CES Proved That it is Back To Business for the CE Industry

If last year's post-CES sentiment was for the industry to proceed with caution, this year could be summarized by saying it is time to proceed with business, full speed ahead!
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If last year's post-CES sentiment was for the industry to proceed with caution, this year could be summarized by saying it is time to proceed with business, full speed ahead!

Walking the acres of exhibit space in Las Vegas it quickly became clear that much of the fuel that will hopefully provide this speed is coming from the digital television transition. HDTV is no longer an oddity with scattered high-end products, but a reality at many levels. The displays are there in many forms, set tops are once again available from a wide variety of sources and HD-PVRs are getting closer to reality. As important, progress is finally being made toward what will hopefully be standardized interconnection technology for cable products and displays as well as for what will become the eventual HD format for DVD. As an added starter, you will soon even be able to "roll your own" HD with the first consumer-priced HDTV camcorder.

There was HD action in virtually every display category. On the plasma front, the news was not so much in the product itself but rather in the increased number of potential sources for PDP product. The inner reality is that the same group of core suppliers (primarily NEC, Pioneer, Matsushita, the Fujitsu/Hitachi FHP joint venture, LG, Samsung and Chunghwa Picture Tubes of Taiwan) manufacture the basic glass modules that are the heart of a plasma set. Virtually every video brand, however, now has some entry in the PDP market using either completely OEM-manufactured sets or custom-designed products using sourced-in "glass" with proprietary video driver, control and scaling circuits. That has led to a wide variety of products and vendors and to an even wider range of pricing for both non-HD PDPs (primarily 42-inch-wide and 46-inch-wide models with 853 x 480 resolution) and HD-native sets in a wider range of sizes, from 32-inch-wide to 63-inch-wide.

Things are changing rapidly, but the post-CES price for low end, non-HD panels is still between $2,500 and $2,999, while the low-end MSRP for 50-inch-wide HD sets is currently at or just under $6,999. The news is that pricing will remain somewhat volatile, and it will be interesting to see what that various brands sourcing from CWT do when they bring their 46-inch-wide native-HD panels to market this year, as well as the impact of more panel lines coming on line from the "big six" in Japan, Korea and Mainland China.

PDP will remain hot and highly requested, but how will the custom installer be able to maintain a value-added position for PDPs when non-HD panels are available at Costco! Activity in the large-screen LCD category at CES may provide an answer to this question. Until this year, LCD could not compete with PDP in terms of size, even though it does have advantages in terms of lighter weight, freedom from burn-in problems, fan-free operation and the ability to work at high altitudes without buzzing. That started to change with the introduction of the 40-inch-wide LCD panel from Samsung at CEDIA, followed by a 37-inch-wide product from Sharp.

Those units will be the upper size limit for now, but recently, the right to claim the title for "World's Largest LCD" has changed hands a few times. Samsung first upped their own ante with a 46-inch-wide panel, but that was quickly eclipsed by a 52-inch-wide panel from the LG/Philips LCD production joint venture. However, at CES the limit was pushed once again as Samsung reclaimed the title with a 54-inch-wide LCD panel. That's it for the moment, but within the next year you may expect LCD panel sizes to equal anything available today in a PDP.

Remember, these new large panels will not be available until late this year, or early 2004. Further, the likelihood is that LCD will still carry a penalty of as much as 50 percent or perhaps even more over comparably sized (over 50-inch-wide) PDPs. However, in an industry where installations are planned many months in advance, the knowledge that these larger LCD panels are on the way may be a key for many RS readers.

CES saw a number of new product rear-screen introductions that use fixed-pixel image engines to deliver high brightness and high resolution in a shallow form factor. In particular, Thomson's RCA brand re-joined the fixed-pixel ranks with its first DLP-based projector. This 50-inch-wide model uses the same HD-2 chip powering other DLP-based rear screen models from Samsung, Sim2/Seleco, Panasonic, Loewe, Vestel and Optoma. Like its competitors, the new entrant shares the all-important thin profile (under 16 inches deep), so that an RP set may be used in tight spaces. Unlike other DLP-based sets to date, the new RCA model will include both ATSC and QAM tuners for HDTV reception of either off-air or non-scrambled cable signals without the need for an external set-top. Also included are broadband connectivity for Net surfing and a wide range of connectivity options. With an MSRP of $4,449 and mid-year delivery, this set could provide an interesting benchmark for rear-screen models.

