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AHEAD OF THE PACK

Nov 1, 2001 12:00 PM, PETER H. PUTMAN, CTS


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AS I WRITE THIS, I'VE JUST RETURNED FROM CEDIA Expo 2001 — and what a show it turned out to be! There was plenty of flat-screen technology, from small LCD televisions in the Zenith, Samsung and Sharp booths to any number of DLP front projectors scattered around the show floor. And of course, everyone who was anyone had a 42-inch or 50-inch plasma on display. Some even had models as small as 32 and as large as 60 inches.

There can be no question that our direct-view, front- and rear-projection televisions are all going flat. What is still in doubt is the actual technology to be used in these displays. If you have been following the trade press for the past few months, you've probably had acronym overload from seeing DLP, LCoS, LCD, TFT, PDP and other abbreviations tossed around. But the picture is just starting to clear up now, and two flat-screen technologies — Digital Light Processing and plasma display panels — appear to be pulling ahead of the pack. Thanks to a combination of good device yields and aggressive pricing, DLP and PDPs are now becoming major players with lots of weight to throw around.

DLP: DELIVERING LOW-COST PRECISION

Texas Instruments has refined DLP into a mature technology. TI can produce digital micromirror devices in sufficient quantities to attract the attention of numerous OEM projector manufacturers. The SVGA (848×600-pixel) DMDs have been in production for almost seven years and are appearing in low-priced coffee-table projectors, while the XGA (1024×768) devices are popular for large rear-projection monitors and higher-end front projectors. There's even a new device with wide XGA (1280×768) pixel resolution that is at the heart of Sharp's stunningly beautiful XV-Z9000 front projector. This chip is also used in 52- to 65-inch 16×9 RPTVs manufactured by Panasonic, Hitachi and Mitsubishi.

In short, TI can deliver DMDs in quantity (although the supply has fluctuated over the past two years). More importantly, they work. Right now, TI's biggest problem is the cost of the RPTV sets offered by Panasonic, Hitachi and Mitsubishi — they're just too expensive and do not scale 480i sources particularly well.

Even so, plans are in the works for 40-inch RPTVs with much lower costs of production and lower prices for consumers. Given the simplicity of a single-chip DLP set and its relatively small footprint, the trends look good for further penetration of DLP technology. Need more proof? High-end manufacturers such as Runco, Dwin, Seleco, Toshiba and Yamaha have all brought out DLP front-projection designs in the past year. Even CRT stalwart Vidikron is getting into the DLP game.

LCD: Lacking Competitive Deluge

What about LCD imaging? Currently, LCD panels seem to be the favorite of some tabletop projector manufacturers. SVGA (800×600) LCD panels in particular are cheap and abundant, and form the engines for less-expensive designs. Two manufacturers (Sony and Toshiba) have brought out 16×9 front LCD projectors with good image quality and competitive prices.

But these designs — and Sony's new Grand Wega 60-inch RPTV using 16×9 wide XGA (1366×768) LCD panels — are the lone high-resolution LCD standouts in a market dominated by DLP technology. Sharp's new XV-Z9000U front-DLP design incorporates several improvements to the color wheel used in DLP projectors, using a 6-segment, 5-speed design for better color saturation. Other manufacturers are working on similar enhancements.

DLP has one additional advantage for the future: It's the only pure digital imaging system, using pulse-width modulation to tip the tiny mirrors back and forth and produce grayscale images. With high-quality video decoders and scalars ahead of them, front DLP projectors can produce images of amazing quality. With a pure digital interface, they'll be better still.

Even though DLP continues to gain more adherents, it can never be a practical replacement for direct-view CRTs. That job falls to plasma display panels and TFT LCD panels…if they're up to it.

PDP: PREFERRED DIRECT-VIEW PRODUCTS

The growth in sales of plasma panels has been nothing short of amazing the past two years. That's largely due to an aggressive program of production and price-cutting by manufacturers such as Fujitsu, Matsushita and NEC. The reason is simple: Japan Inc. wants to get out of the direct-view CRT manufacturing business.

In the past five years, we've seen Mitsubishi, NEC and Hitachi discontinue (or announce plans to discontinue) the manufacture of picture tubes. Not coincidentally, all three have invested heavily in plasma technology, although Mitsubishi's initial yields were miserably low and the company is not currently a strong player in this market. These three are joined by Pioneer, Fujitsu and Matsushita, plus Korean manufacturers LG (Zenith) and Samsung. All see the gold at the end of the rainbow: a huge, worldwide market for professional and consumer plasma monitors and integrated TV sets. And the sooner they can get rid of CRTs, the better. Hitachi's recent announcement that it would cease production of picture tubes certainly raised a few eyebrows. Would Toshiba be next? Panasonic? Sony?

