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My Crystal Ball Beckons

February 17, 2007

Just two years to go before the shut-down of analog television. Once again it's time to speculate on what sort of TVs people will be taking home on that fateful day.

The pace of the transition has been increasing, and that trend will accelerate this year as more people buy digital/high-def TV sets, as national (cable) channels start switching over to the widescreen high-definition format, and (hopefully) as the American public at large is made aware that the U.S. is switching to a new digital TV standard.

By this time next year the government's digital-to-analog converter box subsidy program will be on-line, and consumers will be put on notice that they'll have to decide whether to downconvert digital for their old analog TV or go out and buy a new widescreen HDTV.

Standard DVD conforms to the analog (480i) NTSC standard. By this time next year the ATSC-based HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc players will be in their third or fourth generation, and commonplace. (With hopefully a de-facto winner in that format war by then.) This will be another marker that the end of the transition is near.

Digital TV technology is rapidly evolving today, and that will still be the case a year from now, and in two years as well, when the analog era officially ends.

But before making my predictions on the state of TV in two years, let's look at the TV trends for 2007.

What's OUT? The old CRT direct-view TV that's been around since the 1940s? Gone?

Well, let's just say "going, going . . ."

The hold-outs have been the small (less than 25") analog-only sets that the government has still allowed to be imported and sold. As of March 1, however, they will be banned (although stores will be allowed to sell out their remaining stocks). [What's going to take their place? There are a lot of sub-25" widescreen LCD sets in the stores now, virtually all without digital tuners. Expect new versions of these with digital tuners after March 1.]

There are a few 4:3 CRT sets larger than 25" that have been fitted with digital tuners to comply with the law, but we can expect those to drop off the market once people learn that new digital programming is switching over to the 16:9 widescreen format.

There are also a few widescreen CRT TVs (26" to 34") and a few CRT rear-projection HDTVs (50" to 73"), but their days are also numbered as newer digital technologies improve and become cheaper. The CRTs are still a great value, just no longer fashionable.

So what's IN for 2007?

1. High-gloss "piano" black finishes.

It's the new black. Maybe not the most important trend, but impossible to escape notice. It's everywhere.

2. "Full-HD" resolution.

Our new TV standard from its inception was meant to be high-definition, and while the ATSC standard allows for different resolutions, the clear trend we've been seeing for the last year or so, and especially apparent at CES 2007, is to "full-specification" HD, or 1920 x 1080 pixels.

Manufacturers' marketing departments have shortened that more official term to the more catchy "Full-HD" (with or without the hyphen).

Full-HD has become the de facto resolution for HD movies on Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD. Movies are best watched on larger screens, and larger TVs make the best use of all those extra lines of resolution. Full-HD puts more than two million pixels of detail on the screen versus less than half of that from 720p (HD-Lite). 1920 x 1080 displays are becoming common for TVs 37" on up.

Even plasma TV manufacturers are starting to introduce Full-HD TVs. Plasma sets have typically only been capable of lower resolutions. Full-HD plasma sets are possible now, but they can cost almost twice as much as comparable LCD flat-panels.

Smaller widescreen sets (and the lower grades of larger sets) usually have 1280 x 720 (720p) or 1366 x 768 displays. Plasma sets often use some other non-standard resolution; a few of the newer plasma sets have 1080 vertical lines of resolution, but skimp in the horizontal direction (pixels are rectangles rather than squares).

CBS and NBC use the Full-HD format, and I expect the national channels will follow that example when they become available in HD (hopefully beginning in earnest later this year). ABC and Fox are still broadcasting using the 720p specification (1280 x 720); this may change in the future.

Unfortunately, when you're looking at Full-HD (1920 x 1080) TVs in your local big-box electronics store, the higher quality picture potential may not be obvious. That's most likely because the stores' demo loops are often a mix of 720p (e.g. Fox Sports) and upconverted standard definition video--lots of soft garish colors. The picture quality reverts to the lowest common denominator. Garbage in--garbage out.

Try shopping at a smaller specialty video store, or just buy Full-HD and see video nirvana when you get home and feed it some good 1920 x 1080 programming.

3. Higher contrast ratios.

Better blacks! High contrast ratios have become a selling point.

It absolutely makes for a better picture, especially if you're watching movies in a relatively dark room. (You won't notice so much if your TV is in a well lit room and you typically watch programs with brighter scenes.) CRT TVs set the standard for deep inky blacks, and the new digital technologies are in a race to equal that performance.

