Over the years, we’ve seen a whole lot of innovation in computing. Faster processors, smaller form factors, touch-screen inputs and wireless data. All of these have had a profound impact on how and where we use technology. And as important as all of these advances have been, nothing has changed our fundamental relationship to these devices as much as improvements to their displays.
Displays are at the heart of how we perceive–and ultimately use—all of our computers, be it the biggest, most powerful desktop or the smallest of smartwatches. It’s the reason that new display technology always leaves me saying “wow.” That was my reaction when I saw my first high-res graphics monitor, when I saw my first colour LCD display and most recently, when I looked upon Apple’s Retina-equipped iPad. These technologies really enhance our use and enjoyment of computers.
So when I was offered the chance to try out ASUS’s PB287Q, one of the first reasonably priced 4K displays on the market, I jumped at the chance.
Yes sir, that right there is the biggest TV in Canada. Or at least, it will be when it goes on sale next month for the equally big price of $5,299.00.
The gargantuan AQUOS LC-80LE632U (hey Sharp – must we still use such awkward model names?) is 80 inches of full HD awesomeness and also sports these features:
- UltraBrilliant Full Array LED backlighting system
- Dual USB Inputs – enable viewing high-resolution video, music and digital photos on the TV
- Connected TV Services – delivers streaming video, customized Internet content and live customer support via built-in Wi-Fi
What I find a little surprising are the features it lacks, namely: 3D and Quattron.
I can certainly overlook the lack of Quattron. While I was impressed by the technology’s picture quality (Sharp claims that the inclusion of the extra yellow pixel renders colours more accurately) I’ve never been convinced of the science behind it. Given that no digital cameras or other recording equipment possess yellow sensors (they all use combinations of Red, Green and Blue) it seems to me that any data being sent to Sharp’s yellow pixels had to be interpolated from the original signal, so how accurate could it be?
But no 3D, especially at that price? That’s a tougher nut to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of 3D by any means. In fact, I still consider it to be both a fad and a gimmick despite what some manufacturers would have us believe. But I’d also be the first to acknowledge that the kind of buyer who is ready to drop over five grand for an 80-inch TV, is likely not going to be happy with a unit that doesn’t “do it all.” If you want 3D and Quattron, you’ll have to give up the extra 10 inches and grab Sharp’s LC-70LE735U which has both and MSRPs for $4599. Like most of the rest of Sharp’s high-end line, the LC-80LE632U comes equipped with Sharp’s AQUOS Advantage LIVE service. This free service actually lets a Sharp service advisor connect to your TV remotely in order to help you trouble-shoot any issues you might be having, or simply to calibrate the unit so that it gives you the best picture for your environment. While most techies will scoff at this, plenty of buyers will appreciate not having to describe technical problems over the phone to a customer service person.
If, by some stroke of luck, Sharp has managed to create a screen that is as beautiful to watch as it is large, then I will consider the money well spent. But I’m not sure that this is the case. Consider for instance that this new 80-inch behemoth only runs 120 Hz motion processing. The standard for most high-end HDTVs is at least 240 Hz, which is still a far cry from a plasma screen’s native 480 Hz. At 120 Hz, especially at an 80-inch screen size, I’m concerned that motion-blur will be an issue.
Of course, it’s completely unfair to judge a TV – or any other gadget for that matter – until you’ve seen it in real life, so I’ll stop my premature hand-wringing. Speaking of real life, if you want to get a sense of just how big this TV is, check out CNET’s photo of the unit complete with a bored-looking Sharp spokesperson for scale.
Secretly, I can’t wait to see what GT5 looks like on this monster!
This is the kind of week it’s been in the world of TV and video, with stories not necessarily in chronological order…
First up: The 3D debate got hotter and well, weirder, when Roger Ebert – who has maligned the technology openly in the past – declared the format “inferior and inherently brain-confusing.” To prop up his thesis, he quotes liberally from fellow 3D-denier and award-winning editor, Walter Murch – whose work you are familiar with if you’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now, Ghost or The English Patient.
