Curved vs flat: Buying considerations

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Buy a big TV is a big decision. Here are some thoughts to help…

Update

As of this update (June 2020), the curved TVs market sector seems to be dead. There are hardy any curved TVs available from anywhere. I recall Samsung being the leading vendor in that space and they still sport some on their UK website. But I checked a few well-known high-street outlets and could’t (easily) find any. Big retailers, naturally, are well-tuned to the market and will stock and promote products that are selling; So it’s telling that they seem on the absent.
It’s only my humble opinion but the curved TV has taken the same path as 3D TV, Betamax, HD DVD, carbon paper and faxes…..
We have retained the article below for those who would like to consume it.


As you would expect, reading the marketing blurb for anything and you will see the big pluses for the product or technology. Apart from statutory or safety notes, you won’t often see the negatives.

In today’s glossy, fast-moving, acronym-laden, quick-decision world, consumers need to be savvy on gadgets, and to look beyond the blurb.

Curved TVs are a case in point. It would be easy to think “these are the latest thing so must be the best”. But hang on a moment! Who remembers 3D TV?

There are reasons when a curved screen is better and some why it isn’t. Some of these are technical, some aesthetic, some practical and some relate to affordability, etc.

Horses for courses, then.

My own TV

My own 42” LCD HD TV (which I thought would last forever, but is now a little dated) is starting to fail (I think some power supply capacitors are failing – why is this so common?), so I am looking around to see what I might do when the TV eventually decides to no longer play nicely. Let’s investigate some of the points I am musing over.

But before I get into the meat of this, I want to explain a characteristic of the way LCD TVs work (and I include LED TVs here – but not OLED). I call this the light pipe characteristic.

For the avoidance of doubt, an LED screen is not a new and different technology to an LCD. They are the same as far as the panel is concerned. OLED is very different. See our other article for more information.

The light pipe

I think of an LCD TV being comprised of individual pipes – where each pixel is viewed through a pipe. Of course, it isn’t made with pipes but it shows a way to consider the practical effects of its design and build, because an LCD/LED screen does have a kind of tunnel effect.

When viewing the picture from directly in front, it’s like looking directly into the pipes and this angle will show the most light. However, looking at the tube from an angle will reduce the brightness. Hence, if you sit directly in front and centre of a flat LCD screen, you will get marginally less light from areas the further away from the centre. This affects colour saturation and contrast. For small screens you won’t notice, but for very large screens then the effect becomes more noticeable.

By the way, there are two main types of LCD panel and one (the most common nowadays) has less of a light pipe effect. But still…

If you then curve the edges of the screen towards you, then you will get more “direct light” through each of the pipes, thus improving contrast and colour density from those areas of the screen.

Now, and I risk being flamed here, if curving the screen is so important, why only the two sides? Why not the top and bottom? Yes I know the width is about twice the height so there is more benefit bending the sides. But still…if this were so important, right?

Buying factors

Anyway, with the light pipe characteristic in mind, here are some factors I am personally considering:

Contrast and viewing angles

Instinctively one would think that a curved TV limits the viewing angle. But it is more complex. It is down to “comfortable viewing”. Looking at a curved screen with a side view could in theory give you a greater viewing angle overall – simply because more of the furthest-away light pipes are “more facing you”. But there is a point when the difference in perspective between the near and far side of the screen makes the brain work harder (which is tiring). Hence, when outside of a comfortable viewing angle (where the brain is not fighting to maintain image perspective) then I thinks a flat screen would be more comfortable. For a massive screen where the family is all sat within the comfort range, then the colour and contrast benefits of the curve may outweigh this.

But most curved screens are not massive. For a curved screen, there is a place in the room (some folk call this the ‘sweet spot’) where it works really well, but outside of that place, I am not sure it does.

In essence, before visiting that showroom, I would advise drawing a sitting map of your house, and carefully assess the angle of view that you need for your room. In the showroom, make sure that it feels comfortable throughout the viewing range and don’t get guided into the sweet spot by the sales person. Watch the TV for a while from a wide angle and make sure you still feel relaxed.

Contrast and colour saturation

Using the “pipes” analogy above, if more light pipes are directly facing you, you will tend to receive more light. I think that saturation and contrast seem to be better in curved TVs but again you have to be within the comfortable viewing range.

Of course, if you sit further away from the screen, that advantage lessens over the flat screen. There is a range of distance and viewing angles where viewing a curved screen really works. As long as you are in those ranges there is an advantage.

When in the shop, refer to your map and pace out the distance you plan to view from at home and use that in the shop.

Reflections

A source of light from the window on a flat screen is somehow OK. But on a curve screen it can seem a bit weird. I suppose it’s like one of those distorting mirrors at the fairground. Think about external light sources, like windows. Samsung claims their Q Contrast overcomes the problem of reflection (we have not looked at that point).

Aesthetics

A curved TV is not a novelty. It’s a great looking bit of tech. We have a 42” TV that sits in the corner of our room and a bigger TV would take over “too more corner”. But a curved TV would better fit in the corner.

However, imagine what it looks like stuck on a wall. To me, at least, it will look like it has warped in the heat and it is certainly not what we used to imagine a futuristic flat screen would look like – flush to the wall.

Oddly, despite all of the technical arguments either way – the “how does it fit in the room” factor could well be the most important factor in selecting curved or not.

Check where you are to place the screen. If you are going to wall-mount it, think carefully about how a curved screen will look. Not on my wall, I think, but OK on a table stand in a corner.

Size

To get the best from a curved screen, then I think it needs to be big – probably massive – when the advantages of the curved outweigh that of a flat screen.

For smaller TVs (i.e. up the massive size), I think the flat screens has the edge. But as I say, if you are sitting in the corner of the room maybe the curve is more important because it just fits better in the space.

What about OLED TVs. Should they be curved?

For massive screens there is upside to curved screen (for LED). But in some sense the curve in the LED screen is designed to lessen the disadvantages of a flat LED screen (that most would never notice anyway), rather than be of huge benefit (although the marketing folk might like to push the curved argument).

OLED is different. OLED is not LED, or even close. The reason why curved LED screen has some (perhaps marginal) benefits is because LED flat screens have inherent limitations (my light pipe idea). But with an OLED screen, the light emitting parts are essentially on, or very close to, the surface. Hence the light pipe restriction don’t apply.

Personally, I see no point to a curved OLED, unless we want to squeeze the TV into that tight corner. Even then, I would rather opt for a slightly smaller OLED which would be cheaper anyway. Curved OLEDs are few and far between anyway and I would be surprised if they gained significant market traction over flat OLED.

Summary

In summary, for smaller that a massive screen, a flat screen would be my choice. For massive screens that sit in a corner, then a curved screen may work better. But that is really the only situation where I would feel a curved screen to have any value.

Basically, go for “flat”.

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