Holy HDTV Holograph, Batman!

Okay, we’re going to look just over the horizon on this one, but the implications for HD content are huge. Earlier this month, Maxell announced plans to ship a 300 GB disc drive next year. Big deal, you say. Okay, it’s going to be a removable disc. Got your attention yet? Here’s more; it will be a 5.25-inch disc. That’s the equivalent of more than 60 single-layer DVDs. And the data transfer rate will be 160 Mbps, compared with the 4.7 Mbps required for a DVD movie. Hmmm… this sounds like this single disc could hold 60 SD movies with all the trimmings, or at least 15 HD movies using existing compression technology.

How do they do it? Not with magnetic fields like hard drives, or with dye-change layers like DVD+/-R, or phase change like DVD+/-RW or -RAM. Instead, the technology comes straight from Star Trek’s Enterprise. The new disc will use holographic storage. According to Maxell, “unlike other technologies that record one data bit at a time, holography allows a million bits of data to be written and read in parallel with a single flash of light.” Recording does not take place on just one or two layers within the plastic disc, but instead occurs through the full depth of the disc. In fact, the media apparently doesn’t even have to spin during recording or playback.

Now, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that whenever you announce a new technology a year in advance, it’s not smart to bet the farm on the product showing up on time. But Maxell must think they’ve got a good handle on this to come out this strong this far out. And I don’t expect the discs or the drives to be particularly inexpensive at the start; Maxell is talking about $100 a disc at the start, which isn’t bad compared with a stack of 63 DVD-R discs. And the roadmap calls for increased capacity and faster throughput over the following years.

All of a sudden, BluRay claims for greater capacity seems to have lost a little of their luster.

Reader Question: When to Buy?

In my visitor HDTV survey on this site, I ask people what their #1 question about HDTV is. A lot of people ask questions similar to these: ” When will the price come down?” and ” Is now the time to buy?

Okay, if I could predict the future, I wouldn’t be writing this Almanac. (Well, maybe I would, but I wouldn’t have to try to make a living doing it!) Still, it’s easy to make a couple predictions. The large display market will continue to be one of those product categories where prices will continue to decline over the next few years. Increased efficiency, fierce competition, and larger volumes will all help drive down prices, even in spite of rising energy costs and other factors.

The big question is not whether or not prices will drop, but by how much. While prices will decline, I don’t foresee any precipitous drop in the near future, and in fact, there may be periods of small increases. If you decide to wait until prices stabilize because you don’t want to buy a TV and then see it on sale the next day or the next week or the next month, you’ll have to wait years. And there will continue to be technological advances that will cause manufacturers to replace one model with a newer one.

These changes in prices or models do not necessarily mean that your purchase will instantly become obsolete. If you pick a display that delivers a satisfying image at a price you’re willing to pay, then that’s a reasonable purchase. The TV will continue to show you that great image, no matter what else may show up on the market.

If you do want to try to “time the market,” keep in mind that most manufacturers announce their new products at the Consumer Electronics Show – CES — that’s held in Las Vegas every January. If you can’t be there, don’t worry; I’ll be there and will report back on the major news from the event. Note that the announced products may not start shipping until six or even nine months later. But these announcements can give you some idea about when the next new thing will be available. That can be a good time to buy last year’s model if it suits your needs, as retailers will be getting rid of the old stock to make room for the new models.

No matter what your timing, if you’re concerned about falling prices, some retailers offer a price guarantee. If you see the same product advertised at a lower price within a certain period after your purchase, the store will refund the difference. If you get a good enough price on the purchase in the first place, however, you may decide it’s not worth the effort of getting the additional refund.

If you want to know about HDTV prices, consider Professor Poor’s Weekly Price Intelligence Report. The latest edition is available today.

Plasma TVs a Hit for Online Shoppers!

Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving is more than an event; it’s a phenomenon. Shoppers head for the malls in droves, and retailers count on the crowds to get the holiday buying season started. Brick and mortar stores are not the only ones benefiting from the flood of buyers; the rising tide also raises the boats of online retailers as well. PriceGrabber reports that the comparison shopping service referred online customers to merchants on Black Friday that resulted in $192 million in sales.

Of particular interest is that sales in the Electronics category were up 44% over last year, and “Plasma TVs” were #5 in the top 10 best-selling categories. (Digital cameras were #1, and gaming consoles were #2.)

