Flat-panel TVs take center stage

Consumer Reports News: January 07, 2008 09:49 PM

Like a fashion model married to a rich mobster, TVs this year promise to be thin, stylish, and connected. At least that's the conclusion after the first day's press conferences at the Consumer Electronics Show here in Las Vegas.

Flat panels are getting thinner, with several companies here at the show vying for the bragging rights to the thinnest TV (making a micrometer an unexpectedly in-demand item among some journalists). The width of the bezels surrounding the screen is shrinking as well, enabling larger screens to fit into smaller spaces. Meanwhile, manufacturers are striving to differentiate their TVs with superior sound, a challenge given the ever-decreasing amount of cabinet real estate to house speakers.

There's also a heightened focus on design, with several companies using highly stylized cabinet designs, unique trim accents, and splashes of colors, perhaps in acknowledgment that TVs are morphing into lifestyle products. It will be interesting to see if the now-standard high-gloss piano black gives way to something more daring in the coming year.

But perhaps the most notable TV trend so far at the show is the growing number of TVs with some form of connectivity, either to the Internet or to other devices in the home. Some manufacturers are looking to deliver this content wirelessly, via several competing standards, while others are turning to wired technologies such as home AC power lines to send and receive audio and video throughout the home. We expect to see even more of these types of TVs this fall, when manufacturers refresh their lineups.

Higher-performance features such as 1080p resolution and 120 Hz technology in LCDs are migrating from pricey step-up models to more mainstream sets. In LCD, 1080p resolution is making its way into sets as small as 32 inches, although it's arguable what the real benefit will be to the average consumer (game players notwithstanding).

Here's a quick overview of some of the highlights from the first day's press conferences. We'll providing regular updates about the various announcements made throughout the show this week.

LG Electronics

LG took the wraps off 24 new LCD models in eight series and eight new plasmas in four series. In its LCD lineup, 17 of the 24 new models are "Full HD" 1080p displays. The most striking is the LGX Super Slim model, a 42-inch model with a red-backed cabinet that's just 1.7 inches thick. Other 7-series models—LG70, LG71 and LG75—have tear drop-shaped cabinets with red color accents and a high-gloss black finish. The sets use an "invisible" speaker system that uses "actuators" around the perimeter of the bezel. Typically, actuators are used to vibrate some type of rigid material or diaphragm, in effect transforming that entire surface into a speaker. We'll check it out when we visit the company's booth.

Unique to the LG71 series is integrated wireless (802.11n) technology, which works with a separate wireless receiver to beam programming, such as a DVD movie or cable show, to the TV without the use of wires. The LG75 model is LG's first LCD to use LEDs, rather than fluorescent lamps, for backlighting. The backlight has 128 different zones and uses a process known as local dimming—you'll be hearing more about this technology in coming months—to dynamically adjust light in each area to improve brightness and contrast. It can also make the set more energy-efficient.

Two of LG's plasmas—50- and 60-inch 1080p PG70 series models—are also "wireless-ready."

Pioneer

Last year, Pioneer focused on the black levels of its Kuro plasma TVs—not surprising, since "Kuro" means "black" in Japanese. Now it's going one step further by eliminating idling luminance. This means a plasma TV has no measurable light emitting from the set, allowing for super-deep, "absolute" black, more accurate colors, and images that virtually pop off the screen, according to Pioneer.

The company also announced a second engineering breakthrough it said would shake up the industry:  the world's thinnest flat-panel TV, a 50-inch plasma that's just .9mm thick  and incredibly light, weighing just 41 pounds.

Unfortunately, neither of these technologies will make their way into the Pioneer lineup in 2008.

(As an aside, Pioneer is also active in car audio, and it announced a new line of car speakers made out of rock—basalt rock, specifically. The speakers will be marketed under the tag line, "Rock Beats Paper," presumably with the hope that no one comes up with speakers made from scissors.)

Toshiba

Thanks to the recent Warner Bros. defection to Blu-ray, there was a palpable buzz at HD DVD developer Toshiba's press conference. Acknowledging that the announcement was disappointing (we'll give an update on the HD DVD/Blu-ray situation after we meet with the Blu-ray folks this evening), the company switched the focus to the new lineup of Regza LCD TVs. All told, there are five new series, four new designs, and three levels of picture quality.

There's a new 720p entry-level series, the AV500, plus a step-up 720p series—CV510—that adds a new gaming mode that bypasses the internal video processing, which can slow down response time. Above those sets is the RV530 series, 1080p models that feature a new two-tone "surface tension" design and gloss-black bezel. The Regza XV540 series adds Toshiba's 120Hz technology, and a wide color gamut CCFL backlight. At the top of the heap is the XF550 series, which features Toshiba's Super Narrow Bezel (just .9 inches). All these models will arrive this spring.