Now there’s no question that Murch’s credentials as far as the art form of cinematic editing is beyond reproach. But in a recent letter to Ebert, he goes way beyond a critique of 3D from the perspective of editing, citing biological arguments against the format such as:
[…] the “CPU” of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for.
He’s referring to the process by which our eyes must try to converge on two different focal lengths in rapid succession. Now he may very well be right that this is the component of 3D that has caused undesirable effects amongst some viewers, but to claim that our very biology isn’t up to the task because of how we’ve evolved strikes me as a reach.
I get that Ebert hates 3D – heck I even agree with some of the points he’s made in the past – and I get that Murch isn’t impressed by it either, but I’m not buying the so-called scientific explanation as to why it sucks. Read the full post and see if you’re on-board or not.
Next: A new report suggests that this is the year we will see Blu-ray players for as little as $40 and 42″ LCD HDTVs coming in at under $300. Despite the fact that these devices will likely not support advanced features such as 3D, Wi-Fi or streaming, those are nonetheless stunning price points. It looks like 2011 will be the year that fantastic picture quality will be within reach of nearly every economic group in the West.
Finally, Pioneer and Sharp have announced that they will be creating a new line of LCD HTDVs that will bear the “Elite” badge – a marque that hasn’t graced a TV display since Pioneer discontinued its production of plasma panels last year. But this new venture, rather than being a rebirth of the TVs that earned CNET’s highest rating of any HDTV, appears to be at best a new line of LCD’s from Sharp with Pioneer’s Elite designation and at worst, nothing more than a re-badging of Sharp’s existing line-up of high-end models.
At first it might seem that this is a dig at Sharp. It isn’t. I’ve had the chance to audition their latest line-up of Quattron 3D TVs and I was duly impressed by their image quality and feature set. They’re good TVs. But they aren’t plasma and they aren’t Pioneer units – in short, they aren’t “Elite”. Now I realize I should withhold final judgement until I see the new Elites in the flesh, but I am (as you can tell) highly skeptical. I’m also a little stunned that Pioneer – a company that put plasma on the map – has decided to back LCD as a display technology after all this time. I would have much preferred that they partner with Panasonic, a company that has stayed the course on plasma and has inherited Pioneer’s HDTV crown as a result. Perhaps Pioneer believed that LCD will eventually eclipse plasma as the best display technology, or maybe they’re just looking for a more cost-effective way to re-enter the TV business without having to actually make their own glass. Either way, I worry that the Elite marque – so long a pinnacle of quality in the A/V space – will be diminished by this move.
Update, Jan 30: I knew I had forgotten something. Back on the 20th, CNET’s David Katzmaier wrote an interesting piece concerning the merits of active vs. passive 3D based on his experiences comparing VIZIO’s new passive-3D TV (XVT3D650SV) to Panasonic’s class-leading active-3D set (TC-P65VT25). The results are instructive for those who are looking to make their move into the 3D arena: Passive possesses quite a few advantages over active (and I suspect will become the standard soon) but falls short in one key area which I hadn’t previously realized – the VIZIO TV at least, can’t do full HD in 3D. Their passive system uses a circular polarizer to blend two 540p images – that’s half the resolution of Panny’s active system which can present the full 1080p signal to each eye. I’m sure as newer passive systems come on the market, this limitation will be overcome, but in the meantime, active 3D would seem to be the better choice for folks who aren’t willing to sacrifice a pixel of their Blu-ray material.
Even though I am far from sold on the whole 3D bandwagon that has picked up so much steam this year from manufacturers and retailers alike, I’m giving a big thumbs-up to Vizio for their new 3D TV model – one that offers passive technology for the first time in North America.
I haven’t seen the massive 65″ XVT3D650SVin real life, so I can’t vouch for any of Vizio’s claims of performance, which include:
- causes less eyestrain (than active-shutter glasses)
- brighter images
- wider viewing angles
… when compared to the other 3D models out there, all of which use the active-shutter technology.