Sharp has been showing off a new 37" mega-contrast LCD flat-panel prototype with a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio (intended for professional use). Sony displayed a 27" OLED prototype at CES 2007 last month with the same incredible contrast ratio. Pioneer bragged that it had plasma technology in the pipeline that had a contrast ratio too high to measure.

The vaunted SED TVs (a flat-panel variant of CRT technology) claim a contrast ratio of 50,000:1. Texas Instruments showed off a prototype DLP RPTV set with a new chip that can manipulate the set's LED backlight to give a 50,000:1 contrast ratio.

More common for ordinary front and rear projectors are contrast ratios around 10,000:1 (still excellent), which is also reported to be the number for Sharp's next-year's consumer-grade LCD flat-panel sets. For 2007, the best LCDs will sport a very good 3000:1 contrast ratio, up from 1200:1 typical for last year's best LCDs.

Manipulation of flat-panel backlights and projection set light-source irises improves contrast in a dynamic fashion (automatically lowering the light for dark scenes and raising it for bright scenes). Sharp advertises 15,000:1 dynamic contrast ratios for its 3000:1 contrast ratio sets. A marketing thing? Maybe, but the technique actually works.

4. HDMI 1.3

High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) is the state-of-the-art digital technology for connecting the various part of your audio-video system together. It carries both the video and the audio parts of the signal. It's more than just the cable. Each HDMI output has a transmitter chip (not wireless); each input has a receiver chip. The HDMI connection encrypts the digital signal to minimize the potential for illegal use of the pristine high-definition digital programming it carries.

Last year having two HDMI inputs was the thing. At CES this year, it seemed that everyone had three HDMI inputs. Many people will actually need them: cable or satellite box, digital video recorder, Blu-ray or HD-DVD player (or both), HD game console (e.g. Playstation 3 or XBox 360), etc.

HDMI connections are not all the same, although the cables are. We are now up to HDMI version 1.3, a new specification which more than doubles the bandwidth of the last version. Just about all HDMI-equipped TVs, DVD players, etc. now in homes or in stores still have either version 1.1 or 1.2.

Unfortunately, HDMI version 1.3 is making a slow entrance. HDMI 1.3 supports improved color fidelity for video, as well as lossless audio encoding (lossless means the audio you hear is bit-for-bit the same as the master recording--no compression degradation). It's a difference you can clearly hear if your receiver and speakers are high quality.

Don't expect to see TVs with HDMI 1.3 inputs before late spring going into summer. Same thing for HDMI 1.3 A/V receivers that can decode Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio lossless audio. Blu-ray and HD-DVD players with HDMI 1.3 outputs that fully support 7.1-channel lossless audio should start showing up before summer.

Density of Colors. HDMI 1.3's "Deep Color" is increased color depth, meaning moving from 8-bit to 10-bit or more digital encoding. 8-bit color depth yields only 256 shades for each color (brightest to darkest) and grays (white to black). When there is a color on the screen that changes brightness across a large area, the limited number of 8-bit shades will show up as "banding." Deep Color enables many more shades between any two colors, and therefore smoother gradations, and the elimination of banding.

While HDMI 1.3 supports 10, 12, and 16-bit color depths, TV manufacturers seem to be going with the 10-bit implementation. 10-bit coding yields 1023 shades of a color, which is a good match for what we can actually differentiate on a TV display.

Range of Colors. Right now your TV cannot display all the colors that your eye can discern. HDMI 1.3 supports an expanded color gamut (allowing encoding of the "xvYCC" color standard). Sony is proposing to give this improved color gamut a catchy brand name and logo ("x.v.Color").

Essentially this is a bigger box of crayons; yielding a more realistic, natural picture. Instead of millions of colors, HDMI 1.3 supports billions! An added bonus is higher contrast ratios.

Here is a sample chart showing how color is described in scientific circles; this is a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional mathematical description of colors. xvYCC expands the triangle of colors that can be displayed further out into the full set of colors that the human eye can see, filling more of the gray area.

This area of technology is evolving as video designers move away from the traditional three primary color (red, green, blue -- RGB) model of color display inherent in CRT TVs. Since we are no longer constrained by the three phosphor colors used in that technology, color gamut can be expanded by using four, five, or more primary colors which can be combined to make the billions of colors supported by HDMI 1.3. Examples of this are DLP color wheels with up to six different colors, and Genoa Color's multi-primary color LCD backlights.

In the diagram above, the triangle may become instead a polygon.

Just remember, for you to take advantage of this improved color, you will need a TV, a source, and programming that all support Deep Color and xvYCC. That means at a minimum, your TV and your Blu-ray Disc player (for example) will both need HDMI 1.3 interconnects. Also, the studio that produced the movie disc must have encoded the extra bits needed for the greater color depth and gamut that were originally recorded (just as they may have used more bits for new lossless audio formats).

