January 9, 2008

HDTV Makers Struggle to Stand Out

Manufacturers of HDTV sets are trying to make it more difficult for consumers to decide which brand to purchase. Other than simply choosing between LCD or plasma and 42-inch screens or 46-inch screens, more exotic features are now being added, and even new color schemes to enhance the look of the same old black boxes. The biggest feature among HDTVs is actually their smallest -- thin is in!

All of the major Asian market brands unveiled new TV sets at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which began on Monday. Sony, Pioneer, Panasonic and Toshiba were among the names that showed the most innovative technology. The goal is to keep the HDTV from becoming a commodity product. If two sets are alike, the buyer will most likely be looking at prices, and that is not good for the manufacturer's margins.

This is what happened with the DVD market years ago. Asian companies that were less well known than the big companies were making cheap players and others, such as Sony, couldn't make any money in the category. General Manager of display products for Pioneer, Ken Shioda said "The goal is to break away from the commoditized market."

Pioneer is topping the market now in thickness as it revealed its 50-inch plasma set that was only 3/8 of an inch thick, boasting that it is the thinnest set ever. However, it's only a prototype at the moment. The set would not be on the market most likely for another year.

Hitachi Ltd.'s LCD prototype is ¾ of an inch thick. They plan on bringing sets that are 1.5 inches thick to the U.S. market in the second quarter after releasing them in Japan in December. No prices for the U.S. market were disclosed.

Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) will be behind the new screen technology to make thinner models. Sony Corp. announced it will soon start selling the first OLED screen in the U.S. It will only be 1/8 of an inch thick. The problem is that the screen size will only be 11 inches diagonally. The next problem will be the price tag: $2,500.

As a set's thinness may not be apparent in an electronics store, makers are adding color to the shells of televisions to spruce them up. The move away from the all-black scheme is fearful. You wont find any exciting color schemes though, red is as far as they will go. Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. are both adding highlights of color to their otherwise drab black shells.

The purchase process for flat-panel TVs is no longer dominated by men saying "give me the biggest TV I can get," said Tim Baxter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the consumer electronics division of Samsung Electronics America. TVs now need to pass muster with women, who look at whether the design fits in a room, he added.

On a technical note, sets with full HD or 1080p resolution have become the standard for middle-to-high-end LCD and rear-projection sets last year. Plasma sets with that resolution have also appeared. There isn't much room for improvement in that direction. Today's HD discs have a max resolution of 1080p, and that's higher than broadcast HD signals.

Instead, another feature looks set to become a standard in 2008: sets that show 120 frames per second. HDTV signals are usually broadcast in 30 frames per second, and movies are shot at 24 frames per second, so the usefulness of a set showing more frames isn't immediately obvious. But 120 hertz sets compute frames to insert between the signal's frames, yielding visibly smoother motion and sharper pictures in action scenes.
"120 hertz is the new 1080p," said Scott Ramirez, vice president of TV marketing at Toshiba.

High image refresh rates are also useful for three-dimensional imaging. Viewers wearing glasses with liquid-crystal shutters that alternately black out and reveal the TV set, in sync with the image refresh rate, can be shown different images for the right and left eyes if the refresh rate is high enough. That produces a stereoscopic, or 3-D effect. Samsung brought out 3-D-capable rear-projection sets last year. At CES, it announced plasma sets with the same capability.

3-D movies are rare at best, but video games can be played in 3-D. Texas Instruments Inc., which makes core components for many rear-projection sets, introduced another technology at CES. It is called "DualView" and helps out gamers using the same elements as in rear-projection sets.

In essence, two gamers wearing shutter-equipped glasses will be able look at the same screen but see different images. That means the screen doesn't have to be divided down the middle for two-player gaming. That should prevent the cheating that occurs when one player peaks at the other's half of the screen, TI said.