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CES 2003

Mar 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Peter H. Putman, CTS


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The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has turned out to be quite the showcase for a wide range of display products. Some are aimed specifically at consumers, whereas others will cross over into professional and industrial A/V distribution channels. There are even products going the other way from pro A/V to consumer as manufacturers root around for new business.

The big news for me this year was the proliferation of flat-screen plasma and TFT LCD monitors and integrated TVs. To those analysts obsessed with the front projector market: you are missing the boat big time! The worldwide market for flat screens continues to expand into every market segment and will far outstrip the sales of front projectors (and eventually rear projectors, too) during the course of this decade.

This year may very well turn out to be the year TV goes “flat” for good. No, I don't mean that plasma and LCD TVs will run tubes out the door by December — that will take a few more years. But a combination of screen sizes, low prices, and competition will surely force some manufacturers to adopt near-term phase-out timetables for direct-view CRTs and projection tubes.

Considering that a 30-inch to 34-inch flat-screen CRT-equipped TV set retails in the $1,400 to $3,000 range, you can bet the days of that product are numbered. There was a proliferation of DLP rear-projection TVs under $5,000, which means that you will also see a rapid shift away from tubes in that product category.

RCA, Zenith, and Samsung upgraded their DLP offerings with thinner bezels, integrated tuners, and other goodies. Although there aren't many systems that support open, unencrypted digital cable in the Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) format, all three manufacturers are now including QAM-agile tuners with their NTSC and ATSC decoders.

At least one company, Proton, showed a format-agile set-top box capable of decoding just about every format you'd need. The HT5060 is a combo Web interface and set-top tuner with a 300 MHz ATI processor. It will decode NTSC and PAL analog, ATSC 8VSB, QAM, and DVB-T in 6, 7, and 8 MHz bandwidths. There's a conditional access slot, two USB 1.1 ports, space for an HDD recorder (for PVR applications), and an ATI graphics accelerator for video games.

Given the packed crowds at the show (more than 115,000 people) and the inevitable transportation problems, it was difficult to see everything. But here are some of the more interesting product or technology demos I checked out.

REAR-PROJECTION TVS AND SET-TOPS

Samsung expanded its lines of DLP rear-projection TVs with the 46-inch HLN467W and 56-inch HLN567W. Both feature a new slim bezel design, 1,280-by-720 native resolution, a weight of less than 105 pounds, and a depth of less than 20 inches. Samsung also showed its first RPTVs with integrated NTSC/ATSC/QAM tuners, the 52-inch HLN529WH, the 55-inch HLN5529WH, and the 55-inch HLN559WH.

RCA announced a Scenium wide-screen 50-inch integrated RPTV using DLP technology. Features include a built-in ATSC tuner/decoder, high-speed broadband, a QAM demodulator for digital cable, and DVI-HDTV and DTVLink (1394) interfaces. It weighs less than 100 pounds, is 16 inches deep, and will retail for $4,499.

Zenith went one better by announcing its DLP52W37. This set also supports NTSC, ATSC, and QAM modes and includes a DVI connector with HDCP (DVI + HDCP) and will retail for less than $4,000. Among its ever-growing line of set-top receivers are two new products with PVRs. The HDR230 ($999) combines an ATSC tuner with an 80 GB hard-disk recorder, allowing storage and playback of eight-plus hours of HDTV programming. Zenith's HD-PVR330 (price TBA) uses a “TV Guide” onscreen interactive program guide and is equipped with a ATSC and QAM tuners as well as an NTSC tuner. An 80 GB hard-disk drive is standard.

Toshiba once again showed its 57HLX82, an $8,999 LCoS TV sporting 1,920-by-1,080-pixel imaging panels that made its debut at last fall's CEDIA Expo. To date, not one manufacturer has been successful marketing LCoS-engined TVs because of an inability to get enough of the imaging panels. RCA's decision to roll out a DLP RPTV reflects a similar problem with its original Scenium L5000. Although the Toshiba set has potential, can it really come to market in sufficient quantities?

ELCOS of Taiwan thinks it can get over the hump and showed a 50-inch RPTV using 0.7-inch, 1,280-by-768-pixel LCoS panel that will probably retail in the $3,000 to $4,000 range. Once again, yields will be the key to making those sets work. Panasonic broke new ground with a demo of an integrated RPTV that has a CableLabs-compatible QAM tuner (POD-enabled) as well as ATSC and NTSC tuners, but this was only a concept demo with no price given.

