Active 3D Televisions: Are You Kidding Me?

I’m planning on buying a new high-definition television (HDTV) this year. Somewhat ruefully, I expect it will have a 3D capability. It’s not a feature I care much about. Quite the opposite. I remain convinced that 3D is more of a marketing ploy than of any real value. Most of what I watch does not benefit from 3D and most of what benefits from playing in 3D I have little interest in watching. Even after getting a 3D TV, I’d have to invest in a new Blu-ray player and/or upgrade my cable service before I could view any of the still-limited 3D content.

So why I am getting a 3D television anyway? The main reason is that most of the top-end TVs have 3D included. At this end of the market (which is where I am), you wind up getting 3D whether you want it or not — at not too much extra cost. Having 3D does not lessen the 2D quality. So why not get it? I also admit to some uncertainty about the future of 3D. I consider a 3D purchase to be a form of insurance — protecting me against possible regret if my attitude towards 3D turns out to be wrong.

As I began my research to decide which specific model to buy, I made an astonishing discovery. Almost every 3D television on the market today is useless for watching 3D! Okay, I exaggerate. What I mean is that they are so impractical that I can’t imagine ever using their 3D feature. The critical issue is the type of technology the television employs to achieve its 3D effect.

Active vs. Passive 3D

There are two major variations of 3D televisions today: active and passive. This difference is most apparent in the different types of glasses each technology uses.

Active 3D. By far, the most commonly used technology is active 3D. And this is where the trouble comes in. Active 3D sucks. Okay, I’m exaggerating again, but it’s hard for me to contain myself on this matter. I don’t mean that the 3D image quality itself sucks. It’s actually quite good (if you have a set that handles the job well; there is significant variation among different brands). What sucks is that the user experience is sufficiently annoying that you will likely give up on active 3D in the long run.

The hassles start with the fact that most of the heavy lifting to produce the 3D image is handled by the glasses rather than the set. This means that the glasses must include sufficient electronics to handle the needed data processing. These glasses also require “active” mechanical shutters that alternately open and close rapidly to produce the 3D effect. All of this hardware typically makes these glasses heavy, clunky and uncomfortable to wear (although the latest top-end models have improved significantly here). Some active 3D glasses don’t fit over prescription eyeglasses; this alone would be a dealbreaker for me. But it gets worse.

To handle its moving parts and built-in electronics, active 3D glasses require energy. This is accomplished via a built-in battery. The battery must periodically be recharged or replaced. The glasses must also communicate/sync with the TV set, typically via an infrared or Bluetooth connection. If a battery runs out of juice while you are watching a program, or if the sync between the glasses and the TV temporarily breaks down, say good-bye to 3D for the moment.

Even if you are willing to put up with all of this, you’ll typically find that you have to stay close to center of the television for the 3D to be effective. Active 3D sets tend to have a narrow viewing angle. If you move to far to one side, the glasses may even shut down.

Adding to the negative side of the ledger: active 3D glasses are expensive. They commonly cost from about $100 - $125 a pair! A new 3D television typically comes with at most one such pair. If you expect to watch a 3D movie with family and friends, buying extra glasses can cost you an additional investment of $500 or more over whatever you paid for the television. 

One final insult: The money you shelled out on 3D glasses today may be wasted if you ever get another 3D television — due to changes in the technology. Most recently, this happened in Samsung’s transition from 2010 to 2011 models:

“The UND8000 series ships with two pairs of Samsung’s new active 3D glasses, model number SSG-3100GB (extra pairs cost $50 each). The UND8000 series is incompatible with 2010 glasses models. Bluetooth does make the new glasses easier to use, and they keep sync much better than the old infrared versions.”

Don’t be misled by the low price here. First of all, this is a recent change of policy that Samsung began just a few weeks ago. Prior to this, all but the top Samsung models shipped with no glasses at all. Second, these are not the best glasses that Samsung offers. They have a range of models available, topping out with the “ultra-lightweight” but ultra-expensive ($220!) SSG-3700CR.

After considering all of this, my conclusion was: WTF? Are you kidding me? There’s no way that I am going to invest in such a blatantly user-hostile technology. Not gonna happen.

At this point, you may be wondering: Is there anything that active 3D has in its favor?

