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The technology that is changing TV

Streaming services like Netflix begin to alter what TV manufacturers are expected to provide in their latest models, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week, a small earthquake shook the cosy world of TV manufacturers. It is an industry that is often seen as being in lockstep, with similar major advances in technology announced almost simultaneously by market leaders every year.

The latest technology in high-end smart TVs is usually unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January every year. However, these are several generations ahead of what is selling in stores. The initial cost of a new machine is high, but falls fast as production volume increases and cost of new components comes down.

Now, suddenly, the industry has been caught napping. Global video-on-demand market leader Netflix has issued a list of recommended smart TVs “that provide the best performance and are the easiest to use for Netflix”. And, it adds, for “other streaming services”. Only three manufacturers make the cut: Samsung, Sony and Panasonic.

Not that the rest are technologically backward, but rather that in their single-minded focus on the latest display technology, their integration of streaming services is not seamless. The criteria are simple, yet rare. Aside from several Netflix-specific features, a Netflix recommendation requires:

  • TV Instant On: TV wakes up instantly and remembers where you were. Apps are ready to use right away.
  • Fast App Launch: Whether you’ve just turned on the TV, or switched from a different app, an app always opens quickly.
  • Always Fresh: The TV updates in the background, while the TV is “sleeping”, so the latest content is always displayed when an app is opened.

The Netflix Recommended TVs are:

  • Samsung Q60R/Q70R/Q80R/Q90R/Q900R series, RU8000, The Serif and The Frame devices
  • Sony BRAVIA X85G/X90G series and A9G series
  • Panasonic VIERA GX700/GX800/GX900 series

Other manufacturers can be forgiven for missing these tricks. For most, the innovation flavour of the moment is 8K display, which offers double the resolution of the previous high-end, known as 4K, which itself offers twice the resolution of regular high-definition (HD) TV.

Where HD has 1920 horizontal lines down the TV screen, 4K has 3840, and 8K 7680 lines. When multiplied by vertical lines – HD at 1080, 4k at 2160 and 8K at 4320 – one sees an exponential increase in the number of pixels. These light elements that make up the picture leap from 2-million in HD to 33-million in 8K.

However, very little content is ready for it. TV manufacturers are demonstrating their ability to lead in technology, rather than in content. The flip side of the argument is that the new cutting edge technology announced today will be mainstream technology three years from now.

In other words, when Samsung announced recently that it’s new QLED 4K and 8K TV models – the latter with price tags of R77,000 upward – were available at select retailers in South Africa, it wasn’t mere hype. Last week, Samsung Electronics Africa CEO and president Sung Yoon told Business Times that several dozen of the 8K units had already been sold in South Africa.

Budget-priced 8K can be expected in South Africa as early as next year, with both HiSense and Skyworth entering the fray.

At its recent Global Press Conference in Andalusia, Spain, organisers of the annual IFA tech fest in Berlin gave the media a sneak preview of what to expect at the event in September. Top of the list was 8K TV.

Hisense showcased a 75-inch 8K TV that will launch in China this year, and is likely to come to South Africa next year. Skyworth showcased 8K via German TV brand Metz, which it acquired last year. The company offers a “premium-affordable” sub-brand called Metz Blue, which will be its showcase for 8K TV, meaning it will reach the mass market quickly.

Smart TVs spell the demise of set-top boxes like the DStv Explora, since most of the programming functionality is built into the TV itself. Internationally, streaming devices have replaced decoders, as they allow for extensive functionality that may not yet be available in the TV sets themselves. The big names, Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire Stick, and Google’s Chromecast, all complete with market leader Roku.

Global market intelligence firm Strategy Analytics announced on Wednesday that Roku accounted for almost a third of US sales of connected TV devices in the first quarter of this year.

Of these, only Apple TV is readily available in South Africa, sold mainly through the iStore chain. However, an innovative service called FutureTV has brought Roku into the country, built its own software into the system, and bundled it with an Internet router that masks users’ location, and allows them to subscribe to international services, as well as viewing free channels that are locked to specific geographic locations around the world.

“We’ve been in the streaming industry for ten years, and we know what services are available worldwide and how to make them happen in South Africa,” founder Steve Cohen told Business Times this week.

FutureTV also sends content in the other direction. It creates bespoke channels via the Roku device for distribution internationally. Its channel for the CNBC Africa show Cryptotrader has more than 50,000 subscribers, mainly in the USA.

This month, it launched a channel called Whats New, which it claims is the world’s first on-demand television streaming guide, offering viewers “a comprehensive guide to the top-rated series, movies and music available for streaming on your television”.

Cohen said he developed the channel out of the frustration of “having limited time, yet so much to watch, and not being able to recall which show is where”. The problem, he says, “will just escalate over time as more streaming channels become available”.

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Tech promotes connections across groups in emerging markets

Digital technology users say they more regularly interact with people from diverse backgrounds

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Smartphone users – especially those who use social media – say they are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds. They are also more connected with friends they don’t see in person, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds.

