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CES: Cheaper, Bigger, More Colorful

Although it's primarily a consumer show, many products on display at CES will eventually work their way into pro AV.

OTHER TRADE shows ebb and flow from year to year, but the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in early January in Las Vegas, continues to grow exponentially. While it's officially a consumer show, many products on display will inevitably wind up in the pro AV channel. And what a bevy of products, from pocket projectors to super-sized plasmas, flat-screen TVs with built-in digital video recorders, and LCD monitors with LED backlights.

With all the booths featuring televisions, set-top boxes, video servers, video recorders, DVD players, and a host of go-between magic boxes, it was hard to know where to start. The major players showed up as they always do, but there were numerous “who's that?” companies showing flat-panel TVs — many of which were made in China.

Trend to watch: lower flat-panel prices

For the past few years, the Korean companies led by Samsung and LG pushed and pulled their way to better market share with incessant price slashing. Now, the “big three” Chinese manufacturers (Chi Mei Optoelectronics, AU Optoelectronics, and Chunghwa Picture Tube) are pulling the same trick, flooding the market with LCD and plasma products while driving down prices and margins for everyone. Examples include 42-inch LCD (1280x768) and HD plasma (1024x768) TVs with integrated digital tuners (no CableCARD) for $2,500, 46-inch HD (1366x768) plasma TVs with similar tuners for $3,500, and 50-inch plasma TVs (with digital tuners) for just more than $5,000.

BenQ joined the 46-inch LCD club with its DV4680, which sells for about $3,000 less than comparable Samsung and Sony products and includes a digital TV tuner for ATSC broadcasts. (In fact, many of the larger LCD and plasma TVs are following the FCC mandate and including ATSC tuners, although not always CableCARD slots.)

We all know about Samsung, Pioneer, LG, Panasonic, NEC, Fujitsu, and Hitachi, but how many Pro AV readers have ever heard of Norcent, Erae, Sampo, Moxell, Vizio, or Westinghouse Digital?

They're all U.S. trading companies that are importing flat screens from Taiwan and China (sometimes even Korea) by the boatload, helping to drive prices down even more. All of these companies (plus veterans Optoma and BenQ) exhibited dozens of models of plasma and LCD monitors and TVs at CES.

Trend to watch: larger flat-panel sizes

The flat-panel giants aren't conceding anything in this market. Samsung showed an enormous 102-inch plasma TV (Z-102) and is also shipping its 80-inch HP-R8072. Down the hall, LG had its 71-inch MW-71PY10 plasma TV out for inspection, along with a large-screen LCD version, the 55-inch 55LP1D.Sharp stole some of Samsung's thunder with its largest-in-class Aquos 65-inch LCD TV, putting this technology neck and neck with plasma in all mainstream screen sizes. However, it's not likely you'll see too many of these for sale soon as the large LCD mother-glass used to make this panel is better put to use in multiple 32-inch and 45-inch sections.

Trend to watch: enhancements to TFT-LCD performance

The battle for flat-panel supremacy continues on other fronts. Philips has come up with a scanning LCD backlight for a few of its LCD TVs, both as an energy conservation measure and as a way to minimize motion blur, something from which all TFT-LCD monitors and TVs suffer.

JVC has also hatched a different scheme to improve perceived motion response and it's called Genessa. It uses 32-bit processing to drive a quick-shot panel driver, and the demo appeared to work quite well.

Samsung and Sony showed there's more than one way to get better color out of TFT-LCD monitors by using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to produce a pair of drop-dead beautiful 46-inch 1920x1080 monitors. Samsung's version is the LNR460D and it's claimed to achieve 105 percent of the NTSC/SMPTE-C color gamut. (Sony's Qualia 005 version is essentially the same product.)

Think the plasma manufacturers are concerned about LCD technology? Panasonic executives prepared an elaborate presentation and demonstration of the advantages of plasma over LCD. Their position was that LCD would hold the market below 32 inches, LCD and plasma would co-exist between 32 and 37 inches, and plasma would rule above that mark.

My position has been for some time that LCD will take over the market up to 42 inches before very long, and nothing I saw and heard about at CES leads me to believe otherwise. (The truth is, most consumers don't know the difference between LCD and plasma technology and don't care — all they're focused on is price.)

Trend to watch: competing flat-panel technologies

Perhaps the most interesting flat-panel product at CES wasn't even on the floor, but privately demonstrated by Canon and Toshiba. It's called the surface-conduction electron-emitter display (SED). Think of it as a super-flat CRT with similar operating voltages between the electron emitters and the anode (about 10 kV). A 36-inch prototype with deep, rich blacks, crisp motion, fine picture detail, and saturated CRT-like colors was used in the press demo. No pricing information was available, although Toshiba representatives claimed it would be competitive with plasma and LCD and that a 50-inch version would come to market soon. In terms of picture quality, it was no contest — the SED won hands down. But can it find a niche in the torrent of LCD and plasma products?

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