AI's Improving TV Image Quality, But It's Not Perfect

AI image processing is a key feature in modern TVs

Key Takeaways

  • AI can improve the quality of older content on new televisions.
  • Most TV makers now use AI to some extent, but results vary between brands.
  • There are limits to what AI image processing can achieve.
Sony's A90J 4K OLED TV


Modern televisions have evolved into on-the-fly remaster machines capable of upscaling older content to modern resolutions.

Televisions have used image processing to improve quality for decades. However, as the resolution of a new HDTV has increased, so has the difficulty of extracting attractive results from aging content. Brands like Sony, LG, Samsung, Hisense, and TCL have turned towards AI to close the gap. Though it has limitations, the technology has matured in recent years and can deliver an obvious leap over older televisions.

"The AI portion of it, when it first got started, the promise was much grander than the delivery," Caleb Denison, senior editor at Digital Trends, said over Zoom. "That has definitely changed."

Enhance, Add Sharpness

TV brands embraced AI image upscaling to solve their own ambitions. The pursuit of ever-higher resolutions has led to exciting new televisions, with the latest models offering up to 8K (7680 x 4320) resolution.

But each leap widens the gap between the resolution of the well-loved DVDs sitting in your home entertainment stand and the television sitting on top of it. 4K packs four times the pixel count of 1080p. 8K crams in an incredible sixteen times more pixels than 1080p.

Samsung's QLED 8K TV


"You have one pixel, and now you have to make three more to get that on the screen. That kind of image processing by today’s standard is rudimentary, but it requires a lot," said Denison.

It’s not just the pixel count that’s enhanced. Today’s content is filmed at a higher bitrate that packs color depth and luminance data not found in older movies and films. Some televisions can improve old content by injecting new image data to compensate for what’s missing. 

Denison says today’s best televisions offer an obvious lead over older televisions when displaying low resolution content. That’s good news for shoppers worried an aging collection will be unwatchable on a cutting-edge TV.  

Results May Vary

Most modern televisions have an image processor that can outperform the most advanced TVs that were available just five years ago, but Denison says not all brands are equal. Sony’s boast that its Cognitive Processor XR powers the "world’s first cognitive intelligence TVs" is not just marketing fluff.

"Having seen the Sony A90J, after they beat the drum about this cognitive AI…I think they are not just blowing smoke," said Denison. "I think they’ve genuinely advanced image processing to the next level."

Sony’s efforts are followed by other major brands like LG, Samsung, Hisense, and TCL, all of which have image processors that claim to use AI.

The results vary significantly between brands. Denison says Hisense and TCL are "a little bit behind" in image processing, though TCL’s recent efforts have improved significantly. There even are differences between televisions sold by the same brand. The most expensive televisions unsurprisingly have the fastest, most advanced image processors, which deliver the best results.

Budget shoppers shouldn’t be discouraged, however, as even major brands with the least impressive image processors can deliver attractive results. But what should shoppers avoid? Televisions by budget "house brands," such as Insignia or Konka.

It’s Math, Not Magic

AI has limitations. Denison stressed that image processing relies on a reasonably clean source at a somewhat modern resolution.

"This stuff isn’t a miracle worker," said Denison. "If you’re getting a trashy, highly compressed 720p signal, it can only do so much. Your Matlock is never going to look as good as your Bosch." 

The AI portion of it, when it first got started, the promise was much grander than the delivery. That has definitely changed.

A 4K television can improve a DVD, and better image processors will deliver superior results, but don’t expect it to look as good as a native 4K source or a 1080p Blu-ray.

It’s also wise to approach specific claims about AI with a healthy dose of skepticism. The television industry is notoriously secretive about the technology. TV makers provide no more than an artist’s rendition of what the image processor looks like—if that. Is an image processor that claims to use AI always using it? What algorithms are used, and how? These details are closely guarded.

Still, Denison isn’t worried that TV makers are using secrecy as an excuse to stay idle. "I don’t know exactly how the sausage is made," he said. "But I know it’s some good sausage."

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