DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor



My Crystal Ball Beckons -- TV on the Day After

June 7, 2005

It's New Year's Day, 2009. The day after NTSC/analog TV was shut down forever. It's an all-digital TV world. People are sitting down to watch the Rose Bowl Parade on the digital set that showed up under their Christmas tree one week earlier.

What will that set look like?

With television designs evolving so quickly today, and brand new technologies being introduced every year, it's difficult to even know what's in the stores today, much less three-and-a-half years from now.

But speculation is always fun, so I'll make my fearless forecast, and do it again every January (after the annual Consumer Electronics Show) until we arrive. (All copies of this page will mysteriously disappear, of course, unless I am proved correct, in which case this forecast will miraculously reappear.)

Here are the rules:

We're talking about TV sets that people will buy at the end of 2008.

We're only considering mainstream here. What's the average Joe or Jolene buying?

We're talking TV sets for people who actually like to watch TV, not the people who prefer National Public Radio (although nothing wrong with that).

And of course there will be several categories. To wit:

  • Category 1: Small, "kitchen" TVs

  • Category 2: Mid-size "bedroom" TVs

  • Category 3: Larger "living room" TVs

  • Category 4: Big "home theater" TVs

1. The Kitchen TV

Kitchen TVs are small enough to fit on a counter, maybe underneath a cabinet, but since rarely is there ever enough kitchen counter space, we want any set to be small. In the past, when there was only one type of set (a bulky CRT model), it meant that a 13" screen size was all that would fit.

With the trend today toward larger screen sizes (and larger kitchens), we'd like something a little bigger, but counter space will remain a precious commodity.

Kitchen TV viewing is normally during daytime, and the ambient lighting is (hopefully, for the cook's sake) pretty bright. Viewing will be from various angles and distances.

My pick for watching that Rose Bowl Parade while heating up holiday leftovers is an LCD flat-panel TV with a screen size between 15 and 22 inches, and a vertical display resolution between 480 and 720.

LCD panels in this size range dominate the computer monitor market, and they are now beginning to show up in small digital TVs. So in another three years or so, they should be quite affordable.

Apple Computer's "Cinema" cutting-edge widescreen displays already have the characteristics needed for future TV applications: bright, sharp, high contrast screens with a wide 170 degree viewing angle. The 23" model sports 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution, better than full-blown 1080p high-definition.

Resolution for a future kitchen TV would not need to be nearly that good, because the viewer will for the most part be some distance away from the small screen, rather than sitting right in front of it, as with a computer monitor.

Affordability, compact size, wide viewing angles, combined with LCD flat-panel's excellent performance in well-lit spaces makes this one an easy pick.

2. The Bedroom TV

For this one, I'm going to raise the size range one notch. The bedroom TV will get some serious dedicated watching of morning and late-night programming. Lighting levels will be moderate, perhaps a couple of lamps, windows in the morning.

I'll go with 23" to 30" sets.

Our choices in this size range are likely to be:

  • direct-view CRT (mature technology, good picture quality, affordable, but heavy and bulky).

  • LCD flat-panel (good picture, fairly well developed technology by end-2008, relatively affordable because of large production base, compact size, light weight).

  • SED flat-panel ("Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display", on the market by early 2006, excellent CRT-quality picture, low power consumption, faster video response than LCDs, affordable after production ramps up).

  • OLED flat-panel ("Organic Light-Emitting Diode", not expected to hit the market until 2008, +/- a year, a promising new technology with excellent picture qualities).

Acceptable screen resolution for this category will be 480/720 for the smallest sets, or 720/1080 for the 30" sets.

OLED sets will be too new to make a dent, but down the road . . . Well, who knows?

SED flat-panels would seem to have no downsides. Toshiba, however, won't be selling any until the end of this year, so we won't know for sure before we read the reviews. For now, it's my darling, but the first model will be either a 50" or a 55" unit, and Toshiba is thinking about making these in 40"-plus sizes, too big for this category if they're still holding to that marketing plan in 2008. So no SEDs in my bedroom prediction.

