What’s new for TVs in 2012: OLED, video on demand, and the Apple TV

We pick out some trends in the Australian TV market over the next year

What's new for TVs in 2012: OLED, video on demand, and the Apple TV

2011 was an interesting, if uninspiring year, for the global and Australian television markets: more 3D TVs (and fewer 3D broadcasts), more video and movies on demand, more superfluous features, and not a great deal else. We’re tipping 2012 to be at least a little more interesting, with a few interesting developments for Web-enabled TVs as well as some exciting new screen technology.

Lower prices

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a massive drop in TV prices: a TV that cost $5000 in 2009 could cost as little as $1000 around Christmas this year, with a much-improved feature-set. There’s a point where prices will settle, of course — you won’t see a 50in plasma for much less than $500 at the absolute lowest, for example. Manufacturing and shipping costs make up the majority of this cost where research and development have already been absorbed. But nonetheless, we’d confidently expect prices to drop a couple of hundred dollars in 2012 for the majority of LCD, LED and plasma televisions.

The way that TV manufacturers will keep raking in the money is with new technologies and new features — 3D and ‘smart TV’ being the big money-winners of 2010 and 2011. If prices stay the same or rise, it’ll be because each TV is capable of supposedly bigger or better things. Whether you use those features is a different question — but since it’s effectively impossible to buy a TV from 2011 when you’re in 2012 (you can thank the run-out sales and the never-ending onward march of consumer technology), you’ll just have to deal with it.

Our advice is to not worry too much about the price of whatever TV you've got your eye on: prices are low enough that there won't be any drastic reductions, and playing stores off against their competitors should ensure you can get the best price possible with a little effort.

New technology

In 2012, we should hopefully see further maturation of OLED technology. The only OLED TV that’s made it to market so far in Australia was 2009’s Sony XEL-1, a 11in model that cost $7000. Word on the street is that at least LG and Samsung will have working OLED models at CES 2012, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll see them on Australian store shelves by the middle-to-end of next year — the London Olympics in July and August being a good incentive for retailers. OLED TVs are the current pinnacle of TV screen technology, with ‘infinite’ contrast, excellent refresh rates and therefore very clear pictures, theoretically low power consumption, and excellent colour rendition (if the problems with blue colours are solved). Expect stocks to be limited and prices to be high, though.

LED televisions will likely continue to become more prevalent and less expensive, hopefully pushing traditional fluorescent-backlit LCD screens out of the market (although not completely — the tech is cheap enough that it’ll still be the de facto standard for bargain-basement small TVs). In the last year, edge-lit LED TVs have largely supplanted back-lit models, thanks to tricky ‘local dimming’ features that allow screen areas to be dynamically dimmed in the same way as a back-lit LED or plasma TV — so we don’t expect any new LED back-lit models. Local dimming tech should become cheaper and appear in more panels, but we expect it will still be used as a major differentiator between ‘cheap’ and ‘premium’ LED TVs.

It’s also a safe bet that we’ll see TV sizes increase. This is another concrete trend — we’d say where a 42in TV was considered large in 2009, 50in was the go-to size in 2010, and the last year has seen plenty of popular models released around 55in. We doubt TVs can practicably get much larger than 55in in most Australian homes, but there’s plenty of evidence that TVs larger than the current 65in maximum will be available next year. We’d conservatively guess at a few 70in models being released, but anything much larger would be surprising (this is ignoring the current 103in and 85in professional models available from Panasonic and others, which aren’t consumer products and aren’t technically TVs).

Glasses-free 3D is another area we think there will be cautious but minor development. We’re not sure about seeing any glasses-free 3D models released over here next year, but if one is we think it’ll be a moderately-sized model from LG and we doubt there’ll be much fanfare around its launch. It’s a difficult (and no doubt expensive) tech to get right on large screens, which Australians are enamoured with thanks to our large houses and large families.

Similarly, 4K TVs are on the horizon, but only just. We doubt we’ll see a 4K TV set released in Australia next year. Toshiba’s much-vaunted Cell TV never made it to Australia back in 2009, and given the less-than-dazzling up-take of 1080p Full HD Blu-ray players and movies we don’t think Australia is ready for yet another format and resolution war. If any 4K TVs come to Australia, we think it will be at the absolute end of next year with appropriately high price tags.

Next page: Video on demand, Google TV and the mysterious Apple TV.

Page Break

Video on demand

One area where Australia is far behind the times in video on demand is in the arena of large, subscription-based libraries of popular and high quality TV and feature film content. The recent launch of QuickFlix and its streaming library has gone some small way to compensate, but there’s a long way to go. What we need is a local version of Hulu, Amazon on Demand or Netflix, with a single all-access price, but licencing agreements will no doubt take a long while to sort out.

