Is TV energy testing flawed?

So, according to the BBC, the European Commission is to “follow up” on yesterday’s reports that software used in some TVs may be affecting their TV energy ratings.

The Commission has not launched a formal investigation at this stage, but Anna-Kaisa Itkonen, spokeswoman for climate action and energy, told the BBC “we will first of all verify if the problem has occurred”.

The accusation against Samsung specifically, which it strongly refutes, is that its TVs are designed to cheat the ICE62087 energy test using certain settings only during the test sequence. The energy efficiency ratings are based on the power a TV uses while a preset ten-minute video - which contains a mix of fast- and slow-moving content shown at different brightness levels - is playing.

ComplianTV, which carried out its own, independent tests in February, says that the power demands of one of Samsung’s LCD TVs dropped from 70W to within 39W within a minute of the video test starting (see graph below).

We asked Samsung UK directly why that was the case, and in a further statement issued today the company told us: “Motion lighting works when significant portions of the picture are changing from frame to frame, but it phases in gradually over 30 seconds so that the effects are not distracting to the viewer. This results in real-world energy savings – particularly watching fast moving content such as sport – but it also means that changes in power consumption are not instant.”

Samsung says that 'motion lighting' mode is a standard, out-of-the-box feature, not a test cheat or so-called 'defeat device', which remains on unless the owner changes the TV's settings. Motion lighting lowers power consumption by reducing the screen's brightness when there is motion on the screen.

MORE: Samsung rejects accusations of cheating on TV energy tests

In a separate study by the Swedish Energy Agency another, as yet unnamed, TV manufacturer is accused of automatically adjusting the brightness of its sets (to reduce power consumption) when they “recognise” the ten-minute test film used as part of the ICE62087 testing process.

"The Swedish Energy Agency’s Testlab has come across televisions that clearly recognise the standard film (IEC) used for testing. These displays immediately lower their energy use by adjusting the brightness of the display when the standard film is being run. This is a way of avoiding the market surveillance authorities and should be addressed by the Commission."

So if there is confusion about how the energy ratings are determined, and uncertainty about the results, what can we do to increase the energy efficiency of our TVs? For the record, I own a Samsung TV, specifically the UE46F7000 which I bought two years ago.

When I got home last night, I went into the menus and in the Advanced Picture settings I was quickly able to find the ‘motion lighting’ setting that has been at the centre of this controversy, as you can see in the photograph I took.

In other words, there is nothing secret about it, it isn’t hidden from view or part of some illegally installed software that only Samsung knows about. I can choose to turn it on or off as I wish. My TV also has Energy Saving and Eco Sensor modes designed to reduce the power consumption by adjusting the screen's brightness.

Working on What Hi-Fi? as I do, I know that many TVs have such ‘Eco’ modes to improve energy efficiency. Which is fine. Personally, I prefer a slightly brighter, more vibrant picture so have many of these Eco modes turned off.

I fully realise this means my TV’s energy consumption may go up as a result, and therefore exceed the 'official' energy rating, but that’s my choice. There are myriad settings and options on most modern TVs and many of them will affect overall energy consumption depending on how you calibrate the screen.

Some commentators are likening this situation to the VW emissions scandal. But there is a difference between TV manufacturers optimising their TVs' standard settings for the test cycle, as Samsung appears to have done, and installing so-called ‘default devices’ that only operate during the test cycle and that are hidden from regulators and consumers (as happened with VW).

If evidence does emerge that some TV manufacturers did do that, then of course that will have to be addressed. For now, I suspect the manufacturers are trying to get the best results they can within the current rules and therefore optimise their TVs' out-of-the-box settings accordingly.

Whether the existing energy test is robust enough to reflect real-world energy consumption in a variety of different operating modes is another matter, but that is a matter for the regulators.

The fact is, energy consumption on a TV will go up or down depending on its settings, the type of material being viewed and the picture preferences of the user.

To take the car analogy, everyone knows official MPG figures don’t reflect actual fuel economy when driving in the real world. If you constantly drive your car flat out, or in stop/start traffic, economy will inevitably suffer.

Similarly, if you run your TV with all the Eco settings switched off and brightness turned up to the max, energy consumption will be higher than the tested figure. It’s your choice.

Andy Clough

Andy is Global Brand Director of What Hi-Fi? and has been a technology journalist for 30 years. During that time he has covered everything from VHS and Betamax, MiniDisc and DCC to CDi, Laserdisc and 3D TV, and any number of other formats that have come and gone. He loves nothing better than a good old format war. Andy edited several hi-fi and home cinema magazines before relaunching in 2008 and helping turn it into the global success it is today. When not listening to music or watching TV, he spends far too much of his time reading about cars he can't afford to buy.