Will UHDs Evolve Into Two-Piece Systems?

Considering all their app, Web browsing and streaming smartness along with complex 4K, HDR, WCG and HEVC processing needs, UHD TVs are getting nearly as computerly complex as your home PC. But while home PCs are trending toward single all-in-one, towerless, integrated monitor configurations, TVs may be slowly—very slowly—moving in the opposite direction, to a more modular two-piece approach.

Back in 2013, Samsung introduced its Evolution Kit, designed to bring modern capabilities to older TV sets, as well as enable buyers of newer sets to add new capabilities in the future for a few hundred dollars without having to buy a whole new set for a few thousand dollars. The company unveiled its latest Evolution Kit, the UHD One Connect Box ($399.99) this past June.

Great idea, right? But, oddly, no other TV maker has followed Samsung’s two-piece example.

Until now. At CES, at least one other major TV brand will unveil a modular TV—a screen and a separate box containing the complex processing, codecs, connection jacks and power supply. We can’t say who it will be—you’ll find out in a couple of weeks.

A two-piece TV introduces multiple advantages to both consumers and TV makers. For consumers, it’s got the advantages of any modular system—if you want to upgrade or need to replace one specific function, you just upgrade a single piece rather the whole expensive, all-encompassing product. And that function upgrade is more likely to be in the cheaper box than the pricier monitor.

It also reduces a TV’s bulk and thickness (idiotically curved TVs that add unnecessary depth aside). A thinner TV is more aesthetically pleasing and more easily wall-mountable. A separate, non-descript connection box hidden in plain site, in a cabinet or even wall-mounted itself means there’s only one visible cable going into the TV-on-the-wall instead of the current rat’s nest of wires.

It also makes a big screen TV safer. Big screen TVs falling on and causing injuries to children, especially toddlers, is actually a bigger thing than TV makers want anyone to know—around 15,000-20,000 of such injuries in the U.S. annually. The danger from toppled TV phenomena, increasing as consumers buy ever-increasingly larger TV screen sizes, has prompted a medical study, “Toppled television sets and head injuries in the pediatric population: a framework for prevention,” which was published in the September 29 issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics. (Oddly, missing in its list of prevention recommendations is wall-mounting a TV, but I digress.)

For TV makers, an outboard box provides several advantages. First, they get to sell two products where there had only been one. Without the pricey integrated components, it’d be easier for premium set makers to compete on price with bargain sets from companies lacking the capabilities and the technical reputation to produce and market an outboard box. Separating the UHD from the non-visual functions allow TV makers to focus development and marketing on display/picture attributes and bezel aesthetics, rather than be distracted by non-visual attributes not necessarily in their wheelhouse.

Breaking a TV into two component pieces may even open up the market for expanded streamer box/gaming consoles for non-TV makers such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Roku or Microsoft, or even current STB makers to create a two-tier market: the Silicon Valley nerds create the computing smarts, and the TV makers make the dumb, but pretty UHD terminals.

Apparently, there already are discussions to standardize the cable box allowing for third-party STB market entry and to break the current cable/satellite STB monopoly. It’s only a short step from there to add the UHD smarts and connections.

But this is admittedly forecast fantasizing. At CES, however, you may catch glimpses and glimmers of a potential two-piece UHD TV future.