Buy Now or Wait?

I am thinking about the Panasonic ZT60 plasma, but I hear that Panasonic and Sony are going to make OLED TVs. Also, Netflix will start 4K streaming. What is a person to do, wait for OLED or buy 4K? Is the ZT60 worth getting?

Paul Rothman
Miami, FL

You bring up a lot of issues in just a few words! First of all, Panasonic and Sony have announced that they are, indeed, working on OLED; both companies showed a 56-inch 4K OLED prototype at CES last January, though neither will be a commercial product any time soon. LG and Samsung announced 55-inch 1080p OLED TVs at CES 2012; LG’s has just started shipping for $12,000, while Samsung’s is still MIA.

Of course, many companies unveiled 4K flat panels at CES, ranging in size from 50 to 110 inches. I heard unofficial reports of prices from $2000 for a 50-incher to $300,000 for the giant 110-inchers. The 84-inch Sony XBR-84X900 is $25,000, while the 85-inch Samsung S9 is $40,000; I doubt we’ll see 50-inch 4K sets for $2000 any time this year.

As for Netflix streaming 4K, that was demonstrated at CES, and Netflix has announced it plans to offer this service commercially within two years. And there are other potential methods to deliver 4K content, including downloading as Sony proposes, terrestrial broadcasting as demonstrated by the Korean Broadcast System in LG’s booth at CES, and a new optical-disc format that the Blu-ray Disc Association is reportedly talking about. But none of these will be available for well over a year, in my opinion.

Sony does provide a 4K server with its 84-inch XBR-84X900 4K flat panel. The server comes pre-loaded with 10 movies and other content with native 4K resolution (3840×2160), and Sony says it will deliver more movies on Blu-ray data discs (not video discs) that are inserted in the server to copy the data to its hard drive.

Red Digital Cinema is taking pre-orders for its RedRay 4K server ($1495), but I don’t know when it will actually be available. 4K files must be in the .red format with REDCrypt copy protection, and content is delivered via Internet download, SD card, or USB 2.

The biggest problem with 4K today is that very little is certain about it—what codecs will be used, what the tech specs will be (color gamut, bit depth, etc.), how it will be delivered, and so on. In my view, there’s way too much uncertainty about the underlying infrastructure to invest in a 4K TV at this point—that TV could well become obsolete as soon as some of these issues are resolved.

On the other hand, if you’ve got more money than you know what to do with and you want to be on the bleeding edge of home-entertainment technology, go for it! After all, early adopters help manufacturers pay for the R&D and bring the prices of subsequent generations down to realistic levels for the rest of us.

What about OLED? Again, if you’re super-rich, why not? $12,000 for a 55-inch TV is way out of my league, but OLED looks stunning and is likely to be the best video-display technology in the years to come. But it also faces some big challenges, including low manufacturing yields and the possibility of a relatively short lifespan, which we won’t know for sure until many units have been in service for several years.

Which leaves plasma and LED-LCD. In my view, plasma is clearly superior to LED-LCD in most respects, especially if you can control the ambient light to some degree in your room. The Panasonic ZT60 ($4100 for 65-inch screen) looked fantastic at CES as seen in the photo above, but it’s not yet available at retail, so no one has done a real review, which I would definitely wait for before buying.

Another contender for the top-plasma crown in 2013 is the Samsung F8500 ($3700 for 64-inch screen), but it’s not available yet, either. Both models seem to have black levels low enough to rival the legendary Pioneer Kuro plasma, now four years out of production, but we won’t know for sure until respected reviewers get these sets into their labs and give them a real workout.

The larger issue you raise is when to wait and when to pull the trigger. If you continue to wait for the Next Big Thing, you’ll be waiting forever and never get anything. On the other hand, if you buy something and the next generation is much better and becomes available soon after your purchase, you’ll feel really bad.

In your particular case, I’d wait until the Panasonic ZT60 and Samsung F8500 have been reviewed by reputable outlets and, assuming they turn out to be as good as they seem, get one of them later this year. Either one will likely provide years of exceptional picture quality, after which the OLED and 4K markets will have settled down.