Flat is out, curve is in

Flat is out, curve is in

Flat is out, curve is in

Electronic gadgets with curved displays are not just marketing hype, they have both promise and style, says Molly Wood...

Subtle improvements, overstated innovations and marketing sleights of hand come fast and furious from the makers of consumer electronics. From 3-D TV to every possible permutation of wearable device to Bluetooth toothbrushes, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of what is innovative and what is just money-grubbing.

This year, marketers have new bait: curved screens on phones and televisions. LG and Samsung, for example, both offer a curved-screen phone and new, high-end televisions with curved displays.

After spending some time with both, I can tell you this: The new gimmick works on TVs, but not on phones - at least not yet. For TVs, LG and Samsung claim the curved displays offer a more “immersive” viewing experience and the illusion of a bigger screen. Also, if you are sitting to the side of a TV, the image will still look good, they say.

“If you imagine you’re sitting in the center of your couch, every point on the screen as you sweep from left to right is an equal distance from where you sit,” said Dave Das, a senior vice president for home entertainment at Samsung. “It’s easier on the eyes, and the curve perceptually widens the field of view and makes the TV seem bigger than it is.”
Then of course, there’s design - and design matters. Curved TVs are undeniably good-looking. But also, Das said, they will usher in the next evolution of TV displays.

When TV makers started producing high-definition sets, designs changed. Screens became bigger while the sets became thinner. Now, Das said, the industry is moving from high-definition to ultra high-definition, and curved screens are the visual cue for the next generation.

So the argument for a curved-screen TV is the same as the argument for any wave of new TVs: better picture, better style. From what I can see, these TVs offer both, but it is unclear whether the curve or the improved display is the bigger benefit.

For phones, the reason for the curve is, as an LG spokesman, Chaz Abbott, put it, “view better, hold better, hear better.” The curved display supposedly gives you the same edgeless feeling it does on TVs when watching video, and better ergonomics in the hand. Also, the shape molds to your face a little more like old, arched telephones.

To test those claims, I spent the last week with the LG G Flex, the company’s first phone with a curved display. After the initial rush of newness wore off, I was disappointed.
The G Flex is confused by LG’s decision to combine two new trends in one: the curved display with a phablet-size phone. The G Flex has a 6-inch display, and stands 6.3 inches tall and 3.2 inches wide. It is a huge phone, even for a phablet-lover like me.

Any ergonomic benefit from the arched design is lost in the phone’s tabletlike unwieldiness. For example, the curved phone is much easier to hold than a flat phone, and would be much safer to operate one-handed without fear that it will slip out of your hand and onto the floor. Sadly, it’s hard to accomplish much one-handed on a phone this size.

The display is also a minor letdown. It’s HD, but barely, at 1280-by-720 resolution - a blow to the immersive viewing experience. Watching video is indeed enjoyable, and the curve of the screen does offer a nice visual illusion of a display without discrete borders. Some of that, though, could be the sheer size of the screen, and compared with video on an iPhone 5S, the picture quality just wasn’t as good.

I also found the touch screen itself to be less polished than those on other phones. I could not smoothly scroll through a list of emails, for example, without opening several of them along the way. I’m not sure if that results from the technological challenge of the curved display, but I definitely found the touch screen responsiveness inferior by the latest standards.

Abbott of LG said the G Flex was “selling better than expected,” but he also characterized the phone as a proof-of-concept device that is helping the company retool its manufacturing processes for curved screens. Eventually, they could find their way into a variety of devices, from future phones to future wearables.

Proof of concept? I’ll buy that. At $600 (Rs 36,105) without being attached to a wireless carrier contract, it’s cheaper than a Galaxy Note 3, but I’d still say the Note 3 is the better phone. I doubt that curved displays will be a major selling point for phones, but I do think the manufacturing improvements will lead to better designs in other devices.

On the other hand, if I had the money for a curved-screen OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TV, I think I’d be in. I spent a day with LG’s 55-inch OLED TV, the 55EA9800, currently available at a sale price of $5,999.99 (Rs 3,60,989).
No, I didn’t add an extra 9 to the price.

Does the curved design make a difference? It is a bit difficult to say for certain because it is combined with a next-generation display.

Either way, it’s lovely. The curved display created a “Mona Lisa” effect, where I felt that the picture looked the same no matter where I was standing or sitting. And despite the drawback of not being able to wall-mount a curved display, the design is, to me, elegant and distinctive.

Still, I may be in the minority among tech pundits, many of whom think the curved screens are another gimmick from a desperate industry.

Audio/video purists argue that curved TVs offer fewer viewing angles than flat TVs, and that sitting more than about 35 degrees to the side of a curved television produces a distorted image that is hardly immersive at all.

But I rarely count the degrees of my viewing angle. To my eye, the combination of stunning OLED display and a sweeping, remarkably thin, curved screen added up to a perfectly lovely high-end TV viewing experience.

And curved-screen TVs will not be completely unaffordable in the coming months: Samsung will offer a curved-screen LED lineup this spring that will include a 48-inch model for a somewhat accessible $2,000 (Rs 1,20,350). I’m looking forward to trying that TV to see if the perceived curve benefits are as noticeable without the fabulous distraction of OLED.

I don’t think curved displays are a waste of time and design energy; they have both promise and style. As a consumer, I know I’m being manipulated into buying a sexy new thing. I’m willing to accept the bargain, but only on my schedule. A $6,000 (Rs 3,61,050)  TV isn’t a must-have, but I might pencil one in at $2,000 (Rs 1,20,350).

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