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Holding Line Shows Up to the Light

Video Product Trends Affecting the Future of the Ranges You Carry

It isnt enough to simply know what products your vendors offer. You must also be aware of the products that you dont carry. To do this you must not only attend trade shows like CES and this months CEDIA EXPO, but also know whats introduced at manufacturer line shows.

Now that the line show season is over, it is time to analyze the direction of the market as a whole, and from there you may then chart the course for which brands and models you should carry and offer to specific clients.

A look at the trends at this time a year ago, it was clear that CRT-based rear-screen projection products were all but out the door. That has not only happened, but some manufacturers are going one step further and dropping RPTV completely. Specifically, this years video display lines from Hitachi and Toshiba are all flat-panel displays (FPD), joining the move made some years back by Pioneer, when it dropped RPTV. Dont read the tea leaves incorrectly here. It is unlikely that we will be waving farewell to RPTV as a product category in the immediate future. However, it would not be out of the question to see one or two more brands drop out of the original big screen display configuration in the next 12 months or so.

As telegraphed last year by Mitsubishi and others, RPTV models are now being pitched almost universally as bigger, thinner, and as the best bang for the buck when it comes to the price for size. Toward that end, other than an occasional promotional model, you can more or less forget about RPTVs under 50 inches.

Technology trends in RPTV that will help it compete in an FPD world include alternate illumination sources, with Samsung strongly moving behind LED illumination and Panasonic offering sets with a different style of bulb-less illumination. As we move to mid-year drop in models and on into the 2008 model lines, the trend to LED illumination is certain to continue.

Both Sony and Mitsubishi have demonstrated laser-illuminated RPTV sets, paving the way for brighter images with higher contrast in thinner cabinets. However, it is very unlikely that we will see either the DLP-based models from Mitsubishi or the SXRD engine models from Sony until some time in the first quarter of 2008. Pricing and exact introduction dates are still to come from both brands.

1080p Gains Traction
Regardless of technology or product configuration, one trend that is certainly on the march from the line shows to your demo rooms and clients homes is 1080p. Right off the bat, it bears mentioning that while all sets with 120Hz are 1080p, not all 1080p sets are 120Hz. Newcomers and promotional brands have stepped up the pressure and now offer 1080p, so it is not the dividing line between first- and second-tier brands that it once was. Indeed, it has been reported that this season we will see Wal-Mart selling 1080p LCD models from both Polaroid and Philips. Given the added circuit sophistication needed for 120Hz, the line in the sand for higher-end models will now move from 1080p to 120Hz for LCD direct view models.

Holding the size charts up to the light, 1080p in LCD direct view is available almost across the board in 40-, 42-, 46-, 47-, and 52-inch, with many brands offering either a 57- or 58-inch, as well. (The size is dependent on which fabricator from which the particular brand sources their LCD panels.) Above 60 inches, 1080p is the standard, as well it should be given the pricing. Look closely and carefully, and you may also find a 37-inch LCD with 1080p, but at that size the requirement is not as critical.

In plasma, most brands have a 50-inch 1080p model as a step up from the 1366×768 models that continue on in that size. Moving up you can also find Full 1080 plasmas in 58- and 60-inch sizes. Again, the difference comes from which brand you chose (Panasonic and Samsung for the former, Pioneer and LG for the latter, though all making their own panels.) Moving down the size chart below 50 inches, 1080p is more the province of LCD, though Panasonic is among those with full 1080p PDP in a 42-inch set.

Finally on 1080/60p, the front- and rear-screen projection suppliers are also very much on the bandwagon to the point where Mitsubishi, long an RPTV mainstay in addition to its FPD products, is promoting its all 1080p line. Rather than recap the available sizes for 1080p RPTV models, it is safe to say that in virtually all the brands there is at least one 1080p model in each size category they offer. That gives you RPTV models across the spectrum of sizes (50 inches to more than 70 inches) and technologies (including DLP, 3LCD and LCoS/SXRD/D-ILA).

What Sets Them Apart
Compare any video line to another, and two things pop out. The difference between 1080p and 720p is one, and the version of HDMI is the other. With all the publicity for HDMI seen so far, and as more hits the popular press, it is clearly a must-have. Dont assume, however, the HDMI version is 1.3 unless you look at the spec sheet to verify. Many sets will have a 1.3 revision this season, but far from all will. If it is important, check.

