HDTV manufacturers are trying to make the task of buying an HDTV set much more difficult than just choosing between LCD and plasma, 42 inches or 46 inches.
To stand out amid fierce competition, they're adding exotic features, and even a little bit of color to the plain black bezels that have been de rigeur. They're also chasing each other to zero — zero thickness, that is. Apparently, you can't be too thin if you're a TV.
All the major Asian brands revealed new sets at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which started Monday. Most of the innovation comes from the prestigious names, like Sony, Pioneer, Panasonic and Toshiba, which are trying to keep HDTVs from becoming a commodity product. If one 42-inch LCD is the same as another, the buyer is going to be looking mostly at price, and that kills the manufacturer's margins.
This happened to DVD players years ago: when unknown Asian manufacturers were able to slap together players and sell them for $50, Sony couldn't make money in the category.
"The goal is to break away from the commoditized market," said Ken Shioda, general manager of display products for Pioneer.
Pioneer Corp. is one of the companies working to put its sets on a diet: it demonstrated a plasma TV with a thickness of just 9 millimeters, or three-eighths of an inch, claiming it is the thinnest 50-inch set ever. It's just a prototype, however. Pioneer said sets that thin would not be on the market this year, but possibly next.
Hitachi Ltd. is showing off an LCD display that is twice as thick: three-fourths of an inch. That's also a prototype, but the company is bringing LCDs that are 1.5 inches thick to the U.S. market in the second quarter after launching them in Japan in December. U.S. prices were not announced.
The ultimate in thinness is achievable with a completely different screen technology: organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs. Sony Corp. announced it will soon start selling the first OLED screen in the U.S. It's just 3 millimeters, or one-eighth of an inch thick. The catch — actually, the first of two catches — is that the screen area is also minimal, at 11 inches diagonally. The second catch is the price tag: about $2,500.
A set's thinness may not be readily apparent in an electronics store, so some manufacturers are adding color to the bezels of the TVs. But their move away from the all-black scheme is timid. You won't find a leaf green or sky blue HDTV set to match your wallpaper anytime soon. A slight touch of red is as far as they'll go: both Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. are adding accents of that color to their otherwise black LCD bezels.
The purchase process for flat-panel TVs is no longer dominated by men saying "give me the biggest TV I can get," said Tim Baxter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the consumer electronics division of Samsung Electronics America. TVs now need to pass muster with women, who look at whether the design fits in a room, he added.
On the technical side, sets with the so-called "Full HD" or "1080p" resolution became the standard for middle- to high-end LCD and rear-projection sets last year, and plasma sets with that resolution have also appeared. There is no real space for improvement in that direction: 1080p, or 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, is the maximum resolution of today's high-definition discs, and higher than broadcast HD signals.
Instead, another feature looks set to become a standard in 2008: sets that show 120 frames per second. HDTV signals are usually broadcast in 30 frames per second, and movies are shot at 24 frames per second, so the usefulness of a set showing more frames isn't immediately obvious. But 120 hertz sets compute frames to insert between the signal's frames, yielding visibly smoother motion and sharper pictures in action scenes.
"120 hertz is the new 1080p," said Scott Ramirez, vice president of TV marketing at Toshiba.
High image refresh rates are also useful for three-dimensional imaging. Viewers wearing glasses with liquid-crystal shutters that alternately black out and reveal the TV set, in sync with the image refresh rate, can be shown different images for the right and left eyes if the refresh rate is high enough. That produces a stereoscopic, or 3-D effect.
Samsung brought out 3-D-capable rear-projection sets last year. At CES, it announced plasma sets with the same capability.
There aren't many movies available in 3-D, but many video games can be played in 3-D. Texas Instruments Inc., which makes the core components of many rear-projection sets, introduced another technology at the show that uses the same elements to help gamers out: DualView.
In essence, two gamers wearing shutter-equipped glasses will be able look at the same screen but see different images. That means the screen doesn't have to be divided down the middle for two-player gaming. That should prevent the cheating that occurs when one player peaks that the other's half of the screen, TI said.