South Africa, included in the study, has among the most consistent levels of connection across age groups and education levels and in terms of cross-cultural connections. This suggests both that smartphones have had a greater democratisation impact in South Africa, but also that the country is more geared to diversity than most others. Of 11 countries surveyed, it has the second-lowest spread between those using smartphones and those not using them in terms of exposure to other religious groups.

Across every country surveyed, those who use smartphones are more likely than those who use less sophisticated phones or no phones at all to regularly interact with people from different religious groups. In most countries, people with smartphones also tend to be more likely to interact regularly with people from different political parties, income levels and racial or ethnic backgrounds. 

The Center’s new report is the third in a series exploring digital connectivity among populations in emerging economies based on nationally representative surveys of adults in Colombia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam. Earlier reports examined attitudes toward misinformation and mobile technology’s social impact

The survey finds that smartphone and social media use are intertwined: A median of 91% of smartphone users in these countries also use social media or messaging apps, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone. And, as with smartphone users, social media and messaging app users stand apart from non-users in how often they interact with people who are different from them. For example, 52% of Mexican social media users say they regularly interact with people of a different income level, compared with 28% of non-users. 

These results do not show with certainty that smartphones or social media are the cause of people feeling like they have more diverse networks. For example, those who have resources to buy and maintain a smartphone are likely to differ in many key ways from those who don’t, and it could be that some combination of those differences drives this phenomenon. Still, statistical modelling indicates that smartphone and social media use are independent predictors of greater social network diversity when other factors such as age, education and sex are held constant. 

Other key findings in the report include: 

  • Mobile phones and social media are broadening people’s social networks. More than half in most countries say they see in person only about half or fewer of the people they call or text. Mobile phones are also allowing many to stay in touch with people who live far away: A median of 93% of mobile phone users across the 11 countries surveyed say their phones have mostly helped them keep in touch with those who are far-flung. When it comes to social media, large shares report relationships with “friends” online who are distinct from those they see in person. A median of 46% of Facebook users across the 11 countries report seeing few or none of their Facebook friends in person regularly, compared with a median of 31% of Facebook users who often see most or all of their Facebook friends in person. 
  • Social activities and information seeking on subjects like health and education top the list of mobile activities. The survey asked mobile phone users about 10 different activities they might do on their mobile phones – activities that are social, information-seeking or commercial in nature. Among the most commonly reported activities are casual, social activities. For example, a median of 82% of mobile phone users in the 11 countries surveyed say they used their phone over the past year to send text messages and a median of 69% of users say they took pictures or videos. Many mobile phone users are also using their phones to find new information. For example, a median of 61% of mobile phone users say they used their phones over the past year to look up information about health and medicine for themselves or their families. This is more than the proportion that reports using their phones to get news and information about politics (median of 47%) or to look up information about government services (37%). Additionally, around half or more of mobile phone users in nearly all countries report having used their phones over the past 12 months to learn something important for work or school. 
  • Digital divides emerge in the new mobile-social environment. People with smartphones and social media – as well as younger people, those with higher levels of education, and men – are in some ways reaping more benefits than others, potentially contributing to digital divides. 
    • People with smartphones are much more likely to engage in activities on their phones than people with less sophisticated devices – even if the activity itself is quite simple. For example, people with smartphones are more likely than those with feature or basic phones to send text messages in each of the 11 countries surveyed, even though the activity is technically feasible from all mobile phones. Those who have smartphones are also much more likely to look up information for their households, including about health and government services. 
    •  There are also major differences in mobile usage by age and education level in how their devices are – or are not – broadening their horizons. Younger people are more likely to use their phones for nearly all activities asked about, whether those activities are social, information-seeking or commercial. Phone users with higher levels of education are also more likely to do most activities on their phones and to interact with those who are different from them regularly than those with lower levels of education. 
    •  Gender, too, plays a role in what people do with their devices and how they are exposed to different people and information. Men are more likely than women to say they encounter people who are different from them, whether in terms of race, politics, religion or income. And men tend to be more likely to look up information about government services and to obtain political news and information. 

These findings are drawn from a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report. 

Read the full report at https://www.pewinternet.org/2019/08/22/in-emerging-economies-smartphone-and-social-media-users-have-broader-social-networks.

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Nokia to be first with Android 10

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Nokia is likely to be the first smartphone brand to roll out Android 10, after its manufacturer, HMD Global, announced that the Android 10 software upgrade would start in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Previously named Android Q, it was given the number after Google announced it was ditching sweet and dessert names due to confusion in different languages. Android 10 is due for release at the end of the year.

Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer of HMD Global said: “With a proven track record in delivering software updates fast, Nokia smartphones were the first whole portfolio to benefit from a 2-letter upgrade from Android Nougat to Android Oreo and then Android Pie. We were the fastest manufacturer to upgrade from Android Oreo to Android Pie across the range. 

“With today’s roll out plan we look set to do it even faster for Android Pie to Android 10 upgrades. We are the only manufacturer 100% committed to having the latest Android across the entire portfolio.”

HMD Global has given a guarantee that Nokia smartphone owners benefit from two years of OS upgrades and 3 years of security updates.

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