Television hardware news can be a relatively sleepy affair; at a certain point, “big” begins to lose much meaning, and smart TVs in the age of Roku often seem redundant at best. And yet at CES this year, Samsung has managed meaningful developments on both fronts.
First, in what will likely prove the biggest surprise of the trade show—admittedly not saying much these days—Samsung announced that iTunes would soon take its place alongside Hulu and Netflix and myriad other streamers on its smart TV platform, Apple’s first concession that it might need more than Apple TV to hold sway in the living room. Not only that, but Samsung HDTVs will support AirPlay 2, Apple’s method of automagically beaming content from one of its devices to a big screen.
"We've buried the hatchet over the past year or so."
Andrew Sivori, Samsung
In fact, Apple later clarified that multiple "leading TV manufacturers" would build in AirPlay 2, effectively giving Apple a coherent alternative to Google Chromecast. The iTunes app will remain exclusive to Samsung, at least for the time being. The team-up might seem surprising, if only given the animus between the two companies in recent years.
"As companies, the two of us, we've buried the hatchet over the past year or so," says Andrew Sivori, vice president of TV marketing for Samsung Electronics America. "That opens the opportunity for things like this to happen."
Otherwise, this feels significant for what it represents than what it will enable in practice in the near term. Since the launch of Movies Anywhere in 2017, you could find the majority of your iTunes movie purchases within your Amazon Video or Vudu or Google Play Movies app anyway, and vice versa. If you own a lot of iTunes TV shows, though, congrats!
iTunes on a Samsung device, though, fits neatly with Apple’s broader aims. With iPhone sales sagging thanks to longer upgrade cycles, Cupertino increasingly needs services like Apple Music and its impending video subscription service to take up the slack. Take the iTunes-on-Samsung news the same way you might have last month’s Apple Music-on-Amazon Echo announcement. Or go all the way back to an iTunes announcement in 2003, when it landed on Windows after only two years as an Apple exclusive.
Which is to say, Apple has realized it cannot go it alone. Walling off its garden worked for years, but alliances will help ensure long-term growth. As for Samsung, iTunes gives its smart TV something Roku doesn’t have, at least for now. That’s priceless.
And then there’s the new Samsung hardware. While the company introduced a MicroLED display last year, the 146-inch behemoth appears not to have shipped in 2018 as planned. Even if it had, the so-called Wall was far too big, and presumably too expensive, for civilian households and budgets. In 2019, the next-generation screen tech has become more manageable, if still not altogether reasonable.
Samsung is still hyping The Wall, the latest iteration of which stretches out to 219 inches. (For context, NBA seven-footer and occasional Twitter hero Joel Embiid has a wingspan of a mere 90 inches. Measured diagonally, The Wall is well over two outstretched Embiids.) But the company has added a 75-inch, 4K-resolution set that belongs in a house rather than a mall.
It arrives sooner than expected. MicroLED is almost certainly the future; the only question has been how long it would take that future to materialize. By ditching the backlight of traditional LED, MicroLED can offer the same inky blacks and lack of haze that makes OLED practically perfect. And while the organic material that powers the individual diodes in OLED can grow dimmer and uneven as they age, MicroLED deploys a durable inorganic material, gallium nitride. It also truly lacks any bezel whatsoever, a refreshing fealty to the "bezel-free" promise that has been applied so loosely to so many TVs and smartphones in recent years.
Its drawbacks start with price, meanwhile, but also run deeper.
“The biggest issue for MicroLED as a viable TV display technology to compete with OLED or LCD is cost, but also issues like heat dissipation and the pixel pitch,” says Paul Gagnon, executive director of research and analysis at IHS Markit. Pixel pitch is how densely pixels are packed together in a given display; the lower the pixel pitch, the closer the viewer can sit without being able to discern individual pixels. “It has actually been difficult to shrink the pixel pitch enough to have a consumer-acceptable screen size that didn’t cost a fortune,” Gagnon says.
The 75-inch display will still likely cost a fortune, whenever it ends up shipping; Sivori says the company will provide an update on timing sometime later this year, not a hopeful sign for 2019 gratification. And 75 inches is currently the lowest the company can go. But Samsung has made great strides over the last year in both heat dissipation and pixel pitch alike.
"At the end of the day, not everybody can have a 146-inch TV in their home, but we know there’s something to this technology, The only way we were going to be able to get this resolution at this size was to get the geometry tighter,” says Sivori, who declined to give specifics on the proprietary smarts behind the shrinkage. In person, though, the 75-inch MicroLED looks every bit as sharp and deep and stunning as advertised.
Another MicroLED display benefit is modularity; you can configure its underlying LED panels however you like. You can see how that looks in Samsung’s so-called Window, which one can contort into niche aspect ratios, like 32:9 or 1:1.
That has a potential consumer benefit as well. “The tiled configuration would permit easier installation of super large sizes,” says Gagnon. “I don’t think people want to transport their TV via crane through a second floor patio door like a piano.”
In their own ways, iTunes on Samsung and a consumer MicroLED set are both iterative announcements, extensions of strategies and technologies already in progress. They're no less exciting for it, though. If nothing else, think of them as harbingers of the very-near future: a world in which you can watch whatever you want, no matter where it comes from—all on a pixel-perfect picture.
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