I expect to have more on this topic as it evolves.

5. New refresh/frame rates.

Several manufacturers of LCD flat-panels announced new sets with 120 Hz (Hz=Hertz=cycles or frames per second) refresh rates (up from 60 Hz). This will be combined with inter-frame picture interpolation to create new in-between frames for better response time and elimination of motion blur. In other words, the TV is displaying the action in smaller steps for a smoother, more realistic picture.

Also a trend this year is the adoption of frame-rate agile TV sets to eliminate the 2:3 pulldown conversion from the 24 frames per second native for movies to the 60 frames per second typically used for TV displays. [In 2:3 pulldown, the first movie frame is shown twice, the second frame is repeated three times, the third twice, etc. so in one second the odd 12 frames are shown twice (24) and the other alternate 12 frames are shown three times (36), for a total of 60, which matches the standard frame (or "refresh") rate for TV.]

Movies are still shot at 24 frames per second. This practice is a hold-over from early last century when film stock was slow and camera lenses did not let in much light; fewer frames per second allowed a longer exposure for each frame. Modern cameras--both film and digital--don't need as much light. Digital movie cameras are now capable of shooting up to 60 full frames per second (or more).

The new frame-rate-agile TVs will be able to switch from 60 fps (or 120) to a display frame rate that is an even multiple of 24, i.e. 48 or 72 fps, instead of having to do the 2:3 conversion (from 24 fps to 60), which can introduce an uneven cadence to the displayed video. Every movie frame would either be shown twice (for 48 fps refresh rate) or three times (for 72 fps), for a smoother picture.

6. The Flat-Panel Market

Last year one in three TV sets sold in this country was a flat-panel LCD. That number is expected to rise in the coming years. The best of these sets now have outstanding performance and prices have plummeted. For their efforts, manufacturers have been rewarded with huge R&D and capital costs and razor thin profit margins. The smaller companies are getting squeezed out because they cannot achieve the economies of large scale production.

Sony is now buying its smaller LCD panels and TVs (32", 37", and 40") from generic manufacturers in Taiwan, and produces its larger panels in a joint venture with Samsung. Plasma has not been left out. Pioneer (which makes only plasma) has delayed the construction of a new plasma panel plant and is thinking about buying its panels from larger companies. Hitachi has also postponed a decision on building a new plasma factory.

Lower and mid-tier brands may end up all coming from China and Taiwan and price pressure will dictate that those TVs use older technology. The performance gap between different generations of flat-panel technology is substantial. Discriminating buyers will need to exercise some research skills before making a purchase.

7. RPTVs.

Rear-projection sets still offer the best value in HDTV sets: a large screen for less money than much smaller flat-panels cost. And the DLP and LCD micro-display versions are really not that deep (typically 12" to 15").

Rear-projector manufacturers didn't have very much new to show this year. No remarkable technology was introduced, although there was some uptake on last year's new promising tech. There were a few more DLP sets with LED light sources, and Mitsubishi's diode laser DLP set is still expected before the end of the year. There is also some movement toward thinner RPTVs, but the geometry is still a limitation. However, improvements will continue.

8. Front projectors.

Front projectors are making a move to mainstream: many with Full-HD resolution, improved performance, and much lower prices. And as always, screen sizes measured in feet. They're still not cheap - $4K to $10K for 1920 x 1080 displays, and installation can be a bit fussy. And of course you need room for that huge screen.

And now, my THIRD ANNUAL D-Day Predictions:

I'm keeping my four basic size categories: 1) Small/kitchen, 2) Medium/bedroom, 3) Large/living room, and 4) Home theater. But I'm increasing the size range within each of those categories. Although I'm matching rooms to size ranges, that is more for convenience than dicta; put them anywhere that works! Many people are thinking of getting a 32" or smaller widescreen set as their primary TV, but remember, prices in two years will be significantly lower than they are now.

I initially chose the size ranges based on analog TV measurement, but I realized that the widecreen diagonal screen measurement did not really compare with the diagonal measurement for 4:3 aspect ratio TVs.

Analog (squarish screen) TVs and comparably sized digital widescreen TVs will have the same screen height, but for the same height the widescreen model will have a bigger diagonal measurement. So an old 13" analog set will translate to a 15" widescreen set, 25" analog to 32" widescreen, and if you had a 34" analog set, a 42" digital widescreen TV would give you about the same screen height.

The other reason for increasing size is simply because digital TVs can be a lot bigger than analog sets because of the new technologies. No surprise: people are choosing bigger. So, TVs on February 17, 2009 . . .