Which leaves us with LCD flat-panels and CRT direct-views for these 23" to 30" bedroom sets.

I've picked out 30" CRT widescreen HDTVs for a couple of friends. They're big, weight and depth-wise (not the friends, the sets!). If you have the room and a good TV stand, they're fine. But for our future bedroom, I'm going to bet that digital CRT sets will be in the minority, and mainly in the 23" to 26" sizes.

So LCD flat-panels win again. Hang that baby on the wall and settle back for some Leno!

3. The Living Room TV

For this one we ramp up yet another notch in size--34" at the small end going up to 46". This set will be mostly used for the evening news and prime time favorites. Ambient lighting will be moderate, as in the bedroom.

When the industry started making high-definition (HD) sets, based on analog display technology, it was not feasible to make full-blown 1080p (progressive scan) HD sets. It was either 720p or 1080i (interlaced scanning). Technology has advanced since then, and the industry is now moving to full 1080p fixed-pixel displays, and that is what I expect will be the rule by the end of 2008 for this size category and larger.

34" to 46" is a transition zone. It's really too big for CRT direct-view sets, and yet at the small end of the rear-projection TV (RPTV) range. Plasma sets will no longer be made in these sizes. OLED will be too new, and will start smaller.

I expect 46" Digital Light Processing (DLP) RPTVs will retain a respectable market share at the largest end of this range. They are light, not very deep, and have very good picture quality. They will also be very affordable (prices coming down substantially even by late 2005).

That leaves me with a split for the bulk of this category.

I'll say LCD will predominate from 34" to 40", will split with SED in the middle, and will yield to SED from 42" to 46".

4. The Home Theater TV

Here we go! TV with no compromises. Well, some.

Money will always be a concern for middle-America. So I'm not looking for $50K setups with eight-foot screens, even though it's easy to spend that much (or much more).

Maybe converting the rec room in the basement. Full 7.1 channel sound system, big subwoofer. Comfy sofa placed right in the sweet spot. This will be a room where the lights can be turned way down, the sound turned up, and the popcorn and beverage of your choice sitting right at hand.

I'm thinking about 50" to 65" widescreen babies where you can sit a comfortable eight to twelve feet away.

Speakers two to three feet from the wall where they belong. No concern about fashion or worrying if the TV will "blend in."

This is a high-def movie machine. Yeah, and maybe the Superbowl. Or CSI. . . Whatever turns you on.

LCD flat-panel TVs are OUT. Finally. They don't do so well in dark rooms, and are expected to be pricey in these big sizes, even a few years out.

SED will definitely be in. DLP RPTVs will still be good, and cheaper than the flat-panels. It'll be a split; that's my prediction. If you've got the bucks, go with SED; otherwise you can love your big DLP set.

One thing I'm really looking for in these big sets is the ability to switch from video frame rate (30 or 60 fps) to the standard film rate--24 frames per second.

With fewer frames to fill, more of those video data bits can be used to enhance picture detail. Less compression will be needed.

Right now, when you play a movie (DVD) through your HD set, it or the DVD player converts the 24 fps native film frame rate to the video frame rate--30 or 60 fps progressive scan. (There's also 30 fps interlaced, but by end-2008 we shouldn't be doing that anymore for receivers, anyway.) The process is called 3:2 pulldown; makes the picture better.

The new high-def video disc players will hopefully do away with interlacing, which causes problems on its own. 1080i broadcasters will still be sending movies over-the-air interlaced at 30 fps; they will have to be de-interlaced.

Anyway, if your TV could be switched to a "movie-mode" that displayed video at 24 frames per second (or a multiple--48 or 72 fps), you wouldn't need to do the conversion (conversions are always bad things), and you would get a very film-like picture on your screen.

The digital high-def cameras movie directors are starting to use these days (in lieu of film cameras) can be switched to shoot 24 fps, so I'm guessing the same can and will be done for high-def TVs.

1080 24p. Movie nirvana. Only a matter of time.

Hopefully by January 1, 2009, the day after analog gets shut off.