Now, it’s not clear from the PriceGrabber announcement whether “Plasma TVs” includes LCD TVs or other technologies. My own survey on this site indicates that more visitors here are planning to buy LCD than plasma, so I’m guessing that PriceGrabber simply used “plasma” to refer to all flat panels. And it’s also not clear whether these TVs are HD or not; I suspect that many are, but a lot of them are standard or enhanced definition instead.

Still, it’s interesting to see that buyers are willing to purchase large-ticket items such as these online, in order to get a better price. It’s one more sign that the large screen TV market is rapidly expanding beyond the rich enthusiasts and into a broader segment of consumers.

If you need an HDTV guide to help you understand the different HDTV display technologies, check out Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV.

HDTV Truth Patrol: Plasma Bulbs?

HDTV Truth Patrol
From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, by Scott Taves: “Don’t know where to begin? Here are tips to sharpen your focus”
Online at http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/tv/248038_hdtv12.html.

Quote: “Older plasmas were subject to burn-in, meaning a static image, such as a video game icon or stock ticker, left a permanent ghost image. The costly bulbs also would lose luminescence after a few years. Current models have features to defeat burn-in and the bulbs now burn brightly for 10 to 20 years, depending on use.”

Okay. The part about the burn-in is accurate. The implication is that the problem is solved, which is not exactly true, but plasmas are much less prone to burn-in than they used to be. It’s the part about plasma “bulbs” being costly and losing “luminescence” over time that gets to me. Well, first of all, luminescence typically refers to “cool” light, such as that produced by fireflies, and not the light produced by hot glowing gases or metal, which is how most “bulbs” work. (If people only tried to write simply, and not try to impress us with their extensive vocabulary, they wouldn’t make silly mistakes like this.)

But the biggest problem is the part about the bulbs, as it indicates that the author doesn’t understand how plasma displays work. The entire panel is the bulb; there’s no separate bulb, costly or otherwise. It is true that most plasma panels are now rated at about 60,000 hours to half-brightness (which is the industry-standard measure for display lifetimes), but there’s nothing you can change to restore it to its original brightness. So please don’t let articles like this lead you to think that you can change a bulb to fix a plasma panel that has gone dim with age.

Join Professor Poor’s HDTV Truth Patrol, and help with the fight against HDTV misinformation! If you see an article or an ad or a sign that you think has wrong information about digital TV, HDTV, or related subjects, tell me about it. Send a quote (and cite the source in detail so I can verify it), or send a scanned image of the page, or a digital photo. If I pick your submission for a future Almanac entry, you’ll receive an exclusive Truth Patrol t-shirt that you can wear with pride. Let everyone know that you stand for truth in the HDTV industry!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Yes, like many of you, I’m off today to work on a good dose of tryptophan, tamped down with some fresh-baked peach pie. So I’m going to share some of my thoughts about what we have to be thankful about in terms of HDTV and digital TV.

First on my list is choice. We have a choice of technologies for our displays, and we have a choice of vendors for these technologies, and we have a choice of retailers from which to buy them. All this leads to something else I’m thankful for: competition. This not only drives down the costs, so that more of us can afford to enjoy the improvements offered by HDTV and digital TV, but it also drives an enormous research effort throughout the industry. In addition to making bigger factories with better production, research is also proceeding rapidly on new technologies. You may not have heard of OLEDs, or FEDs, or SEDs, or some other novel technologies, and there’s a good chance that you won’t ever see displays made from them. But it’s possible that any one of them could surge to lead the industry, and make plasma and LCD as quaint a memory as black-and-white CRTs.

Next on my list is opportunity. Any time you get a market that is growing rapidly with technology expanding out in many directions at once, there’s the chance for companies large and small to make a huge impact. What will the delivery of video content over the Internet bring? Will the centralized, giant studios be replaced by legions of clever and creative producers and directors who redefine what “entertainment” content is?

And finally, I’m thankful for how much fun all this is. So many people are actively engaged in learning about, thinking about, and talking about HDTV and digital TV. I’m having a great time helping people explore this new world of entertainment, and I’m especially thankful for your support in this project.

DRM: Don’t Fence Me In

One of my least favorite acronyms in the whole home entertainment business is DRM. It reportedly stands for “digital rights management.” From my point of view, that’s about as direct and honest as using “revenue enhancement” to refer to a tax increase. DRM is copy protection, pure and simple.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that the content providers want to protect their products. Hey, I’ve made my living creating content for sale and I don’t want to have it be ripped off. But I also have seen repeated efforts at copy protection turn around and bite the companies that try it, going all the way back to Lotus. The Law of Unintended Consequences stands ready to smack you the moment you think you’ve got a problem licked, and nowhere has this been as true as in the area of digital copy protection. How long does it take a clever 14-year-old programming genius to crack the latest scheme?

