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CES 2007: Display Showcase

Feb 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

Home theater technology gets bigger and brighter.


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The Consumer Electronics Show is increasingly featuring higher-end professional-grade electronic technology each year.

I've been attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for a dozen years now, and have seen everything from vacuum cleaners to bread makers. Most of the time, I've just kept walking: I'm simply too utilitarian to be much of a gadget freak, even though I write professionally about electronic technology.

Yet, in recent years, I've also seen CES explode from its consumer-oriented origins to include increasingly sophisticated electronics technology that will certainly affect the professional AV industries, and both residential and commercial installers. Over the last few years, this change has directly included flatpanel technology, and CES 2007 was no different. Although, this year there were also some very interesting developments in wireless video transmission, image processing, and the Blu-ray Disc vs. HD DVD format war.

The big flatpanel news had to be Sharp's introduction of a massive 108in. LCD. It's just a prototype, and no ship date or price is yet available, but Sharp promises it will be a saleable product. And if it is, it will mean that the biggest LCD on the market is bigger than the biggest plasma (currently Panasonic's 103in. model, introduced at CES 2006). Admittedly, that's quibbling over a few percentage points in size, but being bigger will certainly be a point of pride for Sharp and other LCD makers. Size has historically been one of plasma's selling points, and Sharp's 108in. LCD could be a major blow to that perception.

LCD technology took a swipe at another plasma advantage (or LCD disadvantage) by trying to reduce motion blur. Several LCD makers — including Hitachi, JVC, LG Electronics, Philips, Samsung, and Sharp — introduced new lines of LCD panels that featured a 120Hz refresh rate, double the typical 60Hz for NTSC video. In each case, the manufacturer uses today's increased processing power to interpolate a new frame between existing video frames, thereby forcing faster responsiveness from the LCDs.

To combat the increased marketing pressure from the LCD team, plasma makers collectively, through the research efforts of the Advanced PDP Development Center, released a series of scientific reports aimed at logically proving that plasma is a better picture. Among those tests was one that used a moving resolution chart and a camera synced to the panel's refresh rate to show that, even with the new 120Hz refresh rate, LCD just can't maintain the “motion resolution” of plasma. (I will discuss these tests further in next month's column.)

Pioneer also announced a new generation of plasma that the company claims will be a great improvement over current plasma models — a brave marketing strategy since the new panels won't be available for several months. Pioneer claims even deeper blacks and richer colors, as well as better ambient light performance. Deeper blacks and richer colors are already considered an advantage for plasma over LCD, but ambient light performance is not, and that could help knock down a plasma disadvantage.

Disappointingly, there was only a modest increase in alternative backlight technologies this year. Sony did show a 55in. laser-lit Bravia, and JVC and Samsung both showed LED-backlit LCD panels. Samsung and Texas Instruments' demos of LED-backlit RPTVs were probably more practical. LED backlighting would help reduce the thickness of DLP TVs almost to that of flatpanels, thus helping bolster RPTVs' waning market share amid the lower prices on flatpanels. A new Geo chip from Silicon Optix could be a big part of those slim RPTV solutions. The Geo's forte will be to correct brightness and alignment errors that often result from extreme-angle lenses and/or mirrors.

Going wireless in homes, offices, hot spots, and everywhere in between was one of the major themes at CES 2007. And while most of that won't affect the AV professional, two companies introduced “lossless” wireless HDMI for high-definition video. Interestingly, the two companies take different approaches. Amimon uses a multiband approach, while Tzero Technologies uses a wideband. S&VC looks forward to testing both as shipping products emerge over the next few months.

FORMAT-WAR PEACEMAKING

If you've followed any news about this year's CES, you've probably heard about Blu-ray and HD DVD, and the possible solutions to the raging high-definition format war. Unfortunately, it's only partially true.

The first major announcement came from LG Electronics: The new Super Multi Blue player, due to ship Q1 2007 at $1,199, claims to play both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. Kudos to LG Electronics for the olive branch, but it's not the whole story. LG Electronics started out making a straight Blu-ray player, but redesigned the lens and laser to read both formats. The result is hardware that can read the data, but a standalone player without the breadth of firmware to navigate HD DVDs' interactivity. In other words, you will probably be able to play an HD-DVD movie, but have access to only a subset of the special features.

If LG Electronics' marketing works, the Super Multi Blue could convince consumers that it's good enough, but it will have to do it against significant pressure from the DVD Association. Without 100 percent compliance with the HD-DVD specification, the Super Multi Blue player will not be able to carry the HD-DVD logo. The trick, then, will be educating the consumer about the difference without begging for a lawsuit.

LG Electronics will offer an internal computer drive version of the Super Multi Blue player that will be able to play all HD-DVD content. By leveraging the CPU with CyberLink's recent PowerDVD Ultra software revision (unlike past versions, it now supports both HD DVDs and Blu-ray Discs), that computer drive will be the first true bridge between the two formats.

The second announcement, “Total” HD, was from Warner Brothers. The solution is simple enough: a dual-sided disc with Blu-ray on one side and HD DVD on the other. Dual discs haven't done well in the past and could be difficult to replicate without significantly higher costs, but it may be the best solution out there amid this terrible format war. On the other hand, it may still be more prudent to go with an upconverting DVD player like the newly announced Oppo Digital DV-981HD.



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