LG's G Flex 2. Image courtesy of LG.

Moviegoers have long been familiar with the benefits of viewing content on a curved screen. The screen’s curvature equalizes the distance that light from the projector must travel, enhancing resolution and brightness while eliminating distortion. A handful of gadget makers including LG and Samsung have latched onto this phenomenon in recent years to differentiate their increasingly homogenous electronics.

This week’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas puts their latest curved-screen efforts on display, including LG’s latest bowed handset and high-end TVs that can change shape on command. Are these gadgets simply a solution looking for a problem, or a true breakthrough in how users interact with their devices?

The consensus points to the latter—curved screens do improve the viewing quality of content viewed in smartphone and TV screens. The biggest question is whether consumers will pay a premium for such a breakthrough or wait until the prices come down.

Smarter phones, TVs

The second generation of curved smartphones arrived earlier this week when LG introduced its G Flex 2 at CES. The device has a 5.5-inch full high-definition polymer OLED (P-OLED) display featuring a 23-degree arc and a higher resolution than its predecessor (1080p, compared with the predecessor G Flex’s 720p). The G Flex 2 has plenty of other features—faster processor, improved battery life and scratch-resistant protective coating, to name a few—but the curved body is really what sets it apart. It’s not clear how much the G Flex 2 will cost or when it will be available, but AT&T and Sprint have signed on to offer the phone in the U.S. when it’s ready.

LG also dialed up the competition in the curved TV arena, showing off a 77-inch 4K ultra high-definition (UHD) OLED that can flex and flatten at the push of a button. The idea is that the TV could be returned to a less intrusive (flat) shape when not in use. LG says the TV will go on sale this year but didn’t say when or how much it would cost.

TV makers have been pushing expensive “4K” TVs for the past several years at CES, playing up the fact that they improve picture quality by processing four times the picture information as regular high-definition screens. Techradar.com offers useful background information for understanding the differences between Ultra HD and 4K.

Rival Samsung likewise introduced a number of curved-screen UHD TVs this week at CES. The major difference is that Samsung’s TVs use less expensive LCD screens (more mature technology but lower picture quality than OLEDs), and the largest new offering will be 88 inches. Samsung also showed off a model that flexes on demand, but that 105-inch prototype isn’t expected to go on sale this year.

For more information on the qualities of OLED v. LCD screens, Amazon.com has a helpful guide.

Curved-screen devices, whether handheld or mounted in the living room, are far from the norm today. Still, LG and Samsung’s decisions to expand their offerings in the coming year raise questions about whether curved screens are the future or another fad, like 3-D TV was at CES a few years ago. Apple earlier this week received a patent for a flexible device electronic device, something that could tip the scales in favor of curved consumer electronics. LG’s only real competition for fans of curved phones thus far is Samsung, which makes the Galaxy Round.

TVs hit the curve

TV makers have long competed primarily in terms of screen size, resolution and pixels per inch (as well as price, or course). In 2013, the TV market reached a turning point when companies began introducing models that featured quantum dots and curved/flexible displays that improved color accuracy and lowered reflectance for better screen visibility. One key feature of quantum dots is that light is supplied on demand, which makes for a more efficient display.

Image courtesy of Samsung.

Curved and flexible displays are significant primarily because they improve display performance by reducing—sometimes eliminating—reflections from ambient light, allowing displays to run at lower brightness, which increases the power efficiency and battery running time for mobile devices, according to Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate Technologies Corp., which makes calibration ad testing software digital displays and monitors.

DisplayMate actually analyzed two early curved screens—the Samsung Galaxy Round smartphone and LG OLED TV—in 2013 to figure out how their subtle curvature improved display performance. Soneira and his colleagues found that both improved image quality without distorting images, a concern some people have raised about curved screens limiting optimal viewing angles.

One drawback of curved TV screens is that the view is best near the center of the radius of the curvature, which means not everyone watching the program will have the best seat in the house, according to an April 2014 article on Display Central’s Web site.

Bottom Line: Price

For many consumers, the real decision on whether to invest in a curved TV or phone will likely come down to price. Smartphone prices depend a lot on wireless carrier contracts of course, so consumers might get a break there. However, it’s not clear how much the flexible curved TV screens that LG and Samsung are developing will cost. Given their novelty and the extra components needed to make them change shape, they will likely cost a lot more than the fixed-curve sets already available. Samsung’s 105-inch curved UHD sells for $120,000, while LG’s 77-inch curved UHD TV will set you back $25,000.