Curved Screen TVs - What You Need to Know Before You Buy

The shape of TVs might be changing, but is it really necessary?

Samsung KS8500 Series SUHD TV
Samsung KS8500 Series SUHD TV. Image provided by Samsung

After decades of "bubble" shaped CRTs, followed by two decades of Plasma, then LCD flat panels, some TVs have been taking on a new splashy curved look.

What is the reason for this design change? Some manufacturers (Most notably LG and Samsung) will tell you it is to create a more "immersive" TV viewing experience, but in reality, the real reason is to simply make sure that the new high-tech OLED and 4K Ultra HD TVs stand out from those plain ole' 1080p TVs on store shelves to further entice you to buy them - and, of course, because they can make them.

Yes, they do look cool, especially those that can morph from flat to curved at the touch of a button. But what are you really getting if you decide to purchase a curved screen TV? Let us take a step back and discuss the implications of curved TVs in more detail.

The More Immersive Viewing Experience Argument

So, one of the advantages of curved screen TVs touted by manufacturers is that these sets provide a more immersive viewing environment, sort of like bringing an "IMAX-like" viewing experience to the living room.

However, one factor working against this argument is that curved screen viewing is most effective when only one or two persons are viewing TV (especially if you are talking about TVs in 55 and 65-inch screen sizes). For those that have families or friends that join in on TV viewing, the side-to-side viewing requirements mean that those side viewers will not see the entire edge-to-edge picture displayed on the screen, due to the curved edges.

The "IMAX" immersion effect really only works well for an audience in a large projection screen home or cinema environment where a screen may be installed that goes from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall. In this setup the entire audience sits within the curve - so if you want this same experience at home, you need to fork out the bucks for a genuine "Imax" Home Theater System - and I mean, really big bucks!

It Looks More Like 3D and You Don't Have to Wear the Glasses Argument

Not quite. Yes, if you are sitting in the center sweet spot of a large screen curved TV (especially if it is one of those 21x9 aspect ratio 4K Ultra HD sets), your peripheral vision gets a more natural workout, adding a more "panoramic" realism and depth that you would not get on a flat screen TV (especially a 16x9 screen) . However, you are not having a true 3D experience.

If the 3D content is produced well, viewing through active shutter or passive polarized glasses is still the best way to view 3D in terms of perceived depth. However, big strides have been made with glasses free 3D, and if that becomes the norm, then yes, curved screen, 21x9 aspect ratio, and glasses free 3D would be the best of all possible worlds.

However, in the meantime, those that currently suffer negative side effects when viewing 3D using glasses will probably be satisfied with the more stress free result of perceived enhanced  depth within a 2D image that 4K Ultra HD curved screen TVs can deliver without activating any additional 3D viewing modes that may be included on a specific set.

Other Problems with Curved Screen TV That They Won't Tell You

Ambient Light Reflections: With the curved TVs I have seen so far, one big issue for me is ambient light reflection.

If viewing a curved TV in a room that has windows, lamps, or reflected light off walls, the thing that is noticeable on a curved TV is how that light is reflected off the screen. Because of the curved screen, reflected light and objects appear shape distorted, which can be very distracting. Also, depending the outer screen coating, you can see these reflections when the TV is off.

I can see this not only being annoying for consumers but think of home theater installers and interior decorators getting headaches trying to design and place lighting and objects in the room without causing TV screen reflection problems.

Off-Axis Viewing: Here is another critical problem with curved TVs. Not only is your horizontal viewing angle important, but also the vertical. If you are sitting too low or too high in relation to the center of the screen, you may notice that the image bows somewhat.

Of course, all flat LED/LCD TVs have both horizontal and vertical off-axis viewing issues to some extent, but with a curved screen configuration, these effects are exaggerated on both LED/LCD and OLED sets.

Letterbox Distortion: It would be great if all video content would fill our TV screens, but unfortunately, film and video content was, and continues to be, produced in a variety of aspect ratios. What this means for you is that there will be TV programs or movies that will be displayed with black bars either on the sides (pillar boxing) or top and bottom (letterboxing) of the image (even a 21x9 aspect ratio TV can display letter boxing on extra-wide screen movies, such as Ben Hur).

On a flat panel TV, other than being annoying to some, pillarbox bars are vertically straight, and letterbox bars are horizontally straight. However, on a curved TV, depending on the amount of the screen curvature and viewing position, horizontal letterbox bars may appear distorted to some degree. The bar on the top of the image may appear to bend up slightly at the edges, while the bar at the bottom of the image may appear to bend down slightly at the edges. As a result, objects in the image at curved points may also appear to be distorted up or down - which, depending on the degree of distortion, may not be a good viewing experience.

You May Not Be Able to Mount Your Curved TV on a Wall: OK, so the big advantage of LED/LCD and OLED TVs is that they are so thin, you can mount them on a wall - well, not always. The first generation LG and Samsung OLED TVs cannot be wall mounted, but it looks like (if the displays at the 2014 CES are any indication), some of the next generation sets of various sizes may be wall mountable, including some of the bendable or flexible types.

Closing Thoughts - For Now

Is a curved screen TV right for you? If you are considering the purchase of one, make sure you give it a thorough look - from the center, to the sides, above the center axis, and below the center axis - also, view some letterboxed content - and, you if plan to hang it on a wall - make sure it is a wall-mountable compatible model.

Of course, if you can't make up your mind or if you like curved and rest of family likes flat, you may be able to opt for a "bendable" or "flexible" screen TV (as of 2016, none has actually appeared on store shelves).

The main questions you need to ask yourself:

Why am I buying this TV?

Where am I going to put this TV?

How many people may be watching the TV at any given time?

Except for the curve, does the TV have all the features you want in your TV (LED/LCD, OLED, 1080p or Ultra HD, 3D, Internet Streaming, etc..)?

How does the picture look to you?

Lastly - Is the curved screen really worth the extra price?

Curved Screen TVs are available, but whether they will actually supplant flat screens remains to be seen. However, some of the problems with curved screen TVs I have outlined will probably be addressed, possibly making them more desirable as time goes on.

Just as with 3D, TV manufacturers are taking a big gamble that you will want one - and if you don't, they lose big money - but if you do, the shape of TVs will have changed forever (at least until they get replaced by true 3D video walls or holograms).

For additional perspectives on the Curved Screen TV issue, also read:

Are Curved TVs Worth Buying? (About.com TV/Video)

Has the Curved Screen Killed OLED? by Adrienne Maxwell of Home Theater Review.com.

My Life With A Curved TV: Part 1 and Part 2, by David Katzmaier of CNET.

Are Curved TVs Any Better Than Flat TVs? by James K. Wilcox, Consumer Reports.

The Curved-Screen TV: The Next 3D TV? by Phillip Swann - TV Predictions.

For more suggestions, check out my periodically updated listing of Best 4K Ultra HD TVs that include both curved and flat screen options.