Are curved-screen LCD TVs a pure gimmick? Mark Henninger discusses the one advantage this form factor can offer versus flat LCDs, especially for UHD/4K models.
What good is a curved-screen TV? The consensus among many TV reviewers is that the curve looks cool, but it adds nothing to the viewing experience—in fact, some say it degrades the experience from off axis. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this form factor does have something to offer the dedicated videophile. There's only one catch—it's a solo affair.
One of the main weaknesses of many LED-lit LCD TVs is a relatively limited optimal viewing angle, as compared to plasma and OLED. TVs that use VA (vertically aligned) LCD panels often have deep blacks when viewed head-on, but they quickly lose contrast when viewed from an angle. Even when you sit centered facing a flat screen, you view the edges of that screen at an angle. Depending on how close you sit, that can lead to a loss of picture quality toward the edges of the screen. Now, consider UHD/4K resolution: It requires the viewer to get close to the screen to see all the detail. When viewing a curved screen close up and centered, the viewing angle at a screen's edges stays closer to perpendicular than it does with a flat screen.
For one solitary viewer who sits in the right position, a curved LCD screen provides the very tangible benefit of keeping the entire panel aimed at the viewer, which can result in higher contrast and greater uniformity across the entire screen. For anyone who needs a UHD/4K TV as a calibrated PC display for video or photo editing, a curved LCD could potentially provide the best price/performance ratio versus an OLED display. With curved LED-edgelit displays, as long as you stay in the "sweet spot," you'll see the maximum image quality the display has to offer from edge to edge.
Not all curved screen are the same, optimal viewing angles and distances will vary. This graphic is for illustrative purposes only.
The problem with curved LCD screens is that the form factor provides no tangible benefit for off-axis viewers, and UHD/4K content offers no significant benefits to viewers who sit 10 or 12 feet away from a 55- or 65-inch screen. In order to take full advantage of a UHD/4K curved screen, you need to sit in the optimum image-quality zone, centered and close enough to see the extra detail in UHD/4K content. And even if you set everything up perfectly, because of the paucity of UHD TV programming and movies, you won't be watching that much true UHD/4K content anyway. That's why I see curved LED edgelit LCDs as an option worth considering for use with a PC—many modern games do support 3820 x 2160 resolution, and if your video card is up to the task, UHD/4K video games look spectacular. Ultimately, I'm not convinced that curved screens are the best option for anyone looking to buy a TV for use in the living room or a small home theater.
I became acutely aware of these issues thanks to the 65-inch Panasonic AX800U I have in for review. It's a flat LED-edgelit UHD/4K TV with a great-looking picture—when viewed head on. However, to fully take advantage of its UHD/4K resolution, I have to get quite close to the screen. When I do, the loss of contrast and saturation near the screen edges becomes noticeable. I wish I had a Samsung curved LCD in my studio for comparison, but I don't. Instead, I took a ride down to my local Best Buy, which just recently added a dedicated display area for Samsung curved-screen TVs.
My local Best Buy just installed a dedicated Samsung curved screen display area.
At Best Buy, I spent about an hour scrutinizing the latest UHD/4K Samsung LCDs to see if the curve genuinely improves image quality, at least for one perfectly positioned viewer. Although the exercise was unscientific, I found that the reality matched up quite well with my hypothesis. When viewed head-on, the Samsung curved LED-edgelit UHD/4K LCDs exhibited exceptional image quality. Off angle, I could see the same drop in contrast that affects other LCDs. That's when I realized that a curved screen could be an advantage under the right conditions, regardless of the screen size. In fact, I think a curved screen could be of greatest benefit for smaller screen sizes—namely, displays used for computing and gaming.
I noticed something else when I was at Best Buy—Samsung's curved-screen showcase is a distinct standalone space with few distractions, and the actual TVs are relatively far apart from each other. In this space, shoppers naturally stand at the right distance, and centered, when they check out the TVs. I suspect the curve offers an advantage over flat edgelit UHD/4K LCD TVs when viewed by potential buyers on the showroom floor, thanks to the natural tendency to seek out that optimum, centered position.
Why is a small curved screen a good thing? It comes down to this: In order to fully appreciate all that the extra resolution has to offer, you need to be physically close to a UHD/4K TV. In terms of the field of view, the screen should look like you are sitting in an Imax theater, even if is a relatively small screen. Once you are six feet or more from a 55-inch UHD/4K TV, you are not seeing any benefit from the extra resolution. An optimal viewing distance for a 55-inch UHD/4K TV is around 5 feet; at that distance, a curved screen becomes an advantage—at least for edgelit LCD displays with limited viewing angles.
Even if you sit at a typical 1080p viewing distance, the curved screen appears to offer a benefit over many flat panels—but again, it only works for one viewer, perhaps two. With LCDs that have a relatively narrow viewing angle, I've noticed contrast-related issues sitting seven feet away from a 60-inch edgelit VA (vertical-alignment) LCD screen. Recently, I've paid particular attention to the relatively narrow viewing angle of many 1080p VA LCDs. At optimal 1080p viewing distances, I still see contrast and/or saturation fall-off.
Some of the marketing hype for curved-screen LCDs promises a lot more than improved color and contrast for one viewer—it promises a more immersive experience for all viewers. I don't agree with that pitch; I don't find curved screens any more immersive than flat screens. I've spent considerable time dwelling on this topic, and the only technical advantage I see for curved edgelit LCD TVs is the way it compensates for limited viewing angles—for one viewer. However, that one viewer gets to enjoy exceptional image quality. Plasma is fading fast, and until UHD/4K OLEDs hit store shelves, curved UHD/4K LCDs might just be the best option for solitary videophiles. Even when OLED arrives, it's likely that curved LCDs will cost a lot less; depending on the needs of the buyer, Samsung's approach to image quality might be good enough—for the one lucky person sitting in the sweet spot, that is.
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