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CES 2006

Once again, CES managed to out-grow itself. This year's attendance reportedly exceeded 150,000, and the show spilled out of the Las Vegas Convention Center over to the Sands Expo Center.

All those LCD screens were nice, but the real story was the widespread use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) across a whole range of flat-panel products at CES — not just in LCD TVs. Wherever you saw LED backlights, you couldn't help but be impressed by color quality. Reds just popped better, greens were appealing but not over-saturated, and formerly difficult colors like amber yellow and turquoise came to life in a way they had never been seen on plasma screens or with cold-cathode fluorescents (CCFLs).

The LED-equipped rear-projection sets were also impressive for their brightness and contrast. Samsung had the 56-inch HL-S5679W ($3,999) 1080p DLP model running RGB LEDs, and nearby Sanyo unveiled a rear-projection LCD set with a similar engine. Across the aisle, Akai claimed it could make a 46-inch LED DLP RPTV with 1080p resolution available for well less than $2,000 at some point.

Samsung, Philips, LG, Sony, and a host of smaller companies all had LED-backlit LCD TVs and monitors hung on the walls. There are several reasons to move to LEDs as illuminants, such as the pending European Union ban on products that contain mercury, which includes CCFL backlights in LCD TVs and the popular short-arc UHP/UHE lamps in portable projectors.

LED color can be achieved with separate red, green, and blue diodes, operated either in steady-state mode (sucking lots of current along the way) or in switched mode with fast refresh rates. White LEDs can also be put to work with embedded color filters much the same way that CCFLs are used, running continuously or pulsed. The pulsing technique has one advantage — it improves motion detail in LCDs.

A fifth LED lighting scheme demonstrated at the Digital Experience tabletop show by Cree Inc., a manufacturer of LEDs in Durham, NC, showed an efficient white LED chip with discrete red, green, and blue elements that could be tuned individually. Several of these chips were incorporated into a backlight that used no more power than a CCFL, but was considerably brighter.

The most obvious advantage of LED illuminants is color quality. CCFLs are bright and don't draw much electricity, but their spectral output is quite lopsided in favor of greenish-blue color shades. Samsung and LG both showed CCFLs with improved color rendering, but they didn't hold a candle to the nearby LED light engines.

LEDs are also durable when compared to projection lamps. The estimated life of an LED is between 50,000 to 100,000 hours when it's operated within normal current limits. It can withstand quite a bit of mechanical shock without breaking, survives a wide range of operating temperatures, won't explode if operated right to the end of its life, and doesn't change color as it ages.

In the projector world, InFocus and Optoma both had low-cost ($2,999) single-chip 720p DLP front projectors. Optoma also unveiled the HD81, a new single-chip 1080p model that will sell for less than $10,000. It resembles a SIM2 design with its round shape and recessed lens. Toshiba had a new low-cost home cinema projector in a similar case design with Silicon Optix Realta processing that will retail in the $1,400 range.

BenQ's “spa” DLP projector was a zany product. This desktop DLP design has a small compartment where drops of aromatherapy oil can be placed. As the projector warms up, the oil is heated and disperses through the room. That immediately begs a question: What happens to all of the oil vapor when it cools down and condenses back onto the projector housing?

Things were just as busy in the rear-projection TV department, where long-time supporter of LCD RPTV technology Panasonic unveiled several new DLP models this year, while Sanyo showed 55-inch and 65-inch LCD rear-projection sets and Epson put the spotlight on a pair of new 1080p LCD monitors using the latest 0.9-inch panels. Sony managed to cut 30 percent of the depth out of a new 55-inch SXRD RPTV, but Texas Instruments went one better with a 9-inch-thick DLP set with a 44-inch screen that's intended to fit existing TV furniture.

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