls are becoming more common, as are predictive technologies like Samsung’s S-Recommendation feature, which analyzes the programming you typically view and suggests other shows you may like.

All this is meant to get consumers to rush out and buy TVs—which may not be easy, because even early adopters don’t upgrade their set as often as they do a smartphone. “People change their TVs on average every six years,” says Hyun-suk Kim, Samsung’s senior vice president in charge of its visual display division. “We’d like it to be sooner. We can’t drive the change in our customers, but we can introduce new technology.”

The bottom line: A $25,000 Sony TV and a Samsung with a curved screen were the talk of the International Consumer Electronics Show.

Grobart is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and the managing editor of Bloomberg Digital Video. Follow him on Twitter @samgrobart.

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