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Lately, trying to predict sales trends is like shooting at a moving target. And just when we think we have a market segment figured out, it turns in a new direction.

So it goes with the shipments of tablets, which most analysts had pegged to grow by 20% in 2014 over last year. But hold on – a recent report from IDC has dropped that number to 12% after Q1 shipment numbers came in.

In a January press release, IDC had predicted that tablet shipments would hit 270M units this year. At some point, that number was revised downward to 261M units. Now, IDC is forecasting 2014 shipments will drop to 245M units, based on lower-than-expected Q1 results.

What’s the reason for the fall-off? IDC states one obvious cause: People are keeping tablets longer than expected. Unlike smartphones, which are usually recycled every two years (the length of the typical service contract and phone battery), many older tablets are still in service. My wife still uses her iPad 2 daily, and I’ve gotten two+ years out of my Nook HD tablet.

IDC also found that older tablets are often “handed down” to another family member, which represents another lost sale. The vast majority of tablets are using conventional Wi-Fi connections to get data, which means they aren’t sold with annual contracts for LTE service.

But there’s another factor that IDC identified, and that is the growing popularity of large smartphones, or “phablets” as some wags have named them. Phablets are phones with screens larger than 5 inches, although IDC prefers to start the category at 5.5 inches. These gadgets can do everything a tablet can (plus make phone calls and send/receive texts), and many consumers find they’re large enough to stand in for a tablet screen.

The phablet category really took off when Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones broke the 5” screen barrier over a year ago. At the time, many analysts predicted that screen size would be too large for consumers. Guess what? They’ve been flying off the shelves. And now we’re starting to see 6” smartphones from the likes of LG and HTC. (LG even has a curved model, the G Flex.)

LG's new G-Flex curved phone has a 6-inch screen. Too big? Apparently not!

LG’s new G-Flex curved phone has a 6-inch screen. Too big? Apparently not!

IDC’s research states that smartphone shipments (30.1 million units) increased from 4.3% in Q1 2013 to 10.5% in Q1 2014. Consequently, shipments of larger tablets (8” – 11”) are expected to increase this year by 3% over 2013, while 7” – 8” tablets will see a decline of 5% in the same time period.

Even though phablets are pushing the limits of screen sizes, they’re finding a sweet spot with the public. The same thing appears to be happening on a smaller scale with 4K (Ultra HD) TVs, which IDC also tracks.

According to their research, worldwide 4K TV shipments reached over one million per month in March and are expected to hit 15.2 million for the full year. That’s better than most analysts expected, given the low awareness of 4K by the general public. IDC also found that the average selling price for Ultra HD TVs has fallen 86% since 2012 (when there were a handful of models) from $7,851 to $1,120 at the end of March.

According to a new report from Business Insider Market Intelligence, 4K TV sales are largely propelled by low prices in China, where many fabs are moving to 4K LCD panel production and leaving low-margin 2K panels behind. Indeed; the BI press release identified the Chinese market as “most accessible” for 4K TV.

In North America, BI predicts that 10% of all households will have at least one 4K TV by the end of 2018, and that worldwide shipments of 4K TVs will hit 11 million units by the end of 2016. We’ll no doubt see Korean manufacturers switch over to 4K LCD panels in larger sizes within two years, as the profit margins on 2K glass have dwindled to almost nothing.

There’s a precedent for the move to 4K, and that is the transition almost eight years ago from 720p/768p display resolution to 1080p. Now, history is repeating itself, and it’s likely that LCD TVs larger than 55” will all be Ultra HD in short order.

Have your doubts? At CES, Vizio announced a fall line-up of Ultra HD Smart TVs with eye-popping prices, such as a 50” model for $999, a 55-inch version of just $1,300, and a 65-inch offering for $2,200. Those prices aren’t much higher than what “loaded” smart 3D 2K LCD TVs command now. Vizio will even have a 70-inch 4K set for $2,600!

Consider also that Chinese manufacturers are setting up shop to build LCD TVs close to the US market. Last month, TCL purchased Sanyo’s TV manufacturing facility in Tijuana, Mexico, giving it a big advantage over other Chinese brands in shipping and tariffs. And you can bet that 4K Ultra HD TVs will be rolling off that line in the not-too-distant future.

By the way, 4K and phablets have already intersected. At least five new smartphones support native 3840x2160p/30 video recording; among them Sony’s Experia Z2, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 and S5, LG’s Optimus G Pro, and Asus’ Liquid S2. And three of them fall squarely into the phablet category, providing me with an appropriate wrap-up to my story…

Posted by Pete Putman, May 30, 2014 8:52 AM

About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.