Last Wednesday, Sharp held a TV showcase in Lower Manhattan and showed that they’re still committed to the North American television market. Said commitment came in the form of nine models of Ultra HD (3840×2160) sets, ranging in size from 43 inches to a wall-sized 80-inch model.
Some background is useful before I proceed. Nine years ago, Sharp was the #1 retailer of LCD TVs in the world, commanding a 21% market share and leaving Korean competitors LG and Samsung eating their dust.
But time changes everything. Since then, Sharp’s WW market share has steadily declined to the point that the brand is usually classified with “other” when analysts release their quarterly and annual rankings for shipments and revenue share. Part of that is due to the guerilla marketing and sales strategies employed by both Samsung and LG: The first company remains comfortably in 1st place with a 27% market share, while LG is a distant 2nd with 15%.
Many of the once-famous Japanese brands have fallen by the wayside since then. Hitachi abandoned the U.S. TV market several years ago, and Mitsubishi had no choice but to get out as its rear-projection designs fell out of favor. Toshiba announced last year it would retreat to Japan, and Panasonic seems to have shifted its corporate focus to more profitable commercial products and solutions. (How many Panasonic TVs have you seen in stores lately?)
That leaves Sony and Sharp, and I’ve documented in great detail the former’s legendary missteps with consumer products and televisions. Indeed; Sony still has an 8 % WW revenue share in TV, but that number has been in slow decline for some time and the red ink continues to pile up in Sony’s TV (and mobile phone) business units.
So, back to Sharp. Unlike other Japanese brands, Sharp stands alone in having a completely vertically-integrated TV business: They manufacture the LCD panels at their world’s-largest Gen 10 facility in Sakai, Japan. They were the first company to master high yields on the all-important faster and energy-efficient IGZO TFT technology, which is used widely on their TVs. And they can still make larger cuts of LCD glass cheaper than anyone else – for now.
But Sharp has had a bad stretch of fiscal years, losing over a billion dollars just a few years ago and almost going bankrupt. Their lender banks are getting weary of issuing IOUs and even the assistance of both Qualcomm and Samsung were needed a couple of years ago to keep the doors open. (Both companies are now minority owners.)
The Gen 10 Sakai fab itself is nearly half-owned by Hon Hai Precision Industries, owners of Foxcon and manufacturers of Apple’s iStuff. And the chairman of Hon Hai, Terry Gou, wants to put more of his money into Sharp, but wants a seat on the board – something that is being met with less than enthusiasm in Osaka.
The company really is at a crossroads with respect to their consumer TV business. Sharp has been around for so long in the U.S. that some readers may remember owning a Sharp LCD calculator, or fax machine. And the brand has a perception of being “old school” and stodgy. (Witness their use of Baby Boomer idol George Takei, famous for his role in the 1960s TV series Star Trek, to promote the company’s Quattron technology a few years back.)
Unlike Samsung and LG, Sharp doesn’t have a presence in tablets, and is a very minor player in smartphones. Sharp also sold lots of appliances back in the day, but not that long ago a sales associate for a major brick-and-mortar chain located near me said, “No one comes in asking for Sharp products anymore.”
Nevertheless, the company continues to push forward. They made a bold but perhaps wise move in bringing back industry veteran Peter Weedfald to try and shake things up. Weedfald is now senior VP for sales, and he’s got quite an obstacle course in front of him to return the company to a competitive position.
The new Ultra HDTVs may help, if Weedfald is successful in generating “buzz” about them. There are three series: The Aquos UB30 sets are value-priced Ultra HD models, and include 43” (42.5” diagonal), 50” (49.6” diagonal), 55” (54.6” diagonal) and 65” (64.5” diagonal) Class screen sizes, with the 43” and 50” offerings priced at $799.99 and $999.99, respectively. The 55” model will retail for $1,299.99 and the 65-inch version will be ticketed at $2,399.99.
All four models support 4K streaming and have built-in HEVC H.265 and VP9 codecs and Sharp’s Revelation 4K upscaling engine. HDMI 2.0 inputs with HDCP 2.2 are also standard, although I couldn’t tell how many. Stepping up one level finds the UH30 series of Ultra HDTVs. The UE30 series includes models in 60” (diagonal.), 70” (69.5” diagonal) and 80” diagonal screen sizes. MSRPs are $2,099.99, $2,899.99, and $5,599.99, respectively.
These models also come with HEVC / VP9 streaming support and Revelation upscaling, and the press release states that “…Easy connectivity is at your fingertips in both the UH30 and UE30 series with four HDMI® inputs equipped with the latest 4K specs.” That would seem to indicate four HDMI 2.0 input ports, which may be more than any other manufacturer at present.
The top-line models (UH series) are the 70-inch LC-70UH30U ($3,299.99) and 80-inch LC-80UH30U ($6,299.99) and include all the bells and whistles of the UB and UE series TVs, plus something Sharp calls SPECTROS Rich Color Display. This is a color-enhanced image that also shows some signs of supporting high dynamic range (HDR) content, but it’s not using quantum dots. Nor is it firing additional adjacent sets of color pixels to improve saturation, something Sharp called “3K” at CES 2013.
There is a marked improvement in color quality from a conventional TV to one equipped with SPECTROS. And with Samsung, LG, Sony, and others showing quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs, Sharp had to offer something to keep up with the Joneses.
All of the UE and UH-series TVs also support Android TV, unlike Samsung’s Tizen and LG’s Web OS. That means you have a search engine that is similar to Google on your smartphone or tablet in operation. We tried it out to locate programs as well as the score of the Yankees afternoon game, but weren’t as successful with other searches through the voice-activated remote.
There you have it. Sharp certainly has the know-how and supply chain to build and market the latest in TV technology, and their build quality has always stood up well to any other manufacturer. Given the rapid fall in TV prices, it might even be prudent for Sharp to abandon the 1080p TV market and toss all of their eggs into Ultra HD going forward, where I think they’d have a much easier time carving out a niche.
After all, it’s not like the company doesn’t have any experience with ultra-high resolution imaging. They’ve shown an 85-inch 8K TV for several years now at CES, and the NHK 8K broadcasts in Japan make extensive use of Sharp displays – all the way down to a 13-inch 8K OLED TV, shown at the NAB expo back in April.
Now, they just need to get some “buzz” going….
Posted by Pete Putman, June 12, 2015 2:50 PM
About Pete PutmanPeter 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.