Speaking of HDTV, several companies, including Samsung and Panasonic, were showing demos of in-home wireless HDTV signal transmission using frequencies in the 5 GHz range. Given the bandwidth required, this choice of frequency was a no-brainer! The concept is a broadband LAN for distribution of HD content from one STB to many different TVs and can be used for anything from OTA, cable, and DBS to recorded HD programs from a server.

For those interested in OTA reception of digital TV signals, the results continue to improve. Linx Electronics had a demo of its recent multipath tests in Chicago wherein its proprietary 8VSB receiver enhancements ran circles around existing STBs. Thomson announced an agreement with Linx to use its chip set in upcoming set-top tuners and integrated TVs, bringing us closer to hasslefree indoor DTV reception.

PLASMA MONITORS AND TVS

Flat screens are where the action is, and I expected to see a fair amount of price slashing. But I wasn't prepared for all of the OEM partners that showed up at Las Vegas. Most of them had hotel suites to announce their entry into the flat-screen derby, though a few had good-size booths on the floor peddling plasma, LCD, and direct-view TVs. A lot of the product being sold by companies you've never heard of previously is coming from Korean manufacturers (such as Samsung and LG).

There were several significant price cuts. V Inc., a new company formed by principals of Princeton Graphic Systems, will be selling 32-inch ALiS plasma TVs (speakers optional) manufactured by Fujitsu-Hitachi for $2,999, as well as a 42-inch 852-by-480 plasma with NTSC tuner for the same price. For those folks interested in bigger screens, the company also has a 46-inch 852-by-480 LCD TV with a nice set of matching speakers for $3,999.

Sampo will spread out several plasma TVs and monitors, with the PME-50X6 grabbing the headlines. It's a 1,366-by-768-pixel panel with DVI-D interface, optional TV tuner, and a list price of $6,999. (No, that number is not a typo.) Sampo will also offer three TheaterPro integrated plasmas (TV tuners are optional): the 42-inch PME-42VC10 (852-by-480 pixels), PME-42XC10 (1,024-by-768 ns), and 50-inch PME-50XC10 (1,366-by-768 pixels).

Norcent Technology is offering the 46WVGA850, a $3,995, 46-inch plasma with 852-by-480 resolution and DVI, while the 46-inch 46PXGA1800 ($5,995) has 1,280-by-768-pixel resolution. Daewoo has a 42-inch panel, the DP-42SM with 853-by-480-pixel resolution, and Cornea Systems will bring out the MP4205 (852-by-480 pixels, integrated NTSC tuner) for about $3,999.

Among mainstream manufacturers, Fujitsu has upgraded its line with the 42-inch P42HHA10WS (1,024-by-1,024) and 50-inch P50XHA10US (1,365-by-768) monitors, while Samsung announced a full line of plasma TVs with integrated tuners. The lineup includes the 42-inch SPN4235 ($4,999), the 42-inch HPN4239 ($6,499), and the 50-inch HPN5039 ($8,999).

Zenith's comparable offerings include the 42-inch P42W38 and 50-inch P50W38. The 42-inch version uses 1,024-by-768 glass elements, and both models are scheduled for a Q2 introduction. JVC unveiled a new 42-inch panel brand with its I'Art label, the PD-42WX84. Although no pixel resolution was given, the press release states the panel “incorporates JVC's new D.I.S.T. (Digital Image Scaling Technology), which upconverts all images to 770p.” It's likely a 1,024-by-768 nonsquare design and will sell for $7,499.

Hitachi is now a 50-inch player with the 50HDT50 ($12,500) plasma TV. It has a separate A/V switcher/tuner module and sports a pixel count of 1,280 by 768. Runco didn't take long to apply its newly acquired Vidikron brand name to a 46-inch plasma monitor, the VP-46. It has 852-by-480 resolution and DVI-D interface. Panasonic is also getting into the integrated TV game with the 42-inch TH-42PA20U (852-by-480 pixels) and 37-inch TH-37PA20U (also 852-by-480 pixels). Both models offer built-in NTSC tuners and speakers.

LCD MONITORS AND TVS

We've been hearing about big-screen LCD TVs for years. But now you can actually see them, thanks to some amazing breakthroughs in single-fab LCD designs that eliminate the need for panel stitching. It took some time to get to 28 and 30 inches in a single panel, but in the space of four months samples of 42-, 46-, 52-, and 54-inch wide-screen LCDs have appeared on the market.

