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CES 2008

January 13, 2008

Well, we're down to 400 days remaining until the nominal end of the transition. A few more weeks and we'll be down to the one-year mark. And before too long it will be time to shut this web site down (I've already started to remove some outdated pieces).

The Consumer Electronics Show has come and gone. This one was just not all that exciting. It was as if the industry needed to stop and catch its breath in its headlong rush to develop the ultimate TV. But there were some evolutionary developments, and some remarkable technology is in the works for next year.

Of course SED was to have made its big splash this year, and that's gone.

Three parts in this week's article: TVs, Blu-ray, and a converter box update.

If you've been in a Best Buy lately, you've seen the huge wall of flat-panel TVs, all pretty much looking the same with their gloss-black frames and bright, over-saturated canned store programming. How is a TV manufacturer going to draw attention to itself? With better specs? Not for the mass market.

Cosmetics were in this year at CES. Philips emphasized style over performance. Toshiba added a "Touch of Color" to its black frames--a subtle amber tint--and another acronym ("TOC") to distinguish itself. Sharp had gamer's TVs in black, white, and red, with stands that made a statement. Sharp also showed off a new textured finish with "eye-catching corner accents" (dubbed "Cornerstone"). Sony has been style conscious for a couple of years now.

Thin is in for 2008. Sharp carried over its "slim-line" cases from its D64 line to its new SE94 and D74 lines. Hitachi touted its 1.5" "Ultra Thin" LCDs -- it's calling the line "1.5." JVC unveiled "the world's thinnest LCD TVs." These are also 1.5" thick "across most of its width," but 2.9" thick at the panel's center.

As JVC said in its press release, "The design ensures that from nearly any angle, the sets present a super-slim appearance." Of course, one normally would look at a TV from the front, but that's apparently not the case at electronics shows.

Pioneer showed a prototype plasma that was 9 millimeters thick. And of course there was the impossibly thin Sony OLED 11" set -- only $2500.

The other new feature that jumped out at CES was an internet connection. Sony, Samsung, Sharp, Panasonic, Toshiba and others have added ethernet ports to their sets and have contracted with internet content providers to give their customers instant access to weather, stock reports, traffic reports, news, and even comic strips.

Sharp's "AQUOS Net" internet connection has the added advantage of providing a direct link to Sharp service reps who will be able to adjust your set remotely. Sharp's new lineup was something of a disappointment for me. Their new high-end SE94 line boosted dynamic contrast ratio to 27,000:1, and had all the other bells and whistles, but there was no series with advanced features but without the internet connection.

The other new line was the D74, which was mostly the same as their D64 line but with AQUOS Net added. Neither the D74 nor D64 line has 120 Hz refresh, although otherwise they are very good performers (D64 sets in 32" and 37" sizes were added). I was looking for a D84 series, which was a no-show.

Most every manufacturer now has high and mid-level sets with a 120 Hz display and improved video processors to take advantage of the high refresh rate.

Notable are these LCDs, down a rung from the high-end series - top performance without the frills: Sony W4100, Samsung A650T, Toshiba XV540 -- all out this spring.

Some LCDs will be getting a dramatic jump in contrast ratios starting this fall through 2010, with a shift from fluorescent to LED array backlights. Fluorescent backlights provide a uniform white light across the whole screen, with the same intensity going to both dark and light areas of the picture. The backlight can't be too bright or the dark areas will be too light, and vice versa.

Their intensity can be varied, dimmed so that dark scenes will look better, but that does nothing for scenes with both bright and dark segments.

To the extent that LEDs in a backlight are all at the same intensity, you will have the same compromise (although there are other advantages). The big increases in contrast ratio are attained when small elements (or individual LEDs) are each separately illuminated to match the brightness of the picture element in front of it.

The larger the array of LEDs in a backlight that are so controlled, the more dramatic the improvement in contrast ratio - darker blacks and brighter whites in the same picture frame. To date, the few consumer LCDs with LED backlights have not had these large dynamic LED arrays--they have relatively fewer independently dimmable LED sectors. This is supposed to change beginning late in 2008 and continuing through 2009 and 2010.

This high dynamic range (HDR) LED backlight technology was developed by BrightSide Technology. Dolby bought the company last year with the intent of further developing the technology for consumer applications and then licensing it to TV manufacturers. Dolby was promoting it at CES last week under the name "Dolby Contrast." They showed an LCD with an array of 1400 independently controlled LEDs for a backlight.

Pioneer is working hard to ensure that plasma TVs do not fade away. While its plasma sets sell for a premium, they do perform. Pioneer showed off that 9 millimeter thick prototype with excellent blacks, and promised future plasma sets that are both lighter and more power efficient. No models, dates, or prices announced.

Mitsubishi finally showed its long-awaited laser rear-projection DLP test. Those who saw it say it looked really good, while noting there was nothing to compare it to. Mitsubishi says it will come to market later this year.

By now everyone must have heard about the proclaimed demise of HD-DVD. Long live Blu-ray!

All new players shown at CES 2008 have Profile 1.1 picture-in-picture capability.

Sony displayed two prototype BD-Live (Profile 2.0) players code-named Sapphire 3 and 4. Not much info on these; Sony typically makes major product announcements at its February line show, although there are reports that the new players will not arrive until the second half of the year. Sony showed similar prototypes at last year's CES. Sony said PlayStation 3 would be getting a BD-Live firmware upgrade at some unspecified time in the future.

Samsung showed its 4th-generation player, the BD-P1500: 1080p, 7.1 PCM, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD HR and MA, Bitstream audio output via HDMI, HDMI 1.3 with CEC. Available in May.

Panasonic introduced the DMP-BD50: 1080p, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. This is a Profile 2.0/BD-Live player. It features a "PHL Reference Chroma processor and P4HD i/p conversion processor." Panasonic is a primary supporter of Blu-ray; it should be a good machine.

Sharp showed their second-generation Blu-ray player, the BD-HP50U: 1080p/24 or 1080p/60; decodes Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS HD, and also outputs those via 7.1 channel HDMI; 2- and 5.1-channel analog audio outputs; RS-232; proprietary Quick Start feature, which takes viewers from disc loading to viewing in less than 10 seconds. Available in May, the announced MSRP is $700, a little steep. The new player is supposed to supplement the BD-HP20U, not replace it.

Philips BDP-7200 will retail for $349. It will pass Dolby TrueHD and after a time will get a firmware upgrade to pass DTS-MA.

Funai's Sylvania-branded BDP-3 will be available Q2 2008 for less than $300. The same player will be sold under several other brand names.

Pioneer's new player has no model number, release date or MSRP, but it will decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. More info in May.

The touted Marantz BD8002 -- remember, $2100 -- sports Silicon Optix Realta, HDMI 1.3, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA. 2Q 2008.

Toshiba is expected to quietly announce its first Blu-ray player at CES 2009.

There are now more than 20 NTIA-approved digital-to-analog converter boxes. Click here for a current list.

When can you buy one? March or April?

For a representative pdf spec sheet on a converter box, in this case the Zenith DTT900, click here.

At CES 2008, the head of Best Buy said he was "very nervous" about the prospect of providing the millions of analog TV viewers with converter boxes in the time frame required, and educating the masses in time. Too bad he wasn't worried enough about it a couple of years ago to stop selling analog TVs back then.

Until next week . . . The FCC's January meeting is next Thursday. No rulemaking actions are scheduled. Instead, "The Meeting will focus on presentations by senior agency officials regarding implementations of the agency's strategic plan and a comprehensive review of FCC policies and procedures."

Chairman Martin's FCC has become the target of a Congressional investigation.