Oct 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer
In years past, it has probably been easy to look at this annual flatpanel buyers' guide as a scorecard of sorts in the big-money competition between LCD and plasma technology. And perhaps that's true again this year. However, that pure numbers game has given way to much more interesting developments in the technologies themselves. It's those improvements, admittedly not so apparent in a big chart, that are becoming a much more important story.
Sure, it is noteworthy to see that LCD technology has continued to grow in both market share and physical size. That is evident from the chart.
Where last year, LCD had seriously encroached into the 40in.-to-50in. range that had been plasma's sweet spot, this year, there are several LCD models in the 50in.-to-60in. range and even larger. However, plasma has not ceded those size ranges. It has remained a very viable solution from 40in. to 103in. sizes — particularly for motion video-centric applications, where costs and image performance are the biggest drawing cards.
Indeed, the nature of specific applications seems to be defining the LCD-plasma turf more than the usual surface-level, bigger-better-faster-cheaper way of judging products. And in many vertical markets in the professional AV world, LCD is showing its true colors — literally and figuratively. LCD's advantages in sharper text and graphic images, weight (much lighter to ship and hang than plasma), better ambient-light performance, and, arguably, lower power consumption than plasma all make it a more frequent choice in public design and conference-room markets.
More impressive, companies such as Astro Systems, Cine-tal, eCinema, JVC, Panasonic, and Sony have all shown what astounding image quality and color reproduction LCD can generate when cost is not the primary driving force in product development. Each of those companies has products in the chart that target the professional video production and broadcast markets, which have been among the slowest to migrate to digital displays due to image-quality concerns. Yet this new crop of reference-caliber displays is wooing those markets with both image accuracy and built-in digital features such as waveform monitoring, audio EQ meters, and, of course, digital connectivity.
Plasma, on the other hand, continues to offer a tremendous price/performance benefit. New-generation panels from Panasonic, Pioneer, and Hitachi have accentuated plasma's more organic video picture quality with color, smooth motion, and faster adjustment in grayscales from scene to scene — particularly when price is a factor. Those factors continue to give plasma an edge in home theater markets and entertainment uses where quality matters. While offering both technologies, high-end home theater makers, including Runco and Fujitsu, still favor plasma as the screen sizes get bigger.
UNDERSTANDING THE CHART
Our chart lists products first by size, then by manufacturer in alphabetical order, then by price within a given manufacturer's product offerings. Given the enormous range of products and prices, the chart can't possibly explicate the differences between products that might, on the surface, appear similar. However, a quick look at 23in.-to-24in. LCDs ranging in price from as low as $599 up to $25,000 does hint at some dramatic differences, if not some remarkable advancements and specialization in the technology.
The majority of flatpanels listed in the chart are “commercial” or “pro AV” products, as has historically been the case with this annual buyers' guide. These include products designed for public design, conference rooms, and other business and industrial uses. Yet the line between commercial and consumer products has been getting increasingly gray over the last few years.
Historically, professional AV products didn't include features such as TV tuners and loudspeakers because those would hint at home use. However, TV tuners are often quite affordable, and many manufacturers include them in commercial products on the grounds that, for example, conference-room users may wish to tune into CNN or Bloomberg on occasion. The chart lists whether each model includes a TV tuner and whether it is an HD-capable ATSC or just an NTSC tuner.
Inputs also used to be a historical giveaway for professional AV products. BNC connectors, for example, are more robust for installation purposes because the cables lock to the devices. Analog component video inputs are a must for top image quality. Today, however, consumer DVD players and cable boxes regularly include analog component to go to higher-image-quality HD-capable displays, albeit typically with RCA connectors instead of BNC. Our chart assumes all panels include the obligatory 15-pin VGA (which inevitably now support component video input via a conversion cable), S-Video, and composite video inputs. It only highlights the native of the dedicated component video inputs and whether they use 3-RCA or 3-BNC connectors. And while RCA connectors for component video are less “professional” than BNC, many conference-room models favor RCA connectors.
However, the real lack of general differentiation between consumer and professional products lies in the fact that once-humble “consumer” products are really now quite good. Indeed, while new, improved technology used to appear first in commercial products and migrate to consumer models, the reverse is now true. What's more, the much larger consumer market often begets lower prices on very similar technology and image quality, if favoring RCA connectors over BNC, and that is often enough to entice overwise “professional” or “commercial” buyers to simply buy from an electronics store if their needs are less specific. Therefore, while we certainly haven't listed all the available HDTV sets available, there are several products included in the chart that are consumer products. These include models from Fujitsu, Hitachi, Polaroid, Planar/Runco/Vidikron, Sharp, Syntax-Brillian, ViewSonic, Vizio, and Westinghouse Digital — companies that tend to do business in both markets.
