Say hello to 3D TV

  • Image credit: Dan Saelinger
  • SONY Bravia LX900
  • Illustration by Mr Kone
Date:1 October 2010 Tags:, , ,

Over the past 80 years, televisions have evolved from bulging black-and-white tubes to svelte wall-mounted panels. Despite this metamorphosis, TVs have always displayed just two dimensions. Not any more: by the end of the year, most major TV manufacturers will have released 3D models. Yet with all the hype, you can’t blame customers for being sceptical. After all, 3D TV is a brand-new technology, with premium-priced sets and a mere trickle of content. To see how the tech holds up, we put four new 3D TVs through intensive testing in our labs. Here’s what you need to know before you shop.

The glasses
All 3D TVs require battery-powered, active-shutter glasses, which use a liquid-crystal layer on each lens that turns dark when current is applied. The lenses occlude each eye 120 times a second in response to an infrared signal from the television. The TVs display 3D content at 240 frames per second, alternating the view to the left and right eyes to display a slightly different angle to each – thus the stereoscopic separation that makes stuff pop. Some people claim that this shuttering makes them feel nauseous or dizzy – and indeed, several of our testers complained about just that – but the same is often said of 3D in movie theatres, which use passive, polarised glasses.

Although you can’t watch 3D TV without shutter glasses, not all 3D sets come with them. (“That’s like selling you a bicycle without handlebars,” one PM tester said.) Extra glasses cost about R1 000 to R1 500 a pair, so a family could end up spending a fortune on glasses.

And if that doesn’t burn you up, consider this – currently glasses from every major manufacturer are incompatible. (Some third-party companies are making universal glasses, but none were available for testing.) So, if you take your Sony 3D glasses to a friend’s house to watch football on his LG 3D TV, you’ll be greeted with little more than double vision.

The sets
As anyone who’s seen an IMAX 3D film can tell you, 3D content works best on a big screen, which is probably why manufacturers are only offering 3D TVs 100 cm and up. The edges of the set tend to break the illusion that content is popping off the screen (“You notice the stuttering of the shutter glasses in the area outside the screen,” one tester said), so the farther the edges are pushed to the periphery of your field of vision, the better the effect is.

Those big sets can get expensive, though. Expect to pay about 20 to 40 per cent more for a 3D TV than for an equivalent 2D set (manufacturers claim that prices will come down as 3D becomes more mainstream). Many less expensive sets are labelled “3D Ready,” with IR syncing transmitters for the glasses sold separately.

Some TVs have a trick called 2D-to-3D conversion, wherein the television’s image processor analyses the video stream and creates an on-the-fly stereoscopic separation. We tried out the effect on a Samsung 3D TV playing a 2D Blu-ray disc of No Country for Old Men, and the results were deeply weird and inconsistent. The set managed to correctly put actors into the foreground and stretch the desert landscape behind them into the distance, yet reviewers complained that the actors seemed to “have lines around them”, as if they had been cut out from the scene.

The setup
So, if you plunk down a shopping-bag full of banknotes for one of these new 3D sets, then a few thousand more for glasses, you’re ready to watch 3D, right? Not exactly. You’ll probably need a new Blu-ray player too.

The issue here is a standard called HDMI 1.4. HDMI is the protocol for the cables and interconnects used for digital hi-def video, and the standard was only recently updated to 1.4 to support 3D. Because audiovisual equipment sold before 2009 uses version 1.3 or lower, it can’t handle full HD 3D video (one notable exception is the Sony PlayStation 3, which can have its firmware updated to support HDMI 1.4).

Still, whereas older hardware can’t handle 3D, our tests found that older HDMI 1.3 cables work just fine with the new standard, so don’t get talked into paying extra for any “3D-ready HDMI” cables. Likewise, you can probably get along just fine with your existing home theatre by using different cables for sound than you do for video. Use the HDMI cable for your Blu-ray’s video, but send audio to your receiver via digital optical or coaxial cables.

The content
At press time, there were exactly two Blu-ray movies encoded for 3D (Monsters vs Aliens and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), but there promises to be around six by the end of the year and many more next year. Likewise, broadcast content is still fairly limited. Some 3D content is offered on ESPN in the US; the Discovery Channel is scheduled to launch a 3D network in early 2011; and more providers are promising to add 3D by the end of the year. But be wary: there could be extra charges for 3D channels, and none are currently in HD; the high-bandwidth requirements and limited customer base make it financially unfeasible at the moment. And although over-the-air 3D is possible, the USA’s National Association of Broadcasters says the networks have no plans for 3D in the next 12 months.