That is not to say that the rest of the market was asleep; far from it. Optoma stepped up at CES with two DLP-based rear screens, a 50-inch-wide model less than 15 inches deep, and a 65-inch-wide model less than 22 inches deep. The latter is the current size leader for DLP based rear screens. In the mean time, current DLP rear-screen market leader Samsung increased its model offerings with 46-inch-wide and 56-inch-wide models joining their existing 43-inch-wide, 50-inch-wide and 61-inch-wide units.

While RCA's defection from the LCoS ranks to DLP technology may have left Toshiba temporarily alone in that category, Philips livened things up with its first single-chip LCoS projectors. A pair of 44-inch-wide and 55-inch-wide units will hit the market this year, with features and pricing that will undoubtedly make for many interesting comparisons between the two non-CRT based, reflective imaging technologies.

Front projectors also saw many introductions using a variety of light engines at CES. The bulk of the action for new models, however, was in the DLP ranks, with virtually all the leading brands using CES as a platform to complete the transition to HD-2 based models that began back in September at CEDIA EXPO. BenQ, DreamVision, Dwin, Marantz, Optoma, Runco, Sharp and Yamaha showing new HD-2-powered units for the first time. The widespread availability of these units will enable you to more clearly delineate the difference between lower resolution XGA resolution products at the lower end of the price spectrum and the higher resolution, "native HD" units tending to list at or over the $10,000 mark.

Of course, what is a high-resolution display without a source to feed it? CES was the stepping off point for a number of new products in that category. In particular, CES saw the first widespread showing of high-definition capable PVR products, though many of these units will not reach your showroom or customers' installations until the late fall or early winter.

Matching the previously shown HD-PVRs for the EchoStar system, that were previewed last year at SBCA and CEDIA EXPO, TiVo showed its hand with demonstrations of a reference design for an HD-PVR. It will likely be sold both for use with the DirecTV system as well as in a probable off-air-only version that will carry the TiVo brand. Look for the TiVo HD-PVRs to arrive late this year.

For those needing HD-PVR products sooner, Zenith unveiled a pair of models that deliver HD time-shift recording. Both include an 80 GB hard drive, but while the $999 HDR230 has a standard off-air ATSC tuner, the as-yet-unpriced HDR330 adds QAM tuning capability for use with unscrambled cable programming. Look for the latter unit in the back half of the year, perhaps to be joined at some point by an even more ambitious combination from Zenith: a 60-inch-wide LCD powered rear projector/HD-PVR combination.

A new category of HDTV product joined the market at CES, and it is one that merits your attention even if you do not carry the brand involved or the category itself. JVC took advantage of CES to formally introduce its DV-based HDTV camcorder to the market. Due to arrive in May at a retail price of $3,499, the GR-HD1 will record full HD images in the 1280 x 720 format. Connectivity to displays will be via either 1394 or component analog signals, with an editing program supplied to enable editing of the images and sound via a 1394 link to your computer.

This product establishes a whole new category of use for HDTV, bringing the resolution of high definition to your customers. More importantly, one of these units provides the capability to create HDTV demo material for playback in the showroom, or perhaps to create native HD commercials to use at the local television station. In many markets, particularly the smaller ones, stations are struggling to simply get on the air with the pass-through of network supplied HDTV programming. Armed with the GR-HD1, you may well have the capability to record locally produced HD images for playback before the station itself does. We leave it to you to see what the possibilities are for that.

Although D-VHS is already established as a playback medium for pre-recorded HDTV images, many are looking to an HD-DVD format as the broader market carrier of HD programming such as movies. There are a number of prospective formats on the table, but as CES drew to a close there was no clear path to which format will be the ultimate choice of this key decision involving both the consumer electronics manufacturers and the movie studios.