While it's generally true that professional products have communication ports, such as RS-232 or Ethernet, they are hardly a requirement in all cases — particularly as “professional AV” products find their way into specific vertical markets. LG Electronics has several LCD panels specifically designed to meet “UL Hospital grade” requirements. Z Microsystems caters to military applications. And increasingly, as LCD image quality sheds stereotypes of image ghosting and poor color reproduction, panels are also targeting the image-is-everything demands of video and film production in the studio-quality panels from Astro Systems, Cine-tal, eCinema, JVC, Panasonic, and Sony. Many of those products focus on top-quality video inputs, and they may or may not include control ports.
PANELS UP TO 20IN.
The video-centric chart does not include desktop computer monitors, except in the cases where they include component video inputs, otherwise the chart would be several times larger and filled with LCD screens in this size category. Similarly, for the most part, the chart excludes LCD TV products, of which there are still many more. LCD technology has completely dominated that sector of the consumer market with under-counter LCD TVs for kitchens, pop-up models for bathrooms, fold-down models for minivans, and straightforward second and third family TVs for bedrooms, dens, and basements.
Even though those models are not listed in the chart, they do ultimately affect the market, as do the millions of laptop computer LCD screens in the world. The sales volumes generated by those baseline products ultimately feed enormous capital back to the LCD manufacturers to build newer, larger fabrication facilities for the larger, higher-quality panels. And it's that sheer volume advantage compared to the plasma makers that has allowed LCD to close the size and image-quality gap.
Even without those desktop, laptop, and consumer TV models, this smallest-size category is still entirely LCD and filled predominantly with in-the-field, on-the-truck, or in-studio production monitors for viewing camera feeds. LCD has been good enough for this level of video production for a few years now, particularly when the need is mostly to simply see that video is properly connected and to frame and judge camera angles. LCD's thin form factor compared to CRT makes it a natural choice for the tight quarters of production trucks and studios.
Yet this category now also includes very high-quality production video monitors, including Sony's 8.4in. Luma monitor; JVC's 15in., 17in., and 20in. reference monitors; and Panasonic's 8in. and 17in. BT-LH series of production monitors.
All of the panels in this size range are also LCD, but the product range is wider in this size than in any other category. This is the most difficult size category for sorting professional monitors from consumer TVs simply because more consumer TV are sold in this size than any other, thus yielding excellent volume prices for business simply needing a video monitor in a smaller room.
Yet it's this size category that also features the most expensive sub-60in. panel in the chart: Sony's $25,000, 23in., LED-backlit BVM-L230 production reference monitor. It's Sony Professional's flagship production display designed to replace the industry-standard BVM CRT with uncompromising picture quality and built-in digital features. And Sony is not alone. Cine-tal and eCinema both have color reference monitors that fall into similar pricing models, and both offer highly configurable, calibrated displays for digital-cinema acquisition.
Even more intriguing, LG Electronics and Z Microsystems have what, in such a generic chart, might look simply like overpriced LCDs but are instead vertical-market products that target very specific applications. In LG's case, several LCD panels have been built to meet UL Hospital grade requirements for medical diagnosis. Z Microsystems' LCDs are rugged, in-the-field military panels for use on navy warships or in desert command centers.
This size category is the bread-and-butter size for many public display applications, including digital signage at airports, sports arenas, retail stores, and conference rooms. It's in this size category where you'll start to see more BNC connectors for installations, but also features such as Ethernet connectivity for networking public display and business campus panels. Much of the time, that simply means remote administration of panels, but some products from Samsung, LG Electronics, and ViewSonic can move content to a local storage device built into the display chassis for local playback, or they can even stream video.
However, increasingly larger-sized panels are also ending up in consumer living rooms. While, statistically, smaller panels still dramatically out-sell larger ones, declining prices and increasing aspirations have more consumers buying bigger, and that's led to the continued presence of several plasma models, despite the emergence of more LCDs in this size category.
50IN. AND LARGER
This category is no longer exclusively plasma, although it is still very plasma-heavy. And plasma can still claim the largest panel with Panasonic's (and Runco's OEM version of it) 103in. monster. Yet Sharp, having sold a 65in. Aquos TV for more than a couple of years, has offered several versions of a 65in. professional panel. The standard-orientation base model is actually physically different than the portrait-mode version. Not only is the logo moved, but internally, Sharp has reconfigured both the backlight array and the cooling system for portrait operation. Both models can also come with a special protective acrylic overlay to minimize the risk of damage in public settings from either impact or scratches.
Interestingly, while this is easily the most expensive category — as you would expect, there is five-digit pricing on most models — there is a surprisingly wide price range. Panasonic's 103in. plasma remains consistent from last year at roughly $70,000 and Runco's image-is-everything version is up to just less than $100,000. Yet, Vizio is offering a 60in. model for a remarkable $2,500. And while Vizio, selling through warehouse stores, is targeting the consumer market, it doesn't take a proverbial rocket scientist to imagine that a few of those 60in. panels might end up being used in a boardroom or two for displaying presentation slides and spreadsheets.
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