The big attractions coming into the show were LG Philips's 52-inch AM-LCD monitor modules and TVs, on display in both the Zenith booth and in LG Philips's technology demo room. This module has a native pixel resolution of 1,920 by 1,080, making it an HD display in every sense of the word. But Samsung had an ace up its sleeve, showing off a 54-inch 16-by-9 AM-LCD monitor that also sports 1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution. No prices yet on either AM-LCD panel, and don't expect to see them before late 2003 or early 2004.

LG Philips has made no bones about its desire to pass Sharp and become the No. 1 manufacturer of LCD TVs. With a line of screens that also includes WXGA 42-inch and 30-inch models (one of which is OEM'ed by Sony in a brand-new LCD TV), it is likely to pull it off. Zenith is already selling the L30W26 HDTV monitor (1,280-by-768-pixel resolution) with a matching set of speakers for $4,699 and will no doubt have some integrated LCD TVs by spring.

Samsung is also aiming for the same target with its 32-inch LTN325W ($4,499, Q2, 2003), 40-inch LTN406W ($8,999), and 46-inch LTN465W ($10,999, Q2, 2003) LCD wide-screen WXGA TVs, whereas Sharp is content to roll out its LC-37HV4U 37-inch LCD TV. It has 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution and built-in NTSC tuner and speakers and will retail for $8,999. (The 30-inch LC-30HV4U sells for $5,499.)

All three manufacturers are also supporting the small-screen market. Zenith's notable entries (among a few) are the 23-inch L23W36 and 17-inch L17W36 HDTV monitors, both with 1,280-by-768 resolution. Samsung's 26-inch LTN265W ($3,499, Q2) and 17-inch LTN1785W ($1,499) are serious contenders in this category, as is Sharp's LC-22SV2U (854-by-480 resolution, $2,999).

Sony introduced the KLV-30XBR900 ($6,000), a 30-inch wide-screen LCD television with 1,280-by-768 resolution. It's a two-piece LCD panel and media receiver unit ensemble. Other companies are gearing up to sell LCD TVs and monitors in quantity, including Philips, Norcent, Cornea Systems, Sampo, Daewoo, and Planar. Some of these retailers are private-labeling LCD panels from one of the big three but are engaged in some aggressive pricing to break into the market.

ANALYSIS

Several conclusions could easily be drawn from the show. First, TV screens and monitors are migrating away from direct-view and projection tube technology. It isn't going to happen overnight, but the writing is on the wall. Now that both plasma and LCD screens can be fabricated in sizes up to 50 inches, which will win out?

Right now plasma is cheaper to produce, although as Bruce Berkoff of LG Philips put it, “LCD panels will last three times as long.” He expects the gap in manufacturing costs to close in short order. In the meantime, the continued price-cutting and expansion of OEM partners will make both types of technologies more accessible to a wider range of buyers.

Sharp, the leader in sales of LCD TVs, carries Pioneer-manufactured plasma in its line simply because it does not have LCD TVs in sizes any larger than 37 inches. Once it does (a new Sharp LCD factory comes online this year), you can bet the plasma will go away in short order. LG Philips continues to gun for Sharp's No. 1 slot with Samsung in third place.

Plasma prices could and will likely drop to $2,000 by year's end — maybe sooner. This will be primarily 42-inch wide VGA glass and possibly some of the 32-inch product coming out of the FHP plant in Kyushu. A majority of the plasma monitors I saw have integrated NTSC TV tuner modules or provide an expansion slot for the same. That will be key to sales through the big-box electronics stores.

DLP technology continues to make slow and steady progress, now that several manufacturers have achieved 50-inch sizes for less than $4,500. It hardly makes sense for other manufacturers to compete at that price point since these new displays from Samsung, Zenith, and RCA are delivering 1,280-by-720 native resolution and integrated tuners. LCoS is not likely to make a dent in this market because of manufacturing yield headaches, and high-temperature polysilicon is still not price competitive.

Look for more and more companies to come out with PVRs capable of recording both SDTV and HDTV, as Zenith has done with its combo tuner/PVR boxes and the new Proton set-top. You will also see integrated DVD player/PVR products (there were a few of them on the floor), and more companies are showing DVD players built in to their direct-view and RPTVs.

We are indeed heading toward an all-in-one TV with Web browser, PVR, all mode digital tuners, and disc media players. All of that functionality is now down to one or two boxes. Who will be the first to stuff all of it in an RPTV cabinet or pack it into a remote A/V head for a plasma or an LCD flat screen?



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