Does Anyone Really Want That New TV? A CES Investigation

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This week in Las Vegas, the Consumer Electronics Show will be the birthplace of all kinds of television-related innovation — massive, expensive living-room upgrades that the tech industry claims people desire, even if actual consumer research says otherwise. Even before the official CES kickoff Tuesday morning, LG and Sony had unveiled 84-inch TVs in the thousands-of-dollars price range, leaving many to wonder whether the so-called "4K solution" (aka Ultra HD TV) was a necessary evolution or an inevitable one. Samsung and Intel, too, had big screens and big ideas all related to making TV a lot better — or at least a little different. But what do consumers really want? We've done a little research, turning up sources a bit les biassed than, you know, the companies that make TVs.

In general, 68 percent of people are satisfied with the technology they currently own, according to NDP research. When it comes to their televisions, that number gets even higher: According to a 2012 report on consumer technology by Accenture, only 32 percent of people planned on buying a new television set in the next 12 months, down from 35 percent in 2010, when the so-called "Smart TV revolution" began). Right now, people buy a new TV set every 6.7 years, according to Bits Blog's Roy Furchgott.

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Now, if your seven-year tech itch has come along, consumer research shows that certain types of televisions will, in fact, appeal to you more than others — and Smart TVs, the Internet-connected sets that don't seem to be a focus at this year's CES as much as the 4K-resolution screens, are not one of them. After three years of Smart TV availability, just 10 percent of households own web-ready sets and less than 3 percent have connected the "smart part," according to a Mckinsey study from last year. Only 33 percent of owners told McKinsey they were "very satisfied" with this type of Internet-connected set. 

That hasn't stopped Samsung from claiming that 80 percent of existing owners want to upgrade their Smart TVs more often, a figure that President Boo-Keun Yoon cited as he conveniently revealed new sets that do just that, with a replaceable box on the back of the machine. Analysts like Giles Cottle already aren't buying that 80-percent figure, which encourages annual buying rather than reinforcing actual spending habits.

Part of the reason for the reported dissatisfaction with Smart TV has to do with complicated user interfaces. It's not that people aren't interested in streaming shows from the web to their big screens — indeed, 71 percent of Canadian consumers found the idea of Internet television appealing in a 2010 survey by NDP. But, in practice, the set-up is less appealing: inputting commands takes a lot of time with current remotes and software, and other bells and whistles like social media can get in the way. As you can see from the NDP chart at right, most people with Smart TVs use them to watch shows and listen to music, not to, say, tweet. 

It's simplicity that seems to matter most — a study by the consumer-research firm Ericsson found "usability and super-simple interfaces" as a constant in user satisfaction research. Consumers expressed outright frustration not so much with their TVs as their remote controls, the study found, suggesting that accessories haven't advanced as quickly as bigger (and more expensive) television have. Apple, apparently has a a Steve Jobs-inspired, Siri-controlled remote control in the works, as a part of its much rumored next generation of AppleTV. We've also seen some interesting signs out of Microsoft, with its Xbox Kinect remote that focuses on motion control. Neither companies will showcase at this year's CES, at least not officials. 

The big talk of this year's show in Las Vegas is not the remote, of course, but Ultra HD TV, the invention formerly known as 4K. And with the hi-def TV game showing a strong sales trajectory after a slow start some years back, TV makers might have reason to think that there's something out there better than plain old HD. But do people want better? They did in 2009, according to NDP, but a lot of that had to do with affordability. These new 4K sets are approaching and even exceeding the $20,000 range. Also, as of right now, not much content is optimized for the screen's super-resolution, which the techies admit is "stunning." If the Ultra HD thing does catch on, it will likely follow the same slow trajectory as HD did in the last decade.

And then there's the question that may define the year ahead: Do people care about hardware, or do they care about content? "Consumers don't think in terms of specific technology or distribution channels," explains the Ericsson report. "Consumers have started to expect to be able to watch what they want, when and where they want. They want full access to all content." So until we see something with those capabilities — that rumored à la carte Intel TV that never came because the cable providers wouldn't give in, or whatever Apple has up its sleeve — the next big thing to come out of CES may be just that: way bigger, and maybe better, but maybe not quite necessary enough.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.