DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor



My Crystal Ball Beckons -- Again

Three Years to Go

February 17, 2006

Well, here we go again! Another chance to speculate on what sort of TV sets people will be buying on the day that analog TV broadcasts are shut down.

Of course, that isn't quite the same date as last year when I took the first shot at my fearless forecast (last year it looked like December 31, 2008 would be it).

But the rules are the same:

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

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.

I'm keeping the same categories. To wit:

  • Category 1: Small, "kitchen" TVs (15" to 22")

  • Category 2: Mid-size "bedroom" TVs (23" to 30")

  • Category 3: Larger "living room" TVs (34" to 46")

  • Category 4: Big "home theater" TVs (50" to 65")

But first, some observations. . .

. . . on the state of TV technology.

First, CRT sets are marching on, but not changing too much. The direct-view sets are becoming widescreen and getting ATSC/digital tuners.

The exception is sets smaller than 25", which will be the same old obsolete analog sets you've seen in store for the last 50 years. Starting March 1, 2007, these sets will get digital tuners, but it's looking like many of them will even then be the same old 4:3 NTSC/analog sets, but with a built-in digital converter. The industry isn't being very forward looking, except to project that the profit margin for a small modern widescreen digital set will not be enough to bother with, compared to the larger sets.

The CRT rear-projection sets are still on the market, and a good buy if you know enough to adjust them for brightness, contrast, convergence, etc.

The big changes are in the higher-tech fixed pixel displays, both flat panel and rear projection sets.

Note: Front projectors (with separate screens) are getting better and cheaper, and will become more popular, but I don't see these becoming mainstream in the next few years, or longer.

Flat-panel displays.

I'll consider three basic varieties: LCD, plasma, and SED. (OLED development hasn't progressed significantly since last year.)

Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) flat-panel TVs are gaining popularity. Manufacturers have been building new high-capacity plants capable of producing larger and larger screens. The quality of the displays is also improving, even as prices drop. The LCD sets are moving quickly to full-specification high-def displays 1920 x 1080, and of course all fixed-pixel displays use progressive scan.

Brightness, contrast ratio, and viewing angle all are getting better. Some of the new displays are transitioning their back-light sources from flourescent to LED for better color.

Plasma flat-panel displays are not keeping up. The picture quality is getting better, but many plasma displays are still standard definition (480 vertical lines), although because the displays are progressive scan, the industry has decided to call them "enhanced" definition.

The ATSC technical standards call digital 480p "standard," and analog 480i "conventional" definition.

Anyway, almost all other plasma displays are still only capable of 720p (HD-lite) and not full-specification HD. There are only one or two 1080p plasma sets on the market, at high price points.

Plasma sets are also power hungry.

Improvements in plasma technology are in development, but most won't come to market for several years.

It's a technology that's surviving on its past reputation.

SED is the new kid on the block. (That's surface-conducting electron-emitting display, developed by Canon and Toshiba.) SED is like a CRT direct-view set that's been squashed flat, resulting in the best picture possible and lower power consumption, much faster response, etc.

SED sets were shown at the Consumer Electronics Show last month and the picture quality wowed commentators. Set sizes so far have been 37" and 55". The first sets will go on sale this year in Japan.

Canon and Toshiba are still trying to get production costs down, but I expect things will be under control by the time analog TV is shut off in the U.S.

Rear-projection sets

Notwithstanding the eventual domination of flat-panel displays sometime in the future, developments in fixed-pixel rear-projection sets have been coming on strong. Certainly over the next five to ten years, this class of HDTV will continue to be dominant.

My favorite has been DLP (and still is), but Sony's introduction of its 50" and 60" SXRD rear-projection sets has brought on the competition. The Sony sets use the LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) variation of LCD technology, having worked out production bugs. The lack of spacers between individual pixel elements means that the "screen door" effect has been eliminated (i.e. the picture doesn't look like a window screen has been stretched across the display when you get close to the TV).

These 1080p Sony sets have impressed the critics. It also means that rear-projection sets are a force to be reckoned with.

DLP sets, with their micro-mirror displays, are also getting substantial upgrades. This past year saw the introduction of Texas Instruments' 1080p DLP chip.

This chip uses a technique called "wobulation" to display a 1920 x 1080 picture with half that number of micro-mirrors. Each micro-mirror is responsible for two screen pixels. Because they move so fast, the end result is very good.