What’s more likely is that we’ll see further proliferation and expansion of the excellent ABC iView and SBS catch-up video services on existing Web video-enabled TVs — possibly all the way down to the cheapest models (this is something that Sony did very well at the start of 2011). The commercial television networks — that’s Seven, Nine and Ten — have a bit more to do to make their services ready for prime-time (pardon the pun). We did notice that Nine has recently re-branded its site from FixPlay to NineMSN Video, so perhaps there are changes afoot there. The launch of the BBC iPlayer internationally gives us hope that overseas content providers may have some ability to sneak into the Australian market.

The most exciting possibilities for great leaps forward in Web video, though, are with 2012’s rumoured Apple TV and Google TV products.

A possible Apple TV

If there’s one possible TV development in the next year that we’re (cautiously) optimistic for, it’s the suspected launch of the Apple TV set. While the Apple TV set-top box has had a lukewarm reception in Australia, a fully integrated solution a la iMac would be far more compelling. With the revelation that the late Steve Jobs had a role in the ongoing development of a TV product at Apple, it’s looking more and more likely that the massive personal computing company will make a concerted effort to enter consumer’s living rooms worldwide.

As is standard with almost everything that Apple develops and produces these days, we don’t know anything about the specs of any prospective Apple TV. Knowing the company’s design principles and its new-found display partnership with Sharp, we can hypothesise that the Apple TV would be a sleek, minimalist set based on a 2012 update of Sharp's Quattron LED back-lit LCD TV panel. Sharp doesn’t have the same brand recognition that Sony, Samsung and Panasonic do in Australia, but a recent move by Pioneer to revive its TV brand in the US using Sharp TVs shows the high regard the manufacturer is held in overseas and the quality of its panels. Sharp also has its own LCD panel manufacturing plants, plenty of expertise in innovative back-lighting technologies like LED, and (most importantly) they’re not Samsung.

There’s been speculation about the Apple TV relying upon Siri for voice control, but we’re not yet convinced this will be the ‘simplest user interface’ that Jobs spoke of: the service is still in its infancy, isn’t good with accents, and just doesn’t seem suited to the nuances of watching video. There may well be a modified and more appropriate version of Siri in the works, but if Apple is relying on it we would doubt a 2012 launch is on the cards for the Apple TV. Touch is out of the question — who’s going to walk over to their TV just to smudge it with fingerprints? — and traditional remote controls, with their dozens of buttons, don’t fit in with Apple’s simple-is-best philosophy. Perhaps we’ll see a revival of the currently-unloved Apple remote and a great on-screen interface. The existing Apple product line-up gives us some hints as to possible interface options: some amalgam of the styles iOS and OS X Lion with an external controller makes the most logical sense.

Content is an equally complicated factor, especially with Australia’s convoluted media landscape. Apple’s movie and TV-streaming services haven’t been particularly enticing in the past, but we’re hoping the emergence of iCloud over the past year should give some impetus to local Web video. Ideally, we’d love a subscription-based or free-to-view catch-up TV library with a HD option, and a similarly comprehensive movie service. Without these services, and considering the lack of existing high quality local Web options, the new Apple TV would struggle to find purpose in Australia. iTunes Match integration would bring users’ music libraries to the Apple TV, but video is the magic bullet.

In short: don’t hold your breath, but when the Apple TV arrives it will likely be a distinctly different product to the TVs we’ve become used to over the past few years. It’s likely it’ll be basically technically similar, but the interface and content options afforded by Apple’s design philosophy and possible partnerships will make it a unique device, and probably not one directly competing with Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and the other big TV market players in Australia.

Google TV

Google TV hasn’t taken off in Australia yet, and like glasses-free 3D we think any steps to adopt it in 2012 will be very cautious ones. Logitech’s spearheading of the Google TV cause in the US with its Revue set-top box was a resounding failure, with the US$299 device canned last month after a last-dash effort at US$99. There’s also a little hope for a Samsung television with integrated Google TV at CES 2012, although LG may debut. It’s possible that there will be a move to remove the necessity of Google TV’s QWERTY keypad from the equation and bring a more user-friendly and attractive control scheme into play.

Like the mysterious Apple TV, content is a huge factor in the release of any ‘smart TV’ service by Google in Australia. Google is best able to leverage Web video giant YouTube, which has recently been reinvigorated with the addition of new channel options and other features, but there is a quality bottleneck: both the quality of the video and the quality of the content that’s actually available online. We’d need to see some strong partnerships with TV and movie portals for Google TV to be of significant value to the average Australian household. Google is optimistic, but that’s not surprising.

2012: the year of Web video?

There are plenty of ways in which television technology can and will change and mature over the course of 2012. Some aspects are inevitable — lower prices, larger sizes — and some are dubious enough as to be unlikely — Google TV, 4K and glasses-free 3D, for example.

What stands out most though: it’s obvious that the availability of Web video on demand and streaming video will be a huge sticking point in the next year, especially in the content-sparse Australian marketplace. Any TV manufacturer or content partner that distinguishes itself from the competition will be in a prime position to score hundreds of thousands of Australian eyeballs. 2012 looks like it has the potential to be an exciting year to buy a new TV.