Going further, it is important to remember that most of the features of HDMI 1.3 (and the earlier 1.2/1.2a versions, as well) are optional. This means that just because a display (or any other HDMI-equipped product) is able to legitimately claim 1.3/1.3a, it does not mean that every feature of that version is on board. Among the biggies here are xvYCC Color, Deep Color, CEC, and the Lip Sync feature. An HDMI 1.3 set may have all, some, or none of these features, and while some brands will go out of their way to promote what they have, others will not. Also check to see exactly which control features and commands are implemented in any product with CEC; and with both CEC and Lip Sync, always remember that these features work only on equipped deviceshaving it in some products in the line does not imbue the feature to others. With Lip Sync, in particular, it needs to be at the very least in the display (sink device) and the source (typically the optical disc player) for it to provide any benefit.

As marketplace forces currently bring the pricing down for both Blu-ray and HD DVD players, it would be incorrect to presume that an HDMI-equipped player is Version 1.3; Though some new models are 1.3, many are still using 1.2a.

As the new product introductions in the audio world catch up with those in the video and source category, well see more Version 1.3 models from the AVR suppliers as well. But be careful. First, check for Lip Sync and CEC functionality. Next, remember that entry-level priced models may be billed as Version 1.3, but if they are switcher products only, the 1.3 designation doesnt mean that the AVR will be able to hear the signals. Thus, you wont be able to offer decoding of the new lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio codecs. Should the client prefer to wait it out, or fall back to an audio processor with HDMI 1.2a or an older version, remind them that as long as the receiver is capable of handling 7.1 channel LPCM (most are), and the HD DVD or Blu-ray player converts the lossless bitstreams to PCM, nothing is lost and they will get the full fidelity playback.

Game Console Updates
In case you havent heard, Sony has cut the price of the 60Gb version of PS3 to $499, and will almost certainly discontinue it once stocks are depleted. At the $599 price point, a model with an 80Gb drive but otherwise identical features steps into the line. (The earlier entry-level model is now gone.) Not to be outdone, Microsoft has cut the price of Xbox 360 so that the line-up of Core/Premium/Elite models now lists at $279/$349/$449. The special Halo 3 version will carry a $399 price tag when it hits the shelves at the end of this month. In line with console price cuts, the HD-DVD adaptor has also had a modest price cut to $179.

The Premium version of the Xbox 360, previously constrained to an analog component output, now sports not only a reduced price, but HDMI, as well. Not being HD, and from all reports selling every unit they can produce, Nintendo has not neither cut the price or added HDMI or digital audio to the hugely popular Wii.

The Role of Camcorders
HD is as growing a trend in camcorders as it is other program sources. On that note, Hitachi will be the first to offer a camcorder that records to mini Blu-ray discs.

While they dont use Blu-ray discs, the discs from AVCHD format camcorders from Sony, Panasonic, and Canon will play on most Blu-ray players (check this first, as always) and also provide a disc-based HD camcorder option. AVCHD content may be edited on computers using a number of the popular video editing suites, and Apple will offer the capability to read AVCHD discs on Mac models with the proper optical drive and iLife 08. JVC, Sony, Canon, Panasonic, Sanyo, and soon Samsung are among the brands that will continue to offer HD camcorders.

Final Thoughts on Displays
This year displays with CableCard slots will be standouts much more than in the past. Peculiar in light of the fact that cable companies are no longer permitted to offer set tops without separable security, it would seem that margin pressure is keeping CableCards out of all but the high-end sets. The same goes for media card slots on the front panel of a display to allow direct playback of digital still camera images. Some sets still feature this capability, but you will have to look harder for it than in the past.

In almost all cases, with plasma sets starting at 42 inches and RPTV at 50 inches and above, LCD virtually has the under 40 inches size ranges all to itself. With the February 17, 2009 analog shut-down fast approaching, we will see all of those kitchen and bath TV sets, as well as those in the smaller and spare rooms begin to beg for replacement. LCD is the obvious new technology candidate there, but bucking the trend toward the end of CRT are hybrid digital tuner/SD display CRT sets in smaller sizes, mostly from the mass-market distribution channels. Yes, there are still some CRT sets with HD resolution. Samsung is all but alone in continuing its SlimFit CRT sets with 16:9 screens for HD applications.

A final trend across all product categories is a good one. In one way or another, most brands are finding a way to make their products greener. This will inevitably take different forms as each manufacturer finds an expression for this in their own way. As energy efficiency, green initiatives, and the increased attention to programs such as LEED find their way onto your clients radar, you need to put it on your trend-spotting list as well.

Michael Heiss (capnvide[email protected]) is an industry consultant in Los Angeles, California.