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Forward to the Fall

Video displays dominate Our annual review of the product line shows.

Summertime is in full swing, and while it may be tempting to hit the beach and forget about work for awhile, its time to focus in on the newest products of the fall season. Yes, its time for our annual review of the line shows.

These line shows have become a very effective vehicle for major consumer electronics manufacturers to showcase their products in a focused environment without the increasing demands and competition involved with trade shows such as CEDIA, PARA, and CES, among others. You may have found yourself at some of these events between March and June, but its nearly impossible to get to all of the line shows for the brands you carry, and you certainly dont get to go to those for the brands you dont sell.

Residential Systems has been to most of the major line shows, and well offer you our take on industry trends, including an overview of some specific models and insight into the key component driving consumers to the world of home theater: video displays.

From a technology perspective, you dont need to go to any of the shows to realize that CRT rear screens and analog rear screens are becoming endangered species. While there are a few of the former around for value-oriented consumers or those who still prefer a raster-scan picture versus a pixel-based microdisplay image, youd be hard pressed to find any of the latter remaining in any brands line. Indeed, when you hear the acronym MD used in consumer electronics circles these days you need to remember that the person using it is not reminding him/herself to schedule a visit to the doctor or reminiscing about the MiniDisc audio format.

In the CE industry, MD stands for micro display. This, of course, is the general description identifying a projector with any fixed-pixel-based imaging engine, be it DLP, LCD, LcoS, and its variants such as D-ILA and SXRD, and any other similar projection light engine technology that comes along. You will hear about it from vendors and read it in the press. Be ready to explain this new bit of phraseology to your clients.

Even as they face increasing competition from flat-panel displays (plasma and LCD screens) rear-projection TV (RPTV) will also be a technology battle, with some manufacturers choosing one format over the others and other manufacturers playing the field by offering more than one format. Sony, for example, eschews DLP and concentrates on its core strength of LCD while pointing to the future with SXRD.

Similarly, Hitachi is banking on LCD, but will also offer three LCoS models. Flipping things around, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi will all offer a mix of DLP- and LCD-powered sets. Meanwhile, Sharp, Samsung, and Thomsons RCA brand are committed to DLP, Epson relies on LCD, and JVC uses LCoS with its D-ILA technology. LG is dipping its toes in both the DLP and LCD waters, with an LCoS set or two rumored to be introduced later this year.

With all of this expansion, a few things are missing. Larger screen sizes for RPTV are becoming somewhat rare, with the 82-inch-wide LCoS-based Mitsubishi Alpha set long gone. Yes, there are some RPTV sets in the 70-inch-plus-wide price range, but when you factor in the cost of a 73-inch-wide RPTV with a 1080P you are almost talking front-projection pricing. Put another way, some of the over-70-inch-wide models average out to about $100 per diagonal inch. Ouch! Also missing are 9-inch CRT-based sets that powered some of the earlier extra large models. While it remains with us, CRT-based rear-projection has clearly become a lower-end product proposition for screen sizes mostly in the mid-40 to mid-50-inch size range.

If imaging technology is one way to slice the light engine pie, then resolution is the other for micro display sets. Regardless of technology, 720P is the benchmark for microdisplays projectors, with lower resolution chips confined to entry-level front-projection models. This fall, however, 1080P imaging will be a very visible projection engine option across a wide range of brands.

While some manufacturers are taking a wait and see attitude, others such as Samsung, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and even HP will offer 1080P DLP sets. Indeed, Mitsubishi is taking an extremely aggressive stance, with all nine of its DLP displays in the 2005-2006 lineup set to be 1080P models. If you want a lower priced RPTV from Mitsubishi, then it will have to be a 3LCD set. An example of the pricing delta between technologies is evidenced by the$700 difference between the 62-inch-wide 1080P DLP and the 62-inch-wide 720P 3LCD in Mitsubishis line. Going in the other direction, a 65-inch-wide digital cable-ready CRT-based Mitsubishi will sell at $700 less than the 3LCD and $1,100 less than the DLP.

If you or your vendors are in the LCD or LCoS camps, fear not. Panasonic and Epson (but not LCD mainstay Sony) will have products with 3LCD engines at 1080P to complement their 720P offerings.

Rounding things out, LCoS has been positioned as having a larger aperture ratio than LCD. Now LCoS technology in three different formsconventional, SXRD, and D-ILAwill all have high-end 1080P sets from Hitachi, Sonys Qualia line, and JVC, respectively. LGs LCoS plans are still somewhat unclear, but word on the street is that they are working with LCoS manufacturer SpatiaLight, and we might see some of the fruits of that relationship before the end of the year.

A final wild card in LCoS is Arizona-based Brillian. A primary LCoS panel manufacturer that is more in the business of producing chips and light engines than actual sets, Brillian may once again dip its toe in the retail world with products based on their 1080P chips. Here, too, well know more before the end of the year, but this is also something to keep on your branding radar.

Form factors for micro display-based RPTV sets will continue to be in the depth range of the current models. The under-seven-inches-deep models from Thomson Profiles and InFocus are still out there, but no new sizes were shown during the line show season in that unique cabinet style.

