TV picture quality in 2024: it’s all about the algorithm now

This year may mark a turning point in terms of image processing and yes, AI is very much a part of that – here’s why


TV picture quality is affected by a number of different factors and, truth be told, new display tech was the most important among those in 2022 and 2023. By the look of things, the software driving that tech will be more important than ever before. (Image: LG)


These are always the “calm-before-the-storm” days of the TV set market’s yearly cycle. CES is not even a speck in the rear view mirror anymore, most manufacturers have already made their most important announcements, but most 2024 TV models are still a month or so away from being released while some of the very best ones will be hitting stores much later.

There is a lot of speculation regarding the performance of the new high-end and mid-tier models, as per usual, but this year something is different: unlike previous years, where advanced MiniLED, MLA OLED or first- and second-generation QD-OLED TVs delivered a clear step forward in picture quality – largely based on the properties of their new panels – this year it seems that the screens themselves will not be the star of the show.

No. This year, instead of the hardware, it’s the software driving those panels that will affect TV picture quality the most. It may also serve as a major differentiating factor between manufacturers that have traditionally been strong in that department compared to their peers. In short: in terms of TV picture quality, 2024 is all about the processing. Here’s why.

2024 OLED, QD-OLED, MiniLED screens only modestly improved

Let’s take the obvious out of the way first: in terms of TV picture quality, this will most likely be a software year simply because the new hardware – the flat panels themselves that 2024 TV models are built around, as well as the chips doing the image processing – appears to be only modestly improved. As a result, based on what was shared by most manufacturers during or around this year’s CES or afterwards, consumers shouldn’t expect a massive picture quality jump between the best 2024 TVs and their 2023 equivalents. Certainly not as big of a jump as the one witnessed between the best 2023 and 2022 models, especially not in pure performance metrics.

Second-generation MLA OLED and third-generation QD-OLED panels, for instance, will obviously be brighter than the panels they are succeeding. But, this year, it won’t be by much. At least not where it truly makes a difference in the eyes of most people: in full-screen, overall brightness and in cinematic content displayed in a color-accurate picture mode. More impressive highlights, better shadows and more vibrant hues of certain colors – largely depending on the content – is pretty much what we can realistically expect from LG, Samsung or any other TV manufacturer using OLED tech in 2024. It is something, granted, but it’s hardly groundbreaking – especially now that high-quality OLED/QD-OLED TVs have resolved practically all past issues and are close to perfect anyway.

The LCD backlight system implemented in the pictured TCL QM891G uses more than 20000 local dimming zones to offer highlights exceeding 5000 nits of brightness – but can these crazy numbers substantially improve picture quality if the software driving them is not crazy smart too? (Image: TCL)


It’s the same story with new TVs based on MiniLED LCD technology. While some of these models claim to employ 10 or 15 or 20 thousand zones of local dimming and hit more than 5000 nits of peak brightness, it’s obvious by now that no matter how impressive their backlighting systems might seem on paper, these LED/QLED/QNED TVs will never fully resolve long-standing LCD issues such as haloing or blooming. The fabled “OLED-killer” LCD TV never materialized on time… and now that high-quality OLED TVs are bright enough, there’s hardly any point bringing that term up anymore.

The fabled “OLED-killer” LCD TV did not materialize on time – and now that all top OLED TVs are bright enough, it never will.

As a result of that, even the best 2024 MiniLED TVs will only be offering more of what their predecessors already did: an even brighter picture overall – suitable for extremely bright rooms where even the best OLED TVs may struggle to retain contrast – along with mightily impressive highlights and punchy colors in modern HDR content. There are other ways these high-quality MiniLED models could affect things in the TV market – aggressive pricing and large diagonals come to mind – but the role they’ll be playing in 2024 is more or less defined.

Which brings us to the matter at hand: if MiniLED panels only get modestly punchier and OLED/QD-OLED panels only get modestly brighter, how will software make a difference this year in terms of TV picture quality?

A stronger focus on processing algorithms, AI ready to take over

The answer is not complicated, really: software has always affected TV picture quality more than consumers realize. In that sense, 2024 will not be all that unusual. This time around, though, it’s manufacturers themselves who claim to have doubled down on artificial intelligence and advanced processing algorithms – partly because of all the attention AI is getting these days, partly because they do intend on applying AI to TV picture processing more aggressively now – effectively raising expectations, and a lot of questions, at the same time.

LG seems to have gone all out with the use of AI processing this year, to the point where image quality enthusiasts are now concerned about the effect this choice could have on entertainment and artistic content. (Image: LG)


LG, for instance, raised more than a few eyebrows in January when it declared that its “Alpha 11 ingenious AI processor adeptly refines colors by analyzing frequently used shades that best convey the mood and emotional elements intended by filmmakers and content creators”. Not only did LG’s bold claim come across as rather arrogant in the eyes of many – especially purists appreciative of professional creative work – it also seemed to cause alarm among those objecting the use of AI in matters so subjective and tricky to interpret as creator intent.

It’s not hard to see why. Having a TV picture processing system help out with upscaling material from lower resolutions, cleaning up streaming video of compression artifacts or helping out in foreground and background separation is one thing. Having such a system “refining” the colors of a movie according to what a predefined database of shades considers “the best for conveying mood and emotion” is quite another.

LG has caused alarm among those objecting the use of AI in matters so subjective and tricky to interpret as creator intent.

One can easily imagine software algorithms making correct, but also erroneous choices when trying to “improve” different modern films in terms of color – often nailing it, occasionally overdoing it, sometimes even totally ruining the look intended by their creators. It wouldn’t be the first time, either – AI or no AI.

The whole discussion about TVs using AI – or “AI”, depending on how one looks at it – for various image processing tasks probably deserves a piece all on its own. How are consumers supposed to trust in artificial intelligence routines making literal creative decisions about artistic content? What kind of image processing should or should not be allowed in modern productions? How much processing is too much, actually hurting creative intent? Is there a line? If so, how is it drawn and by whom? Should manufacturers include the option of turning off all AI image processing in a modern TV set? Should they even be the ones to make that decision?

Samsung has been throwing around the term “AI” for years in its TV-related press releases an promotional material, but in practice that did not amount to anything more than standard image processing techniques up until now. Will it mean something more in 2024? (Image: Samsung)


Maybe it’s no coincidence that Samsung – who has been using the term “AI” to describe how image processing is carried out on its most advanced TV models for a long time – did not go that far regarding AI with its own claims this year. The company did make a point of its latest image processor offering “double the AI performance of its predecessor”, though, while keeping that chip to its 8K TV lines and the “Pro” version of its arguably most important function (the upscaling of lower resolution content to 8K) exclusive to the top 8K line only.

The implication here is that consumers demanding the highest possible picture quality out of a Samsung 8K TV will have to go for the most expensive 2024 models – and that the difference between those and the rest of the new models lies, yes, in image processing. Anyone else see a pattern emerging?

Picture processing a major differentiator going forward

If anyone’s in need of further proof regarding the importance of TV image processing in 2024 should also take a look at what Sony – widely considered to be the industry leader when it comes to that particular field – plans on doing about it this year. The company did not have a CES presence in January, but a few weeks before that show it held a presentation at its Tokyo headquarters exhibiting what will probably be its top-tier MiniLED LCD TV for 2024. What Sony focused on was the upgraded backlighting system this specific model will be based on, making sure to stress how the software algorithms driving that system will shoot for top-quality, reference-level results by LCD standards without employing the crazy number of local dimming zones other manufacturers depend on.

The Sony Bravia ZD9/Z9D was an amazing TV back in 2016, truly ahead of its time – and it was all because of an advanced local dimming system driven by the most powerful image processing algorithms of that decade. The Japanese giant may try to accomplish something similar in 2024. (Image: Sony)


This is of course in line with Sony’s consistently-held view that, when it comes to LCD backlighting, the number of local dimming zones implemented does not necessarily correlate with higher picture quality. That claim turned out to be true on multiple occasions – in the case of Sony’s own TVs as well as in the case of other competitive models – so no surprises there.

Software plays an even bigger role this time around, though, because “throwing hardware at the problem” – trying to overcome traditional LCD limitations by relying on more powerful processors and high numbers of local dimming zones – proved to be far less effective than one would expect.

The algorithms driving the panels of all 2024 TVs will help the best among them stand out more convincingly than ever.

At the end of the day, it’s the algorithm analyzing the content displayed and deciding where, when and how to use each dimming zone that determines how high the resulting picture quality will be when it comes to LCD TVs of all kinds. It’s the same story with OLED/QD-OLED TVs regardless of their pixel-level control: the algorithm that decides how to best use their available brightness levels while adjusting the rest of the picture accordingly is of equal importance. In both cases, the software controlling those screens will help the best among them stand out more convincingly than ever before (especially on the high-end). All TV manufacturers will be challenged in the same way and, chances are, not all of them will be able to produce noteworthy, convincing results.

Although Sony and Panasonic used to have a clear head start when it comes to TV picture processing, Samsung and LG have managed to more or less close that gap in recent years. AI may just help the Koreans even the playing field in 2024. (Image: Samsung)


It’s worth pointing out that Sony and Panasonic still enjoy a considerable advantage in the image processing department, but Samsung and LG have made a lot of progress over the past few years, so their 2024 claims should not be taken lightly. Artificial intelligence may be the kind of overused buzzword that TV picture quality enthusiasts rightly feel suspicious towards, but both Korean companies have put in a lot of work in their processing algorithms for a very long time and and this year might actually prove to be something of a turning point for either or both of them.

It’s the Chinese giants really – TCL and HiSense – the ones with the most to prove when it comes to TV picture quality in 2024. Both quickly adopted advanced technologies like MiniLED, both set several trends during the last two years – from high local dimming zone numbers to extremely large TV sizes – but they still have a lot of ground to cover in terms of panel driving software and image processing algorithms. As they were late in the premium TV set game, they did not have enough time to iterate on the kind of smart software and detailed processing those high-quality screens absolutely need to shine, as Samsung and LG had.

It will be interesting, then, to see where TCL and HiSense land this year in terms of image processing performance, given their competitors’ head start. Is there enough room for surprises? Time will tell.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Kostas Farkonas

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).

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