Just in case you haven’t been brushing up on all your in-home 3D jargon, here’s the big difference between 3D in the theatres and 3D at home:
Theatre 3D technology e.g. RealD, Dolby 3D etc, uses “passive” glasses – the cheap plastic shades they give out for free (and which so many people have taken home) are simply two polarized lenses which let in light coming in from two different angles. The right lens lets in one image while the left lens lets in another. Your brain assembles them into a single, 3-dimensional image. If you want to see this effect in action, take two pairs of these glasses next time you’re in the theatre and overlap the left lens from one pair with the right lens from the other pair, but make sure the glasses are held perpendicular to each other – you should see a completely dark lens that lets in almost no light at all. That’s because you’re now blocking both angles, not just one.
But most TV manufacturers so far have opted for “active” shutter glasses instead. With this technique, the TV flickers between two different images rapidly while the lenses of the battery-powered glasses flicker on and off at the same rates. The result is the same (more or less) as theatre-3D, but for two major differences: 1) the active shutter glasses are very expensive and require their own power source 2) because the lenses are only letting light into your eye half the time, image brightness in noticeably reduced.
So why do they do it? I can’t answer definitively, but my guess is that it was cheaper and easier for them to do it this way given that there was essentially no change required to the screen portion of the equation – they simply had to make it flicker between two images instead of one, which given the availability of 240Hz or higher screens, wasn’t that hard.
Passive systems require polarized light sources to match the polarized lenses in the inexpensive glasses. Developing a screen capable of kicking out two orientations of polarized light in this way must have been a little tricky and presumably more expensive. But that’s sheer guesswork on my part.
Whatever the reasons, Vizio has now broken the barrier and I think it’s a milestone for 3D adoption. We’ve seen from your comments how many of you object to the comfort and expense of active glasses, and the inherent limitation of how many people can watch at once when you only have so many of these glasses to hand out.
With Vizio’s system, which comes with four pairs of the passive-lens glasses, you can buy fancy extra glasses like Oakley’s recently released 3D line of stylin’ shades, or you can simply hold on to the pair you got at the last 3D movie you attended in a theatre. Either way, the cost – and to some degree the comfort – issue around 3D goggles is now largely dealt with.
Price will still be a stumbling block for most however, as the XVT3D650SV (wow terrible name) will run you $3,499 USD and there’s no word if they’ll even be bringing it to Canada. But you do get a lot for that investment: it’s a huge screen at 65″, it has edge-lit LED backlighting, internet apps (Vizio VIA), built-in Wi-Fi b/g/n, a cool remote control with a slide out QWERTY keyboard and SRS Surround audio.
My impression of Vizio up until a few months ago was that they were primarily a producer of inexpensive and not especially good TVs, but that all changed when CNET, who I respect a great deal, awarded them an editor’s choice in August – a first for the company.
Again, I’ll withold final judgement of the XVT3D650SV until I see it with my own eyes, but there’s no question for me that this is the shape that 3D must have in order to enjoy higher penetration in people’s homes – that is when we finally get around to buying new TVs.
Update, Feb 16: CNET has finally posted their full review of the Vizio XVT3D650SV and the verdict is mixed. Looks like the passive 3D technology compares favourably against active 3D systems, but the model’s poor 2D performance manages to hurt the overall rating considerably. My hope is that this shortcoming can be resolved on future models and that passive 3D eventually becomes the standard.
Overall, it’s a pretty good time to be Apple. Their tablet computer, the iPad, has been selling like hotcakes broken a record for the fastest selling gadget since it launched earlier this year. Despite initial concerns regarding the new iPhone 4’s antenna, it’s nearly impossible to find one in stock. And their new line-up of iPods has been met with enthusiasm, even if the form-factor choice for the iPod nano hasn’t exactly been met with unanimous praise.
To round out what has been a milestone year for the company, their second take on their Apple TV product – a tiny black box with no hard drive – has been reviewed by some of the leading tech sites south of the border and the sentiment is upbeat, if not ecstatic.