In the fall, Toshiba will introduce models with new styling, some that use Toshiba's Cell processor to upconvert standard-definition material to HD, and the company's first sets that use LED backlights with local dimming.

Panasonic

Perhaps the biggest news yesterday was the announcement of a new plasma size: 46 inches, with 1080p resolution. The company said it would be adopting the Viera sub-brand for all its flat-panel TVs 26 inches and larger, that it had developed a 32GB SD card, and that it was teaming up with Sharp and Toshiba in a consumer electronics recycling program called MRM.

This morning the company said it had developed three prototype plasma displays, which are on display in its booth. One was the much-anticipated 150-inch plasma, the biggest ever made, and another was a 42-inch panel that is twice as energy-efficient as current models, with the same level of brightness. The third was a super-thin 50-inch plasma—take that, Pioneer—that's less than an inch thick (24.7mm, actually).

Sharp

Sharp announced that a 108-inch LCD—which seemed big until Panasonic's announcement this morning—would be commercially available later this year. Pricing wasn't disclosed. The company also showcased a 65-inch LCD that is just over an inch thick and weighs just 88 pounds.

In the real world, the company unveiled a special edition SE94 series, in 46-, 52- and 65-inch screen sizes. These sets use a new "cornerstone" design with distinctive corner accents and removable bottom-mounted speakers. They also have a new backlight system that produces deeper reds and greens, the company said. These sets, like some others, come with Sharp's version of Internet access, called Aquos Net, which gives users access to select Web-based content, plus real-time customer support—which will one day include remote diagnosis of problems by service techs. The service can also be used to create on-screen widgets that can display traffic info, weather forecasts, stock quotes, entertainment, news, and high-definition artwork and images from select content partners.

Sharp will offer several HomePlug powerline adapters that use household wiring to send audio and video content around the home.

Philips

At the Philips press conference, perhaps the oddest of the day, an executive spent a fair amount of time waxing philosophical about lifestyle-driven products and the development of an "iconic" look—minimalist and emotional—the company hoped would permeate all its tech offerings. Not surprisingly, the executive now in charge of the CE business was just two weeks ago selling personal care items likes Norelco razors and electric toothbrushes.

From a TV product standpoint, the press conference can be boiled down to this: new stylized designs, more 120 Hz, and more 1080p. There are three new series: the 3000 series, a mass-market offering; the 5000 series, step-up models that will be available in CE chains and A/V stores; and the flagship all-1080p 7000 series, which is where things get the most interesting. These sets sport a unique, stylized design and invisible speakers (there are no visible perforated holes). Some have Philips's AmbiLight perimeter lighting effect, which is now created by LEDs.

Samsung

One of the few remaining companies to sell plasma, LCD, and rear-projection microdisplay HDTVs, Samsung didn't have much news at its press conference, but things should get interesting on the exhibit floor. The company is supposed to show off a 31-inch OLED TV prototype. That's where most of the real details about their new lineup will be revealed as well.

At the press event, Samsung touted its Series 6 and Series 7 LCD models, which include something called TOC, or touch of color. The company is using an advanced molding process that can laminate several layers of color, which produces an embedded reddish or blue streak of coloration. The TV on view looked like a black TV that had a clear frame extending around the perimeter, with a red line of color running through it. Series 7 models (including a 65-incher) also have a few interesting features, such as 1GB of internal memory for saving interactive content. Both 6 and 7 series sets have an Ethernet connection for receiving customizable RSS feeds, including those from new partner USA Today.

Sony

In typical fashion, Sony made everyone leave the hotel where all the other press conferences were held and trek across Las Vegas to their booth at the convention center.

Fortunately, they had a lot to say, including the unveiling of 17 new Bravia LCD sets. But perhaps the coolest news was saved for last: the company is going to start selling an 11-inch OLED TV, which has been for sale in Japan for a few months, in the U.S. later this year. The bad news: it will cost $2,500.

The company had too many LCD TV models to talk about here, but increased connectivity was a clear theme. Sony is adding two new Bravia Internet Video Link devices, which let you access Internet-based content from select sites without a PC, and new content partners such as CBS are being added. The company is also rolling out Digital Media Port, which lets you access content stored on portable audio and video players, to more models, and says more sets are now compliant with the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) protocol, which lets you access music and photos from other DLNA-enabled devices.

Sony also announced its first-ever smaller-sized XBR sets: the 32-inch 32XBR6 and 37-inch 37XBR6 models, which have Full HD 1080p resolution. The KDL-37XBR6 and KDL-32XBR6 models have a new industrial design and such advanced features as the new 3D graphic interface and DMeX compatibility.

That's it for now, as it's time to start prowling the exhibit booths. Stay tuned for more TV news, as I'll be filing a report on a new wireless HD set from Westinghouse, an LCD TV JVC claims is the thinnest, and Vizio's entire new lineup.

—James K. Willcox


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