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Curved TVs: Gobsmackingly great or goldbrick gimmick?

Michael Ansaldo | March 9, 2015
From CRTs to OLEDs, TV manufacturers have continuously redefined our most beloved appliance, and now they're literally throwing us another curve: Curved screens that promise to deliver an immersive IMAX-like experience in the living room. Backed by a healthy dose of hype and a smattering of scientific evidence, these sleek sets carry huge price tags--in some cases 30- to 40 percent more than comparably sized flat-screen TVs. Let's take a deeper look at what they offer.

Anyone unlucky enough to be seated outside that area will have a more, well, bittersweet viewing experience. In fact, once you sit around 35 degrees to either side of that sweet spot, the image closest to you appears foreshortened compared to the far side. Some viewers find this fatiguing as well as annoying because of the brain's attempt to compensate for the distortion. Sit even farther to the side, and the screen's edge might completely block the near side of the image as it curls in front of it.

That sweet spot, however, grows in direct proportion to the size of the TV. That means you can remedy most of these problems by buying — you guessed it — a bigger screen. By most accounts, 70 inches is the minimum size needed to experience the immersive effects of a curved screen, but be prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege: Samsung's 78-inch 4K UHD HU9000 Series Curved Smart TV sells for $6000 at Amazon.

Reflections and distortions

While bigger is better, it doesn't solve all the issues you can encounter with a curved TV. Two of the most troublesome are reflections and geometric distortions.

All TVs reflect ambient light. You know this if you've ever seen an image of your living-room torch lamp shining back at you from the corner of your flat screen. The problem can be caused by light fixtures, windows, ambient light bouncing off walls or picture-frame glass, brightly colored furniture or clothes — basically, any light source opposite the screen. Some folks meticulously design their living rooms — or pay big bucks for someone to do it for them — to minimize these reflection problems. Most of us, however, just live with them.

Reflections from a curved TV can be more difficult to ignore. Unlike a flat screen, which merely reflects the light source back at you, curved TVs act like a fun house mirror, enlarging and distorting the reflection across a much wider swath of the screen and making it near impossible to tune out. The only way to minimize this phenomenon is to give considerable thought to where you position your TV in relation to the room's light sources and adjust as necessary. Even then, your best bet is to use the TV in as dark a room as is comfortable (cover your windows with room-darkening shades and invest in some smart dimmer switches or plug-in modules).

Other distortions are tougher to tackle. Some viewers have reported a bow-tie effect when viewing letterboxed content, with the top vertical black bar stretching up at the edges and the bottom bar similarly stretching down. The degree of distortion — and distraction — seems to depend on your viewing position. Similar distortions have been reported watching any type of content if your vertical viewing position is too high or too low.

 

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