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Circuit Breaker

The line between TVs and monitors is blurring

While tectonic shifts in the tech industry have seen CES and its ilk decrease in relevance over the past decade, some product categories have been less affected by the rise of all-encompassing platforms pushed by software titans. For these forms of consumer electronics, it remains entirely appropriate to be trotted out on a Las Vegas stage with incremental updates every year.

To put it another way, it’s never not going to be fun to go to CES and look at a bunch of awesome screens.

TV manufacturers were out in force this year, as they are every year. LG added Google Assistant and Alexa to its industry-leading OLED sets, and unveiled an 88-inch 8K OLED prototype. Sony added Dolby Vision support to its own OLED and LED TVs, while Panasonic got behind rival dynamic standard HDR10+. Samsung was actually quiet this year in terms of introducing new models, but continued to insist that QLED is a thing. And TCL’s excellent Roku-powered P-Series got a further improved successor in the 6 Series, which may well be the best value 4K TV of 2018.

But while CES is always going to be a major show for conventional TVs, we’re starting to see more interesting developments where TV technologies are moving to other types of displays — and back the other way.

Most notably, CES 2018 marked the first serious rollout of HDR capability to personal computers. Preceded by VESA’s recent launch of a spec for PC monitors called DisplayHDR, manufacturers including LG, Dell, and Viewsonic all launched compatible models. LG had the most compelling conventional monitor of the show by far, with its “5K ultrawide” 34WK95U that makes use of Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, 600-nit HDR, and the same nano-IPS tech used in the company’s LED TV range.

The most impressive implementation of PC HDR at the show, however, came from an unlikely source: Nvidia. The GPU maker unveiled a new hardware spec called Big Format Gaming Displays — BFGD — designed to slot into ultimate PC gaming setups. Manufacturers like Asus, HP, and HP are all producing their own spin on the BFGD, using the same 65-inch 4K 120Hz HDR-capable panel from AUO. The difference between this and a 4K TV is where Nvidia comes in — BFGDs support the company’s G-Sync technology, which syncs the refresh rate of the display directly to the GPU’s output, meaning you get a smooth experience without any stuttering or tearing no matter what framerate your machine is capable of pushing.

G-Sync is a revelation on PC monitors, so it’s great to see it come to larger screen sizes. It’s worth noting, however, that Nvidia may not be alone here. G-Sync only works with Nvidia GPUs, and the company collects fees on every compatible monitor produced; AMD, meanwhile, has its own version called FreeSync that doesn’t cost manufacturers anything to implement. And AMD is backing another open variant called Game Mode VRR, which has actually been included as part of the new HDMI 2.1 spec — so we should soon see several conventional TVs ship with variable refresh rate support.

That means that if you have a compatible AMD GPU, or even AMD-powered console like the Xbox One X, you’ll have more options for a similar experience outside Nvidia’s closed ecosystem. Nvidia remains the GPU market leader for good reason, however, so if you built your sick gaming rig around a GTX 1080 Ti you might not have much of a choice.

With TV features like HDR making their way to PC monitors and PC features like VRR making their way to TVs, the lines are blurrier than ever. And even TV companies like Samsung are creating products that attempt to leverage expertise in both categories — take the 55-inch Flip touchscreen whiteboard, for example, which is basically a 4K TV converted for office use. Microsoft and Google have iterated on the idea, but it’s notable to see a TV maker get into the game.

If we’re heading into a future where your PC monitor can be your TV without compromise, then, hopefully we’ll be able to concentrate on things like image quality and form factor without worrying about obscure HDR standards and HDMI compatibility. If we can get to that point by the time some of the more forward-looking display technology on show at CES 2018 is practical, it’s going to be a good world.

LG Display, for example, showed off a completely outrageous 65-inch OLED TV that can be rolled down into a little box and change aspect ratio on the fly. It’s just a prototype, but it’s a practical and tangible one. Samsung, meanwhile, thinks the future is modular — its showpiece this year was called The Wall, a 146-inch screen assembled out of little MicroLED building blocks. Samsung believes the technology will surpass OLED, and apparently actually plans to release it in some undoubtedly expensive form this year.

Maybe neither idea will take off, and that’s okay. It’s what CES is all about. But what really matters is that once you wade through the spec sheets and format wars, there’s never been a better time to buy rectangles of pixels — and that reality was driven home time and time again at this year’s show.