While thin and designed to hang on the wall where appropriate, the optical design of the seven-inches deep sets requires a significant amount of space below the screen, making it hard to compare them directly to the flat-panel displays.

Two sneak previews of RPTV products in recent months that might compete with the Thomson sets were the Super Slim prototypes shown by Mitsubishi at its line show and a rare public display technology by developer SCRAM of its thin RPTV technology at the Projection Summit prior to InfoComm.

Using different technology approaches to achieve the same goal, each has managed to split the difference between the Thomson Profile sets 6.9-inch depth and the 16-inch depth of most average microdisplays sets with a cabinet depth of 11 inches. This is not exactly hang on the wall, the height is much less than the Profiles sets from either Mitsubishi or an OEM, called Scram. Should either of these technologies make it to market, they will definitely provide a new option for placement of large-size RPTV sets in short-depth wall units.

While a look at pricing to screen size makes RPTV a value, flat-panel displays (FPDs) certainly have the publics eye as an object of desire. Even as the major manufacturers promote their new RPTV lines that you will sell and install, many recognize that in the long run it is a reasonable bet that FPDs may well do to the rear-screen category what microdisplays has done to CRT in both front and rear projection.

While the appeal of having George Jetsons hang on the wall TV is undeniable, looking across the model introductions from virtually all of the brands, the FPD scene for this year will be one of increased offerings in terms of the number of models and configurations available. However, there didnt appear to be any breakthroughs in screen size or panel technology compared to what we saw at CES.

As with RPTV, 1080P is starting to become a factor in flat panel, although it is mostly a feature for 42-inch-wide and larger LCD panels that will start to appear this fall. Pricing will drop somewhat as major brands add features such as digital cable-ready (DCR) connectivity to compete with the monitor only entry level products from second- and third-tier brands. Remember that although every set above 36 inches that now has an NTSC tuner must also have an ATSC digital tuner, costs can be reduced by dropping the tuner altogether in monitor-only configurations. With ED-PDP sets already selling for under $1,400 in some markets, betting is that someone, somewhere, will break the magic thousand-dollar barrier. What the images will look like and what level of connectivity will it have remains to be seen.

A key determination in your model mix will be how to provision sets in terms of their connectivity. Some brands will offer high resolution but no tuners in some models, recognizing that many consumers use cable or satellite to receive broadcast and pay HD channels. In those cases, it is DCR and HDMI that make the set attractive.

For those who have been selling digital-ready sets since the beginning of the analog-to-digitaltransition , things are a bit more complicated. New HD tuners or HD tuner/DVR products were not to be found outside of the announcements by some brands that HD-DVR models shown previously are finally ready for prime time.

As to new screen sizes and technology, products such as the 55-inch-wide LCD from LG/Philips have been promoted as professional models at InfoComm, but not yet as a product available in consumer channels. Others, such as the Sharp 65-inch-wide LCD have been shown in a number of venues including CES and InfoComm, and announced for sale in Japan, but not yet in the U.S. However, at the end of the line show season and at least through what we may see at CEDIA EXPO in September, the screen size mix though the end of the year will not vary from what you have already seen and read about here and elsewhere.

Toshiba did not demonstrate its SED technology to the press at its line show, so our glimpse of it in a private showing at CES is as close as anyone is likely to get until much later this year. SED definitely has the potential to give LCD and PDP a run for their money, but at this point it is something you cant spec into a job or even quote a price for. Well keep you posted on this one.

Lest we forget, there is still a viable business in small size sets. Particularly for installed projects they are increasingly turning to LCD models, but CRT is still very much a factor, particularly when TV/DVD and TV/DVD/VCR combos are thrown into the mix. All of the brands continue to participate in CRT to some degree, though it should be noted that as we move closer to the inevitable analog broadcast shut down, be careful about the long-term viability of small-screen analog sets you install. Dont forget that this goes for LCD as well as CRT sets, for not all of the small size LCD models include high-scan rate inputs.

Of particular interest in the CRT-based product world were the wide deflection/short neck slim CRT-based sets shown at CES by Samsung and LG. That technology has yet to be taken on by other brands, but that shouldnt discourage you from considering it as an option for replacement of existing CRT sets. Look for them in the fall with pricing at a premium over comparable standard CRT-based HD sets, but very much in line with comparably sized LCD products.

You dont want to miss the SD sets due later in the year from Thomson/RCA. On the surface they appear to be conventional flat-screen CRT sets, but look a bit deeper and you will realize they are much more than that. These sets have digital chassis and ATSC tuners that allow reception of digital broadcasts but use conventional 4:3 aspect ratio CRTs to display images at a maximum scan rate of 480P. The result is a hybrid that eliminates obsolescence in the face of the analog shutdown and which provides better images from even NTSC off-air images without the true HD resolution, and the accompanying price. As talk of a date certain for the end of analog broadcasting heats up these sets may be in the vanguard of a whole new category for second-room viewing.

With Congress, the FCC and the courts battling over regulatory and legal issues, it may well be best to go with the flow and see how the factors that influence the sets of the future turn out. Those external factors will be the subject of extensive coverage in this space as we move into the fall.

Michael Heiss ([email protected]) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles.