HDTVs at CES: Small steps in the big picture

The theme for 2011's HDTVs is clear--subtle, but substantial improvements over last year's sets.

Whether they were big or small, LED or plasma, all the HDTVs on the CES 2011 show floor had one thing in common--they took the best that came out of last year, and added several slight, but significant, improvements.

2010 was a big year for HDTVs in several different respects: 3D TV hit the market, Internet-connected features started to make a splash, LED TVs became widely available across several price ranges, and the high-end sets got thinner than ever before. However, all these new cutting-edge features brought a whole host of problems with them. 2011's TVs aren't bringing nearly as many cool new features and might not look so impressive in a side-by-side specs comparison, but they're bringing lots of minor tweaks and polish that add up to a tremendous difference.

3D Is Finally Here, Kind Of

3D in 2010 was somewhere between a joke and a disappointment. Between the hassle of active-shutter glasses and the lack of 3D content, they were a very tough sell. However, between new content initiatives like Sony's 3(SOMETHING) channel and new technologies like LG's Cinema 3D and Vizio's Theater 3D, as well as Samsung and Panasonic's incremental improvements in active-shutter glasses technology, 3D TVs are finally ready for the market. Whether they'll catch on with consumers this year is anyone's guess, but if they don't catch the public's eye, it won't be because the tech isn't good enough. (For more on 3D TVs, read HDTVs in 2011: 3D Is Coming, We Mean It and Glasses-Free 3D: Sooner Than You Think?)

2011's Most Improved Technology: Edge-lit LED TVs

LED TVs hit the market in a big way in 2010, with several edge-lit sets making it into the mid-level TV model lines, and full-array sets with local dimming staying at the high end.

Full-array sets use a matrix of LEDs behind the LCD panel to illuminate the image, meaning you can get incredibly bright colors, and when combined with local dimming features, your full-array back-lit LED set can achieve overall image quality levels that outclass practically everything else on the market. However, they're still expensive to produce, so most TV manufacturers worked on improving their edge-lit LED technology.

Edge-lit sets are more power-efficient, less pricey to produce, and allow for much thinner designs. However, they rely on light-dispersing panels to spread the light from the LEDs on the side of the panel to the center, which means you can't control them quite as finely as a full-array LED set with local dimming can, and they often end up producing uneven lighting across the panel, yielding shadows along the edges of the display that are plainly visible in very bright or very dark scenes.

The challenge for TV manufacturers in 2011 was to find a way to combine their proprietary image-processing algorithms, panel coatings, light-dispersion matrixes, and local dimming features to get edge-lit LED displays as close as possible to a full-array LED panel's image quality. While we won't know how well they've done until their TVs hit the market, the edge-lit sets on display at CES 2011 were certainly impressive.

Smart TVs Get A Clue

Internet-connected TV features really came into their own in 2010-- almost every model we reviewed had some kind of basic Internet connectivity, including at least a handful of video-streaming services. However, there was still plenty of room for improvement. Some TVs had awful UIs, others were stuck with ill-fitting app functions (Netflix Instant Play that wouldn't let you pick a movie from the HDTV, YouTube apps that didn't allow HD playback) and the selection of services ranged from sparse to stellar--as though the manufacturers had just raced to get any and all services they could before release.

2010's Smart TVs are much more thoughtfully designed. Pretty much every manufacturer has added several new features, of course. However, it's not just the service count that matters. Vizio, Samsung, Panasonic, and LG are all emphasizing their new remotes, which feature navigation controls and QWERTY keyboards that are designed from the start to be used for navigating the Internet--possibly with a full browser.

What's more, each TV manufacturer is using their Smart TV platform to expand your TV's role in your home in different ways. Panasonic and Vizio are working integrated games into their strategy, with partnerships with GameLoft and OnLive, respectively. LG and Samsung are pushing their new apps stores hard. And all of them are paying close attention to any opportunity they can take to use their TVs to sell you new devices like Android tablets. (For more on Smart TVs at CES 2011, read "Smart TVs" Add The Best Of The Internet To Your TV.)

HDTV Design: More Bang For Your Buck

When it comes to the actual physical design of last year's HDTVs, it was pretty clear that most TV companies were infatuated with the super-slim dimensions they could achieve with edge-lit LEDs, leading to outlandish showpieces like Samsung's C9000 series, which was about as thin as a pencil.

The vast majority of the TV buyers saw this, wiped the drool from their mouths, and said, "Why do I care how thin it is once I'm sitting in front of it?" Sure, it looks good--but not good enough to pay extra for it.

Perhaps due to the general economic slump, the design theme of the year is More For Less. Of course, the high-end sets are still plenty thin and have their own flashy design elements, but we're seeing far more sets that have a narrower bezel than the models they replace--and an extra inch or two of screen space as a result. 46-inch sets are now 47-inch sets, 50-inch sets are 52-inch sets, and so on. Not only do these new sets look great, they feel like you're getting a better deal for your buck.

Check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2011.

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Patrick Miller

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