Each year’s CES is overrun by concept TVs that are destined to either remain prototypes for years to come or be released with such high price tags that they might as well not have come out at all. And look, I’m not going to try to claim that CES 2020 was much different. Samsung had a weird rotating 4K TV meant to show off vertical videos, 8K TVs were still just as pointless as ever, and LG Display showed up with another rollable TV that descends downward rather than rising upward.
But if you look a little closer, you’ll see some real progress among the TVs people might actually buy. The more important story from each year’s show is in the often-overlooked midrange, and that happened in a big way at CES 2020. High-end technologies trickled down after years of being unaffordable or impractical for most people, while the slow emergence of the new HDMI 2.1 standard is beginning to open up a lot of functionality that was previously exclusive to niche sections of the market.
The high-end (slowly) goes midrange
OLED TVs are a good example of high-end tech entering the midrange. Just a few years ago, they were unaffordable for the vast majority of people, but last year, we started to see LG’s sets getting discounted to that all-important $1,000 mark, which is the upper price limit for 90 percent of buyers, according to NPD sales data. Even then, OLED TVs were still only available in bigger TV sizes, presenting another barrier to entry for many households.
At CES 2020, however, we saw signs of change. Vizio, which has a strength in affordable TVs, announced that it will be releasing an OLED model this year, while Chinese manufacturer Skyworth said it plans to enter the US market for the first time with an OLED TV in tow. Meanwhile, LG and Sony, which have been producing OLED TVs for years, announced 48-inch versions, making it the first time we’ve seen 4K OLED TVs under 55 inches in size. Pricing for all three models is yet to be announced, but all the signs point toward the technology inching toward mass-market affordability and accessibility.
Vizio has made the upgrade to HDMI 2.1 across its whole lineup
Also continuing to emerge at this year’s show is the HDMI 2.1 standard, which is important not so much because of its topline specs (such as support for 4K at 120Hz or 8K at 60Hz), but because of the new features it brings to the table. Features like variable refresh rate technology will be a massive benefit for gamers once game consoles catch up, while others, like support for Dynamic HDR, will deliver picture quality improvements for TV and film content.
These features aren’t completely new. Variable refresh rate tech has been available on PC monitors for a few years, while Dynamic HDR is available via the dynamic metadata baked into the Dolby Vision and HDR10+ standards. But HDMI 2.1 has the potential to one day turn these into basic, standardized TV features. In theory, you won’t have to make sure you buy certain models of Samsung TVs to pair with your Xbox One or LG TVs to pair with your Nvidia-equipped gaming PC to get variable refresh rates. Instead, you should eventually just be able to mix and match HDMI 2.1 devices to get these benefits as standard.
That’s the theoretical future, and at CES 2020, we’re seeing TV manufacturers inch toward it. Vizio says it’s made the upgrade across its lineup, while LG and Sony have confirmed support in their 8K models. But we’ve still got a long way to go before you can take all of HDMI 2.1’s features for granted. TV manufacturers are allowed to pick and choose which of the standard’s features they support, and a lot of them are currently doing exactly that. In a rundown of Sony’s A8H 4K OLED, for example, HDTVTest notes that Sony’s latest 4K OLED will support just one of the HDMI 2.1 standard’s many features: eARC. We’ve still got a long way to go before HDMI 2.1’s benefits become ubiquitous.
A glimpse at the future, and 8K keeps trying
Beyond the devices coming this year, CES is also a show where you get a glimpse of what TVs might look like in a few years’ time. Samsung’s 8K Q950 (aka its “bezel-less” 8K TV) is a prime example. That’s not because it has an 8K resolution, but because the idea of a TV with barely there bezels seems both highly desirable and almost inevitable, given the way TV designs have been going. Not to mention the fact that manufacturers have already gotten very good at almost eliminating screen bezels on smartphones to the delight of consumers. Throughout the week, the worst thing I’ve heard people say about the Q950 is that they wish its bezel-less design was available on a 4K TV, which feels like a good sign for its wider demand.
8K TVs made yet another appearance at this year’s show. The jury’s still out on whether the new resolution is the future of TVs, but everyone can agree it’s definitely not the present. That was true last year, and it’s still the case today where 8K content is more or less nonexistent, not to mention very bandwidth-intensive to stream. In fact, with LG and Samsung now involved in a minor proxy battle over how exactly to measure 8K’s roughly 30 million pixels, it almost feels like we’ve taken a step backward over the past 12 months.
Personally, I’m still unconvinced that 8K is even necessary in the first place. 4K has already given us a massive resolution bump over 1080p, and even then the more important improvements were less about the resolution itself, and more about the technologies it bundled together like HDR, a wider color gamut, and increased color bit depth. Maybe one day 8K will find its own collection of picture performance enhancements, but I’m skeptical that the resolution justifies the upgrade by itself.
But that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from announcing 8K TVs that you’ll be able to buy this year. LG had a grand total of eight of its “Real 8K” models to show off, ranging in size from 65 to 88 inches, Samsung has three 8K series that range in size from 55 inches to a massive 98 inches, which includes the aforementioned bezel-less Q950, Sony has the Z8H (75 or 85 inches), and even TCL reiterated its plans to launch the 8K TV it originally announced last year. Impressive feats of engineering these TVs may be, but ultimately, it’s still not time to buy one.
The final TV technology that sits in this “maybe it’s the future, but at this point, it’s hard to say” category is microLED. Samsung announced new sizes of its microLED TVs this year, but they didn’t make as much of a splash at CES 2020 as they have previously. It might have something to do with the fact that this is the third year we’ve been able to gawp at The Wall’s modular panels on the show floor and the first since they actually went on sale. We know the technology works, and we know the tech could theoretically offer a best-of-both-worlds compromise between OLED and LCD, but Samsung is yet to prove that it can manufacture these TVs and sell them for the kinds of prices that mortals can afford, not to mention at the sizes that actually fit in most people’s homes.
The rollers and rotators
Finally, I suppose it’s only fair to mention the rolling and rotating TVs of CES 2020. Bezel-less, 8K, and microLED TVs have a chance of one day actually becoming mainstream devices, but I’d be very surprised if the same thing happens to a TV like Samsung’s Sero, which has a mechanical stand that can rotate its display 90 degrees to better show off the kinds of vertical videos that you’ll find on Instagram or TikTok.
Cast aside the fact that the TV is limited to being just 43-inches big to give itself enough room to rotate, and try and forget that it currently retails for a 1.95 million won (around $1,600) in South Korea, and just think about how long your typical vertically shot video is. They’re made for mobile, they’re super short, and the idea of cozying up in front of your TV to watch them feels bizarre to me. I like the creativity, but I just can’t see the design being useful.
Contrast that with LG’s rollable TVs, which I really want to work but feel completely out of reach right now. LG is, once again, promising to release its rollable TV this year, but remember that it made a similar claim last year before going completely silent for 12 months. If and when it does release, there are also reports that it could cost as much as $60,000, which doesn’t do much to shift the perception that this is a consumer release in name only.
CES is a show filled with press events and keynotes that are, almost to a fault, obsessed with the future of technology. But away from the flashy concepts and presentations, the TV industry’s high-end past is slowly but surely merging into its mainstream present. When manufacturers start announcing firm pricing over the coming months, we’ll see how much progress they’ve made.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that dynamic metadata is a feature of the Dolby Atmos standard. It’s actually a feature of the Dolby Vision standard. We regret the error.