Something interesting is happening in the world of home TVs and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with resolution, colour gamut, dynamic range or contrast handling.
That’s something we discover at IFA in Berlin. The Internationale Funkausstellung is an exhibition dedicated to consumer electronics, which sounds exciting until we realise that “consumer electronics” is a broad church, encompassing everything from wall-sized LED-based TVs to the more janitorial world of washing machines and vacuum cleaners.
The continent-sized Messe Berlin exhibition centre, home of IFA 2019
There’s certainly some fascination in seeing just how much effort can be put into exhibiting the latest developments in laundry processing, a technology which we might assume was mature some time ago. Moreover, despite all the kettles and blenders, IFA does contain a few nuggets of information about the way the public actually watch the material that film and TV people produce.
Or, at least, how manufacturers would prefer the public to do that.
This poor young woman has been hired to iron
Perhaps the least surprising development is that 8K is now practically normal. To some extent, the bigger the displays get, the more obvious it becomes that the extra resolution really isn’t particularly useful. A large international trade show is not a place at which exhibition setups are cobbled haphazardly together and, if anything, the entire home AV section of the show stands as a testament to the soaring image quality of which even pretty average lounge TVs are now capable. Really, though, even on displays that most people would struggle to house, 8K barely shows until the viewer’s nose is leaving greasy marks on the screen.
Some developments are a bit more practical. One example is noise reduction, seen at IFA as part of Philips’ latest television-ASIC-with-a-trademarked-name as well as in offerings from several other manufacturers. Much as real-ale engineers will scowl, a bit of NR is a legitimate feature to offer in circumstances where broadcast signals can be strewn with compression artefacts. Scalers are also improving. Samsung’s TV exhibit leant heavily on the idea of 8K upscaling, presumably in view of the current desert of 8K content availability. While it’s still hard to imagine the improvement over 4K being earth-shattering, modern edge-aware scalers are also better at going from even lower resolutions to HD or 4K.
Philips promising to make colours less pale. Colourists shriek in anguish
Frame rate scaling, on the other hand, is almost universally disliked. It’s been infecting consumer AV gear quite widely and, as we’d expect, it was much in evidence at IFA 2019. One particular exhibitor who should have known much better had a very nice OLED demonstrating Dolby Vision with footage from Wonder Woman - with the frame rate interpolation switched on. Yes, some people claim not to be bothered by it, but in general, the reaction to high frame rate production, which looks pretty similar to interpolated material, tells us all we need to know. To include it in a display is one thing; to leave it turned on during a technical demo at an international trade show is another.
Sony promoting creator mode. At the back is a BVM-HX310. In front is a cellphone. The match looks as good here as it did in reality
Happily, an antidote to all of this slightly desperate post-processing may be in the offing. Two manufacturers showed modes promoted as delivering pictures according to the creative intent of the people who made them, as if there should ever be anything else: Panasonic showed pictures of Martin Scorsese to promote their “filmmaker mode,” while Sony refers to a presumably similar invention as “creator mode”. Exhibiting its Xperia cellphone range, Sony showed a handset side-by-side with their enormously capable (and frighteningly expensive) BVM-HX310; the two matched well.
Panasonic promoting their filmmaker mode
It’s interesting to realise that cellphones often have surprisingly decent displays. With the need to be readable in daylight, they tend to be capable of quite a high peak brightness and most OLED displays that are actually in public ownership are probably part of a cellphone, not a TV. The desirability of OLED has, though, led to a degree of corporate hyperbole. There were a lot of OLED displays at IFA 2019, almost all of them (perhaps absolutely all of them) based on panels made by LG. They are generally good and represent a step-change in the level of technical quality available at domestic prices. There were also an awful lot of things at the show which desperately wanted to be OLED and weren't. Prepending another character shaped a bit like an O is a common tic, and hoardings promoting both ULED and QLED displays are seen everywhere.
This is an OLED
That’s not to direct a slight at the technology. Samsung’s QLED displays - they of the huge 8K TVs - are very decent TFT-LCD panels in their own right and they deserve better than even the slightest risk of being promoted as something they’re not. In any case, genuine OLED seems set to grow, with several manufacturers showing TVs based on panels larger than the 55-inch types that LG has been making for a while (though not, according to the promotional blurb, any brighter; that’s a more fundamental problem than sheer size.)
This is not an OLED
Still. If TV manufacturers have started to realise that home televisions should ideally be Rec. 709 devices too, then that’s a very positive development. It’s less certain that the average consumer will ever actually discover Sony’s Creator Mode or Panasonic’s Filmmaker Mode. TVs tend to be shipped with the punchiest, most showroom-friendly settings they can achieve, and many (most?) will never be adjusted from that point. Panasonic, at least, has said the mode will be available with one touch from the remote control, though, so it should at least be possible to aim for a standard without becoming an expert in menu-fu.
So, with that agreeable conclusion in mind, let’s wander off toward the exhibits of Miele and Electrolux, whose kitchen appliances section sizzles all day to the aroma of cooking demonstrations and mooch some free nibbles to enjoy while contemplating the bright future of home AV. Now that's something you can't do at NAB.
Travel and accommodation for IFA 2019 were provided by Asus. Phil would like to make it clear that while there are reasons to go to Berlin for pleasure, a trade show full of microwave ovens and smoothie makers probably isn’t one of them.