The bottom line, for those who don’t want to read all of the reviews, is this: Apple TV lives up to Apple’s reputation for slick user-interfaces, simplicity of design and interaction and flawless execution. The $99 price point ($129 119 CDN) makes it almost a no-brainer for those who already own a few Apple products. The available content, on the other hand, is the device’s Achilles Heel.
I’m not surprised by this reaction. The marketing gang at Apple positioned the Apple TV very specifically as the ultimate media-streaming machine – a perfect companion for your HDTV that gives you instant access to first-run movies on the same day they are released on DVD/Blu-ray and then throws in TV shows, YouTube, Netflix and some other goodies to round out the package. So when people discover that the movie selection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or that TV shows are almost non-existent, you can see why their excitement might be tempered a wee bit.
The silver lining in all this is that content can be improved – vastly if enough effort is invested. And it doesn’t rely on hardware or firmware upgrades. The reviewers all agree that Apple has gotten the basics right. Price, Features, Physical size/shape – they’re all good. So what’s a little missing content? The answer might be different depending on whether you live in the U.S. or here in Canada. If you think Apple TV’s tv show rental offerings in the U.S. aren’t sufficient (they only have ABC, FOX, Disney and BBC for now) you’ll be pretty bummed by the line-up for the Great White North: zip. zero. nada.
Okay, so the content isn’t there yet – my bet is that over time it will be, and it will be great when it comes. And perhaps it doesn’t even matter that much. Most of the reviewers have been quick to point out that if you already own an iPhone, iPad or the latest iPod Touch, you hold the key to unlocking a ton of content on the Apple TV that isn’t tied to what you can rent via iTunes. When iOS 4.2 comes on the scene next month, it brings with a feature called AirPlay. AirPlay will allow any of the devices I just listed to play audio or video content wirelessly on the Apple TV and thus your home theatre and HDTV.
I’ve already discovered plenty of ways to play just about every type of content on my iPad thanks to apps from 3rd party developers. Given the, ahem, prevalence of non-iTunes content out there on the net, it may just be that you never use Apple TV’s rental feature for TV shows. One great example is CityTV’s recently released iPad app. It lets you stream episodes of their shows e.g. The Event, on-demand. After iOS 4.2, that content will be one tap away from your HDTV if you have Apple TV.
Of course, if you *don’t* already own some i-devices, Apple TV loses some of its lustre. And that’s no accident. Apple’s price on the Apple TV isn’t just a function of the revenue-model created by the rental function; it’s a gateway device. It’s designed to get you hooked on the Apple ecosystem if you aren’t already.
Now, if you’re curious to get the deets straight from the herd of horses, here are the links:
CNET.com’s Apple TV Review: Balanced, focused on the technical benefits of the device compared to the Roku
Engadget’s Apple TV Review: Josh Topolsky engages in some constructive criticism
PCMag.com’s Apple TV Review: To-the-point, no-nonsense overview
Ars Technica’s Apple TV Review: More in-depth than the others and somewhat more tongue-in-cheek
Got that? Now, what’s your take? When Apple TV hits Canadian shelves in a few weeks will you be first in line or will you pass in favour of other devices (or none at all?)
In the ultra-competitive world of TV distribution, particularly here in Canada, the big battle has been waged predominantly between cable and satellite providers. Cable companies traditionally speak of their advantage over satellite in areas like reliability, Video on Demand (VOD) and quick channel-changes. Satellite for its part makes claims around superior picture quality and geographic coverage.
Today however, the landscape has changed yet again, with Bell TV announcing that it has launched satellite-based VOD – a first of its kind in Canada.
Typically, satellite customers have been able to order scheduled Pay Per View programming, but the infrastructure needed to handle true real-time access to videos on demand hasn’t been available. Now, not only is VOD possible, the movies are being made available in what’s known as “Full HD” or 1080p, meaning that these movies are being streamed at the equivalent of Blu-ray quality. By way of comparison, all broadcast HD programming on cable and satellite is typically done in 720p – slightly less than half the resolution of 1080p. This is the first time 1080p has been made available in Canada. If you’ve been resisting the call of Blu-ray so far, Bell TV’s offering may mean you can forego that purchase altogether.