1. The Kitchen TV - 15" - 26"

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.

LCD flat-panels will own this category. They do well in bright places, and good viewing from almost any angle will be the norm by 2009.

These will not be Full-HD sets. The screens are too small to see all of those tiny pixels. Now the alternatives are 720p and 480p. With a 26" set, go for the higher resolution if you're going to be sitting close (three feet or so). I'm still hoping 960 x 540 sets catch on; it's an easy downconvert from 1920 x 1080 (2 for 1), and a significant improvement over 480p (704 x 480).

Full-HD could be the exception for computers doubling as TVs, either with integral digital TV tuners or HDMI inputs for your video service provider. The 24" iMac has 1920 x 1200 resolution; you can use all that resolution if you're sitting two to three feet away from the screen.

2. The Bedroom (or Den) TV - 26" - 37"

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.

Flat-panels will be the only option in this size range. People who tend to watch a lot of late-night TV in bed may opt for something bigger, but that most likely will still be a flat-panel.

37" and under is below plasma territory. There will be some very exciting Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) models just beginning to show up at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2009, but still very pricy compared to LCD.

Full-HD 37" LCD flat-panels are here now. Contrast ratios for the best of those sets available in 2007 are excellent. In 2008 they will be to-die-for. Prices continue to fall.

For this size range? No question: LCD flat-panel TVs will rule!

3. The Living Room TV - 37" to 52"

The living room set will be mostly used for the evening news, sports, and prime time favorites. For most people, it will be the biggest TV in the house, and so will also be used for watching movies. Ambient lighting will be moderate, as in the bedroom.

This size range includes virtually every TV technology except front projectors. Choice will define the category.

Sales of flat-panels, both LCD and plasma, are both strong in this size range and will be so in two years. For Full-HD displays, LCD will continue its substantial lead, especially toward the lower end of the 37" - 52" range, but plasma makers are developing new technologies for smaller pixel cells that should be established by 2009, if not inexpensive. At the same time, large Full-HD LCD sets are only getting better, and prices are falling. I'm predicting that for flat-panel sets, LCDs will will continue to dominate when analog is shut down.

SED production will have started, but only in the 55" size. OLED TVs will have arrived but only in the smaller sizes. Both will be a factor in later years.

Rear-projection technology should be fairly mature by early 2009, and very affordable, but a significant player only at the higher end of this size range (50" to 52"). The split between DLP and LCD RPTVs could go 50-50.

Because 37" - 42" sets are the most popular in this size range, I'm forecasting LCD flat panels to make up well over half of 37" - 52" TV sales in February 2009, with plasma and RPTVs making up the remainder.

4. The Home Theater TV - 50" - 110"

One could argue that wherever you put a set this big becomes a home theater. But calling your TV room (and whatever else it is used for) a "home theater" will be more legitimate if 1) the audio part of your programming is run through a multi-channel A/V receiver (5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 channels, hopefully including a subwoofer), 2) you have access to movies without commercials -- DVD, Blu-ray Disc, HD-DVD, or cable movie channels), and 3) the ambient lighting in the room can be lowered.

Ideally the room would be more-or-less dedicated to the home theater, at least to the extent that the TV, seating, and speakers can be placed for optimal viewing and listening, instead of being placed where they will "fit in" with a traditional living room furniture arrangement.

The choices when you get over 50" are unlimited, and so seem some of the prices! And the biggest keep getting bigger. We all knew that front projectors went over 100", but flat-panels? Sharp showed off a 108" LCD flat panel at CES 2007!

Last year I said LCD flat-panels would not work in a dark home theater enviroment, but huge improvements in contrast ratios have proved me wrong. The best new-for-2007 LCD blacks are excellent; what's available by 2009 will take no prisoners.

The fabulous CRT-based SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display) flat-panels will be on the market (55").

Excellent Full-HD plasmas will also be here, hopefully with reduced power consumption, weight, and prices.

The rear-projection sets will be here; they already go over 70". High performance at an excellent price.

Front projectors are becoming affordable now -- compared to the past. More people are buying them. Prices will continue to fall. They will continue to be more difficult to install and set up, but retailers will make that easy -- for a price.

In this size range, the viable options for the consumer on February 17, 2009 will be many -- something for everybody.

The best home theater set-ups already give the consumer a better movie experience than their local multiplex can offer. Now that Blu-ray and HD-DVD are here, along with HDMI 1.3 support, the home theater experience by early 2009 will be both unsurpassed and affordable.

So, until next year, same time, with my crystal ball. . .