Perhaps the most compelling use of 3D is video gaming. Many games are natively produced in 3D, and our testers found that 3D looked great during games. As part of a firmware upgrade to the PlayStation 3, the gaming console can now play a host of titles in 3D. Computers with graphics cards from Nvidia have been able to play 3D games on compatible monitors for over a year, and the company will release software that allows 3Dcapable PCs to render 3D on TVs.

Our experience has left us encouraged by the performance of these sets, yet cautious about high prices and stillevolving standards. We can imagine that two or three years from now 3D will be an inexpensive or free feature in most sets, and that glasses will be universal and cheap. Prudent sorts will probably choose to wait. As for early adopters, they know that premium prices and evolving standards are just the costs of being a pioneer.

The test
Fourteen volunteers were shown 3D clips of live action, animation and video games, then asked to rate several aspects of each set on a scale of 1 (awful) to 5 (fantastic). To prevent bias, we taped over all branding. Though we found a clear winner, we were surprised both by how positive the impressions were (aside from glasses comfort, no TV scored below a 3 average in any category) and how close the scores were (in the Overall Opinion category, average scores were all between 3,5 and 3,8).

The sets
Manufacturer: SONY (Best overall)
Price range: R15 000 to R35 000
Size range: 100 to 150 cm
Glasses: R1 100 (two pairs included)
Technology: LCD
Test results: We tested the 132-cm Bravia LX900 (R29 000), which scored highest overall.

Sony’s set had standout performance in rendering 3D animation (“just like theatres”, one tester said) and games. Some griped about the shutter glasses, however, calling them “heavy” and complaining that they “hurt the bridge of the nose”. But the set also scored high marks for general picture quality.

Manufacturer: SAMSUNG
Price range: R12 000 to R50 000
Size range: 100 to 165 cm
Glasses: R1 000 to R1 500 (not included)
Technology: LCD, plasma
Test results: Second place went to the 117-cm Samsung UN46C8000 LCD (R20 000). Samsung’s glasses scored highest (“much more comfortable than the others”, one tester said) and the set got top marks for gaming (“really sharp effects”). On the downside, the 2D-to-3D conversion (it was the only tested model with the feature) gave some subjects a “queasy feeling”.

Manufacturer: LG
Price range: R30 000 to R40 000
Size range: 120 to 140 cm
Glasses: R950 (not included)
Technology: LCD
Test results: The 140-cm LG In. nia 55LX9500 (R36 000) was a beauty, with its razor-thin pro. le and transparent bezel. But setup was a chore (for some content, the user must select the proper 3D format). Plus, testers complained that the glasses felt “too tight” and fast-motion scenes were “too blurry”. Yet the LG ranked highest in overall picture quality – which it ought to for the price.

Manufacturer: PANASONIC
Price range: R19 000 to R30 000
Size range: 127 to 165 cm
Glasses: R1 100(one pair included)
Technology: Plasma
Test results: We were surprised that the 127-cm Panasonic TC-P50VT25 (R19 000) came in fourth – though not by much. Our tech editors loved the plasma’s picture, yet testers thought it was “too dark” and ganged up on its glasses (“too heavy”, “ouch”). The TV got the highest score for live-action footage, and the plasma’s 3D worked better than LCD models when subjects tilted their heads.

The 4-hour 3D TV torture test
The average viewer watches more than 4 hours of TV a day in the USA – and there’s no reason to believe that things are vastly different here. So what happens when you spend all that time watching 3D? PM’s Seth Porges decided to ignore manufacturer warnings and find out, while fellow writer Glenn Derene monitored his vitals.

1:00 hr (put down that second screen!)
An hour into watching Monsters vs Aliens on the Samsung TV, I grab my iPad, only to find that the screen is pitch-black through 3D glasses. (Samsung’s engineers claim that this is a result of the interaction between polarised shutter glasses and LCDs). Getting work done with 3D glasses on? Not going to happen.

2:00 hr (sit up straight!)
As I move on to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I begin to feel the first traces of eyestrain, and lie down to relax. But as I lower my head, the screen turns black on me again (darn you, polarised glasses!). Sitting up, I notice another strange effect of the shutter glasses: the white wall behind the screen seems to flicker distractingly. I scoot up to within a metre of the screen – far closer than I’m used to – and fill as much of my field of vision as possible with the TV. Okay, that works.

4:00 hr (final stage – acceptance)
After enduring two 3D movies and a dune-buggy game, I’m done. I feel the early stages of nausea, and a mirror reveals that the glasses have left red marks on the bridge of my nose. But though I learned that those manufacturer warnings about the side-effects of extended 3D watching are no joke, the sets did provide an almost theatre-level experience, and I’d jump at the chance to watch a movie or play a game in 3D again – just as long as I don’t plan on reading, working or reclining at the same time. In an age of multitasking, this is one technology that requires – and rewards – your undivided attention.

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