The answer is yes. If you are watching 1080p output, such as via a Blu-ray disc, active 3D displays the 3D image in 1080p. In contrast, passive 3D (as I’ll get to more in a moment) cuts the resolution in half. This is a significant difference — although it primarily affects 3D discs rather than over-the-air broadcasts.

As I understand it, the only other reason that active 3D even exists is that it was cheaper, easier and quicker for manufacturers to bring active 3D TVs to market. This is because, as the glasses do most of the work, only a minimal amount of change was required to update the televisions themselves.

Passive 3D. The alternative to active 3D is passive 3D. For now, this is the minority choice among TV manufacturers. In fact, such sets made their first appearance just in the past year. The major players pushing passive 3D right now are LG and Vizio. However, these manufacturers are strongly committed to it. LG claims that, in head-to-head comparisons, their customers prefer passive over active 3D by a margin of 3-1. LG is sufficiently convinced of the advantages of passive 3D that they cancelled plans to release their two top lines of LED active 3D HDTV sets (LW7700 and LW9500), as announced in January at CES. Instead, LG revealed in March that are going to revamp the lines to support passive 3D and ship them by September.

Passive 3D glasses look and work very much like the glasses used to watch 3D movies in theaters. They are lightweight, don’t need batteries, work well at wide viewing angles, and are dirt cheap ($10 a pair or even less). In other words, they’re everything that active 3D is not.

As I’ve already indicated, the one major drawback of passive 3D is that the display resolution is diminished. On the other hand, because no shutters are involved, they avoid the reduced frame rate and flicker of active 3D. Overall, at least in my test drives, the 3D image was more than good enough to enjoy what I was watching. Passive 3D is capable of truly eye-popping 3D.

Other opinions

If you check out “expert” comparisons of active vs. passive 3D on the Web, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any that are as harsh towards active 3D as I am. It’s almost shocking.

CNET did an evaluation and concluded:

“Between the two, I definitely preferred active 3D in our side-by-side comparison, and my colleague and fellow video-quality evaluator agreed.”

Their favorable assessment of active 3D seems primarily based on superior picture quality, minimizing the other drawbacks. Even so, they do offer a few caveats, noting that another CNET staffer preferred passive. Among other things, the staffer complained of the “flickery effect” with active 3D glasses. 

Most of the remaining sites I checked out were too timid to to make any recommendation, claiming that both technologies have their “pros and cons.” The closest match I could find to my own assessment was an article from PCWorld. The authors concluded:

“Even though active-shutter glasses should produce a better image, both of us preferred the passive 3D glasses overall. While passive 3D tech is at a disadvantage for image quality, it can nonetheless create a better-looking overall image than an active-shutter 3D set that just doesn’t get it quite right.”


Bottom line

3D television is still in the early stages of its evolution. It will be at least several years before the shake-out is over and we have a technology that meets with most people’s approval and isn’t overhauled every year or so. This assumes the 3D doesn’t turn out to be a passing fad and disappear altogether.

If you are determined to buy (or, as in my case, feel backed into buying) a 3D television today, you won’t be surprised to find out that I strongly recommend going with passive over active 3D. In my opinion, active 3D will eventually join Betamax and HD-DVD in the dead technology graveyard. It’s simply not worth the hassle and expense. If you are disappointed with the current quality of passive 3D, I would avoid 3D entirely for now.

Active 3D ultimately fails because it violates one of the prime tenets of a successful approach to technology marketing: Having impressive tech specs doesn’t win the day if the user experience is a failure. This is something Apple lives and breathes (see: iPod, iPhone, iPad). Other companies too often just don’t get this.

Speaking of Apple, there is speculation that Apple is working on its own version of an HDTV. If so (and I remain skeptical, agreeing with TUAW’s analysis), I can only hope that Apple will not merely incrementally improve on the existing competition, but redefine the market and blow the competition out of the water — as it has done with the iPod and iPad. Adding grist to the rumor mill is a report that Apple has patented a glasses-less 3D projection system (not a television). If you’re expecting a tangible product here anytime soon, don’t hold your breath. One may never come. Still, if 3D TV is to be done right, Apple is certainly the company that could do it. As always, stay tuned.