Look for two new developments in DLP sets.

DLP sets have in the past used an incandescent lamp (a refined version of your ordinary household light bulb) that is focused through a spinning transparent color wheel on to the micro-mirrors and then to the back of the screen to produce the picture. The incandescent lamp has to be replaced after a few thousand hours of use (at a cost of several hundred dollars).

Manufacturers are now starting to replace the incandescent lamp and the color wheel with three groups of colored LEDs (light emitting diodes - red, green, and blue).

This change has several benefits. First, the LEDs last a LOT longer, and so will not have to be replaced nearly as often (or possibly at all, depending on your set's usage).

Second, the LEDs give an improved color gamut (better and more colors).

Third, the LEDs eliminate the need for the spinning color wheel, which therefore will eliminate the "rainbow effect" seen by some people on DLP sets. It also means there will be fewer moving parts and less noise. (Oh, and less noise because less heat and therefore smaller cooling fan.)

The other new development is a DLP chip that contains a full 1920 x 1080 micro-mirror array. Look for this chip later this year in front-projector units and then, I expect, in rear-projection unit.

Now, if manufacturers would only devote some of this creativity to small TVs. Which brings us to my fearless forecasts . . . beginning with the little sets.

1. The Kitchen TV - 15" to 22"

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.

So, my pick for what people will be buying for this purpose in February 2009 is an LCD flat-panel TV. Affordability, compact size, wide viewing angles, combined with LCD flat-panel's excellent performance in well-lit spaces makes this one an easy pick.

Except that with manufacturers pointedly choosing to ignore the development of small digital widescreen TVs, there may well be nothing on the market worth buying. Let's hope that one or two manufacturers are secretly developing that perfect high-tech kitchen TV.

Last year I said go with a dispaly resolution of either 480 and 720 vertical lines. But you know what? 480 is a legacy number left over from the NTSC/analog standard, and there is no reason new digital sets should be 480p. I've already read something about 540p, which makes a lot of sense. You aren't going to be able to see 1080 lines on a small set, so the TV's circuitry is going to have to downconvert the 1080 HD signal to the small screen's lower display resolution.

Down-converting 1080 to 480 would be complicated and messy (not an even multiple). The result may well be ugly. Downconverting to 540 vertical lines would be a simple 2-for-1 process, and a 540p picture on a small display would look great!

So for kitchen sets, 15" to 22", I'm looking for a 540p display! Manufacturers, make it so.

2. The Bedroom TV - 23" to 30"

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.

Last year I forecast that people in early 2009 would be buying LCD flat-panels and CRT direct-views to use as bedroom sets.

I said that CRT direct-view sets would be in the minority because of their size and weight, and would primarily be purchased in the 23" to 26" sizes. And that LCD flat-panels would dominate this size range (as they did for the smaller sets).

I'm going to stick with that forecast.

Hang that baby on the wall and settle back for some Leno!

3. The Living Room TV - 34" to 46"

The living room 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 early 2009 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.

I expect DLP sets 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.

LCD flat-panels are getting better and cheaper. SED flat-panels will be making inroads.

Last year I predicted that "LCD will predominate from 34" to 40", will split with SED in the middle, and will yield to SED from 42" to 46"."

This year, my crystal ball is hazy. I'm forecasting that no one technology will dominate in this size range.

4. The Home Theater TV - 50" to 65"

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.

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

Now to change the subject a little, and to offer counter-point to my own concluding comments from last year, I offer the following:

Last year I was talking about movies being shot on 24 frames-per-second video cameras (24 fps is standard in the movie business, while 30 fps and 60 fps are the video standard frame rates).

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. (Called 3:2 pulldown.)

Anyway, I was suggesting that 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.

Of late I've been reading about computer technology that interpolates picture elements between the individual frames in a 24 fps film presentation (for example) to produce new frames inserted between the original ones, yielding smoother motion (than what you would get, for example, if the camera panned quickly across a set.) This smoothness is characateristic of higher frame-rate video (especially 60 fps) as opposed to film's 24 fps.

And then I asked myself, is being more film-like necessarily a good thing, when it results in jerky motion? I decided I'd actually like more life-like motion.

So for home theater TVs, I'm hoping for computer-generated interpolated frames.

Until next year, same time, with my crystal ball. . .