As of this announcement, the selection of available VOD content was slim – only 10 movies. However, if the selection of content on Bell’s IPTV product – Fibe TV – is any indicator, many more movies and shows should be available soon. According to Bell, new titles will be “made available every week.”
To access Bell TV’s VOD service (see their FAQ here), you’ll need one of their HD PVRs – either the 9242 or the 9241. To enjoy the full HD 1080p signal, you’ll need to have one of these PVRs connected to a 1080p-capable HDTV. No word yet whether Bell will extend the service to their PVR-capable 6131 HD receivers.
Update: As one of the commenters pointed out below, these receivers only show two HD options: 720p and 1080i. So how does one achieve full 1080p? The answer from Bell is:
The set top box automatically overrides the existing setting and outputs at 1080p. The output settings will include 1080p in the future when there is 1080p broadcast available.
Movies cost $6.99 per title for up to 48-hour access, and are available instantly by remote control on channel 1000 or by calling 1-866-68 ORDER.
Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada.
As much as I am loathe to admit it, in-home 3D is clearly coming at us with a vengeance and it won’t be long before most people have 3D-capable displays in their living rooms. Similarly, there has been no let-up in the pace of new 3D releases in the theatres – presumably to ensure continued revenues for the theatre companies as well as providing a reason to upgrade your home gear.
So given that 3D doesn’t appear to be going away, I guess it’s a good thing that sunglasses company Oakley has decided to tackle some of the issues that have faced every 3D audience member since red-and-blue lenses made their debut back in the 1950’s:
- Theatre-based glasses have flat lenses which allow light to leak through the sides. Because they don’t wrap around your eyes, the 3D effect does not encompass your peripheral vision, forcing you to turn your head to get the maximum 3D experience
- Home-based active-shutter glasses are heavy and require recharging for their internal batteries
- Both types of glasses are uncomfortable for extended use and, let’s face it, not very stylish.
To solve this, Oakley is going to launch a new line of optically-correct 3D glasses designed for people who want the best viewing and fashion experience both in theatres and at home.
What they haven’t solved yet – but apparently are working hard on – is the fact that theatre and home 3D systems are, so far, incompatible when it comes to 3D glasses. Movie theatres use a projection system known as “passive polarization“. This technique projects two different images on the movie screen at once, each image filtered through a polarized lens that modifies the “bias” of the light that is reflected back to your eyes. The inexpensive, disposable 3D glasses simply filter this light a second time so that your right and left eyes are receiving the appropriate version of the image.
Home systems, however, use a technique known as “active shutter” whereby the TV’s screen projects the two images in a rapidly alternating stream – flickering at very high frequencies. This method requires glasses that can cause the lens for each eye to flicker at the corresponding frequency, once again making sure that each eye gets the correct image to ensure the 3D effect.
Since one of Oakley’s goals is to eliminate the need to recharge your glasses, the obvious technique to embrace is the passive polarization system. But as of the writing of this post, there are hardly any home systems that support polarization-based 3D.
Oakley’s press release simply states that
Oakley is pursuing partnerships with manufacturers of home 3D systems that utilize passive polarization. This will allow consumers to use the same eyewear for home and cinema 3D entertainment.
As for styles and pricing, for now the company is only saying that both will be competitive with other products on the market and their own distinctly-styled product line-up.
I think it’s fair to say that this means we’ll be looking at fancy 3D specs priced in the $150-$350 USD range.
If that sounds like a good deal to you, Oakley is promising to release the first models this year “prior to the 2010 holiday season. It will initially be sold through premium optical distribution channels in the U.S., followed by a global launch in 2011.”
Update, November 8, 2010: Oakley has released their first set of 3D Glasses. They may not look any different from other Oakley specs – and that’s really the point – but you are looking at the future of 3D eyewear: The Oakley 3D GASCAN. Coming in at the bottom of the expected price range, you can order these from Oakley.com or drop by your nearest Sunglass Hut. Bring along $120 USD if you want to watch your next 3D movie in style.