By the sheer number of demonstrations at CES one would conclude that the BluRay format would be the winner, with Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Hitachi, LG (Zenith) and Samsung publicly showing BluRay prototypes. BluRay is not the only solution, however, with Toshiba and NEC's Advanced Optical Digital (AOD) format, and also blue laser-based, on display at Toshiba's CES booth. Either one of these formats could be the winner, depending on which way the DVD Forum or "Hollywood" decides to go. And, they might eventually decide to go another way.

Both of the blue laser-based formats offer more than enough storage capacity to accommodate HDTV and both are capable of enabling home recording of HDTV programming. There are, however, still issues to deal with in terms of cost, reliability and backward compatibility with the ever-growing universe of current red laser based DVD players. The demonstrations at CES did much to allay concerns that blue lasers are still off in the future, but those concerns are not necessarily resolved.

Into that breach we find a variety of solutions that use the existing red laser optical systems for playback and marry them to advanced compression techniques to fit a full-length HDTV on a one side/layer of a DVD. There were at least a half a dozen such formats shown both in public and behind closed doors during CES. The more public possibilities were MPEG-4, Windows Media and the H.264 standard, while others are still not ready to show in public, despite private demos.

The advantages of this red laser/high compression technology are many, and hallway gossip during the show had it that despite the apparent blue laser bandwagon, one of the other schemes may immerge as the winner. Here, the news to report is that when clients ask for an HD-DVD system, you will have to point them to some other means of pre-recorded HD for the time being.

For all the focus on HDTV at CES, there was much more of interest to the custom installer. For example, picking up where we just left off with DVD, there was news on the recordable DVD front, with RCA finally making the formal introduction of their DVD+RW machine. Positioned as a VCR replacement, it will include a TV tuner and GuidePlus programming capability at a $599 retail price point.

Other DVD recordable news included refreshed models from Philips on the +RW front and Pioneer on the -RW front. Holding forth in the RAM camp, Panasonic introduced its own version of a "RAM-Cam," with a DVD-RAM-based camcorder. Straddling the DVD format fence, Sony finally made good on its promise to offer a dual-format +/- RW machine. The latter lets your clients make certain that they will be able to create DVDs with a greater flexibility in the choice of available blank media.

On the subject of format wars unresolved during CES, there was no significant movement in the race to high-resolution audio playback supremacy. The DVD-Audio and SACD camps both increased the number of players offering their formats as well as the discs available for the formats. Despite that, neither is able to claim supremacy in terms of either quality or market share.

Always looking for a good format battle, CES gave us all an opportunity to turn from playback formats to home networking options. Although 802.11b has clearly become the world standard for wireless home networking, two competing versions have begun to duke it out to gain market share for higher speed wireless connectivity. As reported from Comdex, 802.11a and 802.11g both offer wide bandwidth, each over 50 MB/s under optimal conditions.
The "a" format uses frequencies in the 5 Ghz range so that the interference present in the crowded 2.4 Ghz doesn't get in the way of your data transmission or streaming audio/video. The use of the higher, different frequencies, however, means that there is no backwards compatibility with existing "b" gear and the reception range is reduced from what we have come to expect from "b."

Coming up fast, "g" is still prone to interference, but it offers the high throughput and backward compatibility. Leaving Comdex it was still a horse race between the two newcomers, and while neither horse as reached the wire, it looks as though "g" may be pulling into the lead. More brands such as Netgear and D-Link revealed their plans for "g," joining Belkin, Buffalo and SOHO segment leader Linksys. It remains to be seen if the freedom from interference offered by "a" will be able to overcome the advantages of "g," which, not coincidentally, include a smaller cost premium over "b" than its competitor.

There was much, much more to see at CES, but space does not permit us to go further than the key items detailed here. Suffice it to say that the message of "back to business" was clear in all the product presentations at the show, in all areas of audio, video, and networking/data transmission. This overview will hopefully give you a sense of the top-level areas of interest, and the themes developed coming out of CES will be the subject of more in-depth reports as the year moves forward. In the mean time, full-speed ahead!

Michael Heiss (CaptnVid@aol.com) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles.

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