CES 2015

Do new TVs really provide better color? Yes and no.

Quantum dots enable wider color gamut—but conforming content lags

Published: January 07, 2015 01:00 AM

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TV manufacturers at CES 2015 are staking a common claim:  “Our TV has better color than ever before.” The assertion is based on the introduction of quantum dot technology. But what do companies mean by “better color”? Isn't it just a personal preference?

Actually, no.

Color on TVs and other electronic displays is measureable. In the Consumer Reports labs, where I'm an engineer, we have the capability to measure and quantify color displays. The color standard for HDTV is called called Rec. 709. It was put in place in 1990 to enable film studios and TV broadcasters to use a single specification to create content that would look similar across all TV types and brands.

Any TV that accurately meets the standard does not simply have better color—it has the best color. But doing that is not easy.

Several elements are necessary to create accurate color.

One is color gamut, which is the extreme limit of all possible colors that can be displayed. This limit is defined by six points, the primary (red, green, and blue) and secondary (cyan, magenta, and yellow) color points.

Each of these points has a specific color saturation (how deep the color is) and hue (the actual color tone). Then, to add confusion, there is chroma, which pretty much determines how a color should transition from pure white to the fully saturated color point.

A lot of TVs cannot accurately reproduce these colors, but plenty can. So why are TV manufacturers claiming their new TVs will give you better color?

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The reason: Some of the newer sets are attempting to move beyond the color capability of typical TVs. One way to do this is to use quantum dot technology. Quantum dot TVs are able to produce a wider color gamut. But the problem is that the content that appears on your TV screen is still produced to match Rec. 709, the 1990 standard. So even if new TVs accurately reproduce the content’s color, you’ll only see the best color that’s been available for the past 25 years, and the TV's capability to display extra color gamut will be wasted.

Manufacturers can attempt to expand, or upscale, the content’s colors. But this can cause other problems, like making the colors appear overly saturated and unnatural.

The only way these new TVs will produce better color is if the content, too, uses a wider color gamut, which means that there would need to be a new standard beyond Rec. 709.

This is already in the works, thanks to the introduction of UHD TVs a few years ago.  At CES 2015, a UHD TV Alliance was announced, and one of its goals is to standardize a new, wider color gamut.

Bottom line: You, the end user, will not see better color from these new TVs right now—because the color standard for content is lagging. But there's hope for the future. If and when a new color standard develops for UHD, these new TVs will be able to accurately represent the content’s colors, giving us the best color yet.

Should you buy one of these new TVs now? Indeed, your new quantum technology TV could yield higher resolutions, richer black levels, and other benefits. But when it come to pure color, it will simply provide future-proofing for the arrival of wider-color content. 

—Chris Andrade

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Read all of Consumer Reports' coverage of the International Consumer Electronics Show on our Insider's guide to CES 2015.


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