Part of the problem is that locks only tend to keep out honest people. If that were it, that would be okay with me. But too often, copy protection schemes prevent honest people from doing things that they have a right to do, and in some cases, the schemes actually cause harm to the people who are the paying customers who keep the company in business in the first place.

How much trouble can copy protection actually cause? Just ask any Sony Music executive these days how he or she feels about their aborted audio CD copy protection system!

Microsoft Backs HDTV

Microsoft announced last week that the company has an agreement with CableLabs that lets Microsoft and personal computer companies create Media Center PCs that will be digital-cable-ready (DCR). The systems will accept CableCARDs, which is intended to let devices connect directly to digital cable television service and eliminate the need for a separate set-top box. Microsoft wants to let the Media Center PC distribute the video content across a home network to compliant devices, including the company’s new Xbox 360 game console.

First the Xbox 360, and now this; looks like Microsoft is poised to make a serious play for the home entertainment market. It makes a lot of sense, as there is a lot of growth ahead in the whole area of HDTV and digital TV, and Microsoft is pretty good at moving data around between devices, so it could be a good match.

Microsoft reports that more than 4 million Windows Media Center Edition licenses have been sold so far. I remain unconvinced that the PC will become the hub of home entertainment, but the advantages of distributing data over wired and wireless home networks are certainly appealing, and it is still possible that Microsoft’s vision of the new world of entertainment will catch on with consumers.

Analog TV to Go Dark!

Last Friday morning, the US House of Representatives passed a budget bill that included a hard date for the shutdown of analog TV broadcasts in this country: December 31, 2008. The Senate already passed a bill that also set a hard date: April 9, 2009. It’s now up to the conference committee to reconcile the two bills, and it’s a pretty safe bet that the final date will be somewhere in this range.

So… if you’re among the minority of American television viewers who rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts of TV programming, the clock is really started now. You’ve got a little more than three years to get a way to receive programs other than by analog broadcasts. You have three choices. You can join the legions who already subscribe to cable or satellite services, or you can buy a new television that includes a digital TV receiver — by next March, all new sets 25″ or larger that have tuners must include digital tuners — or get a separate receiver that can receive the digital broadcasts and pass them along to your existing TV.

Many people don’t realize it, but the government may help you with that last option. Both the House and Senate bills include provisions for federal subsidies of digital-to-analog converters. The Senate generously budgeted $3 billion, but the more frugal House only allocated $990 million. It remains to be seen how they intend to spread this money around, and whether it will make a significant difference in the price of a converter.

To learn more about digital TV, watch for the release of Professor Poor’s Guide to HDTV Broadcast early next year.

Thin and Beautiful HDTV!

OLEDs – organic light-emitting diodes — are emissive devices that are one of the most promising novel technologies that could result in a revolution in television technology. The image is fast and colorful and bright like a regular CRT, but they are as thin as a sheet of thick paper. They produce their own light, so there’s no need for the backlight used with LCDs. And some companies are experimenting with manufacturing OLED displays using inkjet printers instead of the expensive procedures used to create LCD and plasma panels.

One of the leading companies in the field is Cambridge Display Technology (CDT), and they announced earlier this month that they produced a number of 14-inch panels using inkjet printing. The displays have a resolution of 1280 by 768 pixels, suitable for computer or 720p HDTV applications.

This is exciting news. Smaller passive matrix monochrome OLEDs have been in production for quite a while, but this is one of the first publicized attempts at production of large, full-color panels. It looks as though CDT has made great strides. We’re probably still years away from when you will be able to walk into a store and buy a 40-inch OLED TV, but this is a big step towards that day.

You can read more about OLED and other HDTV display technology in Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV.

More Networks on Demand

Following on the heels of the successful deal between iTunes and Disney to make episodes froom some of the ABC television network’s top shows available for download at $2 a pop, two new agreements were announced last week. NBC has a deal with DirecTV to offer episodes of a number of major shows for download to an interactive video recorder. And CBS has arranged with Comcast to provide on-demand access to some of the network’s top shows.

This appears to be a rapid response to the Apple/Disney deal, and it can only be good for consumers in the long run. Some of the conditions for downloading and viewing are a bit restrictive — the Comcast shows have to be viewed within 24 hours of when they were ordered — but I expect competition and experience will loosen the restraints. And based on how quickly these moves came, I expect those changes to come sooner than later.