In the Hitachi booth, product manager Phil Callahan demonstrated a full range of integrated plasma televisions with 32-, 37- and 42-inch screens. Gary Mandle of Sony filled me in on the details of a preliminary 42-inch plasma television (not named or priced) with integrated NTSC tuner, while industrial projector giant Sanyo had a particularly striking 32-inch integrated plasma television in their booth.

Now, here's where things get interesting. The current MSRP for 50-inch 16×9 panels is around $15,000, down considerably from earlier this year. By some accounts, 50-inch panels have been purchased through 1-800 and Internet retailers for as low as $11,000. That range of prices is comparable to the $12,000 to $15,000 DLP RPTVs offered by Panasonic, Hitachi and Mitsubishi. Even though the DLP sets have bigger screens, they cannot match the super-slim profile of the 50-inch and even 60-inch designs. All things being equal, the consumer who can afford one or the other is likely to go with the less-obtrusive plasma panel. Both technologies have inherent video scaling problems, so it's a sure bet that after-market scalars will be needed.

LCoS: Low-yield Construction of Screens

What about liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS)? Two words: low yields. Even the most experienced LCoS panel manufacturer — JVC — will tell you it is a difficult fabrication process. (And JVC isn't getting the best manufacturing yields itself.) Other manufacturers of LCoS are having a difficult time bringing any quantity of reflective LCD panels to market — so much difficulty that products designed around them (like RCA's Scenium and Samsung's F-LCD 50-inch RP televisions) are probably stillborn.

Consider that JVC's D'Ahlia 61-inch RPTV, which has had its share of false starts, has a list price in the range of $13,000, while RCA's 50-inch Scenium LCoS monitor has an MSRP of $8000. It's likely that 50-inch plasma panels (of which RCA also has an offering, manufactured by NEC) will be in the $10,000 range by May or June of next year. The 60-inch panels will also follow this downward pricing trend. NEC makes its 61- and 50-inch panels on the same line to keep costs down, and these big boys will be in the $15,000 range before too long.

TFT: Too Freakin' Tiny

TFT LCDs aren't serious contenders for large direct-view screens. The largest commercially available model is a 28-inch 16×9 design from Sharp, and we may see a 32-inch 16×9 version in early 2002. Other than that, the LCD action is all in 20-inch and smaller 4×3 video/computer displays.

The continuing price drop in smaller plasma panels will also affect TI's DLP technology. The 42-inch panels are hovering around the $5000 mark (street prices) and will no doubt continue falling to about $3000. That's right smack in the middle of tabletop RPTV territory, a category where Texas Instruments wants to compete with a 40-inch RP set.

Does Sony's Grand Wega 60-inch LCD set have any edge at $8000 MSRP? Not as long as plasma prices keep falling. Although this set does produce one of the best RPTV images I've seen in a few years, it still takes up more room than a 50-inch plasma panel. Not only that, the plasma panel will produce brighter images with a wider viewing angle. (Even Sony will come forth with a 50-inch plasma panel at some point, just to stay competitive.)

The truth is, we like the look of plasma. Cosmetically, it's a real crowd-pleaser, and it gives up nothing in terms of brightness and viewing angles to any video display. Granted, video quality still needs improvement. But the new Pioneer and Panasonic 50-inch panels have tamed just about all of the artifacts associated with plasma imaging. Panasonic's black levels on the PT-50PD3 are amazing and rival that of the best CRT projector, while Pioneer's third-generation 50-inch plasma has virtually eliminated false contouring.

THE TRUE TEST

The final indicator of success for a given technology is the willingness of the technology owner to sign OEM deals. Both domestic and international plasma manufacturers have shown that willingness in earnest, judging by the CEDIA Expo show floor. The more manufacturers, the more acceptance by the buying public, and the faster the prices will fall. Both technologies are here for the long run.

I'm even starting to hear from the most devoted CRT fans that perhaps it's time they made the switch to DLP or plasma. One prominent technician I ran into at the show said it was time for him to get rid of his tube projector and go with the DLP crowd. The simple no-convergence design, ease of operation, and image quality he saw on the Sharp DLP front projector convinced him.

A public relations executive for another manufacturer of consumer televisions told me at the show that in his mind, plasma was the future of TV sets. All things being equal — price, image size, brightness and contrast — plasma would eventually take over a good chunk of the market from CRTs and even RPTV sets…including DLP and LCD!

Now, it's still early in the race, and these horses haven't even rounded the first turn yet. But there are already signs of the consumer flat-screen display market shaking itself out. If you plan to attend Winter CES 2002 in January, keep an eye on DLP and plasma displays, who's making them, and how much they cost. You may be even more surprised than I was at CEDIA Expo 2001.


Peter H. Putman owns PHP Communications, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Toastmasters Guide to Audiovisual Presentations and reviews large-screen video displays, scalers and computer/video interfaces.



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