Buyer beware: there’s no good time to buy a TV

Just when you thought it was safe to buy a TV again, the television industry goes and pulls another fast one.

4K television has been ramping up lately, with about 30 million units sold last year, a number that is expected to skyrocket to 330 million worldwide by 2020.

But many consumers who have already picked up 4K sets, which promise four times the resolution of regular high-definition televisions, will soon have buyer’s remorse thanks to yet another supposedly ground-breaking invention that makes their purchases obsolete.

High-dynamic range – a technology that allows screens to display a greater gamut of shades and hues and therefore better colours – was the talk of the town at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. Everyone involved, from TV manufacturers to Hollywood studios to Netflix, was pumping it up as the newest, greatest thing that no one will be able to live without.

“We’ve had many increments in pixel resolution over the years and that’s great, but the marginal returns in moving up to 4K aren’t as great as the earlier steps,” said Neil Hunt, Netflix’s chief product officer. “[HDR] is going to be more important and more relevant to more people than moving to a higher resolution.”

That’s great – except we’ve heard similar song-and-dance numbers before.

It all started in earnest about five years ago, after everyone had upgraded their old cathode ray televisions to shiny new HD flat panels. Manufacturers, looking for new ways to lift flattening sales, starting pushing internet-connected “smart” TVs. These devices, they said, would transform the home viewing experience by delivering apps to the living room in much the same way that we get them on smartphones.

For the most part, smart TVs turned out to be anything but smart, and the revolutionary app wave never came. Years later, few viewers use the internet functions of their TVs for anything more than watching Netflix or YouTube.

Then came 3D. Avatar, the 2009 James Cameron film with the blue aliens, kicked off a three-dimensional gold rush. Film studios added 3D to seemingly every film and TV manufacturers, looking to cash in on the expectation that consumers would want the same experiences at home, built it into their products.

But it turned out that people hated wearing 3D glasses – and they disliked paying the premiums for the supposed privilege of doing so. Not surprisingly, the technology has fizzled into irrelevancy.

Next up were curves, perhaps television manufacturers’ most dubious gimmick. Claiming that the slightly concave screens provided better immersion, Sony, Samsung, LG and others tried to convince consumers to bite on yet another gimmick.

Analysts and experts begged to differ on the viewing benefits and the market worked its magic again – curved screens have failed to become popular. The fact that the things look terrible hanging on a wall didn’t help.

Along came 4K, also known as ultra-high definition, so called because it delivers about 4,000 horizontal pixels, amounting to quadruple the resolution of regular 1080p HD. 4K flat panels have been around for a few years, but sales were initially slow thanks to high prices and a dearth of content.

Those premiums all but evaporated last year, with average prices falling by 86 per cent since 2012. The promise of more content has also spurred sales, with Netflix ramping up its 4K catalogue and broadcasters such as BT Sport in the Britain and Rogers in Canada promising higher-resolution sports.

In the UAE, Etisalat has said that it would roll out a 4K offering in the first quarter of this year.

At CES, TV manufacturers talked about how they’re now adding HDR to the mix – and in case you’ve missed the pattern, there will be premium prices to go along with it.

For all those who have already bought a 4K TV, well, that’s too bad. As Netflix’s Mr Hunt says, those suckers – er, consumers – are going to miss out on the real picture improvements unless they buy yet another TV, this one with HDR. All that previous hyperbole about how 4K was a big step up from regular HD? Well, let’s just pretend that didn’t happen.

“Buyer beware” applies to all early technology, but perhaps nowhere more so than in televisions. There isn’t ever a good time to buy a TV because there’s always a new technology-cum-gimmick just around the corner, which means there’s really only one rule to go by: don’t do it until you absolutely have to.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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