Panasonic Announces Long Life Plasma HDTVs

Panasonic is “the Official HDTV of the Olympic Games”, according to their press release in which they announce that their entire line of 1080p Viera plasma HDTV models for 2008 now have a lifetime rating of 100,000 hours. If you figure on the typical 6.5 hours of viewing a day, 365 days a year, that works out to about 42 years. In other words, buy one today and you can expect to watch the Summer Olympics of 2048 on the set.

This announcement prompts me to make two observations. First, many people don’t understand the rated lifespan for a TV set. All TVs put out less light over time, even the traditional picture tube sets. The industry standard for rating a TV is to specify the average length of time until the light output is one half that of the set when it was brand new. Now, half the light does not mean that it appears half as bright. Human perception of light is logarithmic, which essentially means that something has to put out 10 times more light to appear twice as bright. So a set that only puts out half as much light will appear dimmer, but not to a drastic degree.

Rear projection models that use a replaceable projector lamp are typically rated for only 4,000 hours or so. There are rear projection models with solid state light sources, however, that are rated at lifespans similar to the typical LCD and plasma HDTVs, which are in the range of 50,000 to 60,000 hours.

And this brings me to my second point; how much lifespan do you need in a TV? What’s the oldest TV in your home that you still use on a regular basis? My guess is that few people have TV sets that are much older than 20 years. In the 80s, the average TV replacement cycle was about 15 years, with few sets lasting beyond 20 years of use. That average accellerated to about 10 years in recent years, before the transition to digital broadcasts help speed it up even more.

The bottom line is that the typical flat screen TV already is rated for at least 20 years of service, if not more. It is unlikely that most consumers are going to keep their TVs for this long a time; they didn’t back in the days of the traditional picture tube set, and I don’t see any reason for that to change.

So in the end, I view Panasonic’s announcement as a statement of confidence in their technology, intended to give customers a sense that the products are durable and dependable. But I discount any practical value of the extra 20 years of lifespan that these new specifications represent.

Digital Transition: Border Wars

As reported here last spring, the impending transition to digital-only terrestrial television broadcasts (by full power stations) is creating a problem for stations in the United States along the border with Mexico. They have to compete with high-powered TV transmissions from Mexican stations that are serving the same markets on both sides of the border . And the Mexican stations are not obligated to switch to digital broadcasts in February 2009, the way that the U.S. stations will be required to do. This means that viewers can stick with their analog sets, and still receive the Mexican channels.

But maybe the U.S. stations won’t have to switch. The U.S. Senate has passed S.2507, the Digital TV Border Fix Act of 2008. This bill allows full-power analog television stations within 50 miles of the Mexico border to continue broadcasts through February 17, 2014. The bill requires that these broadcasts not interfere with the auction and use of the recovered radio spectrum. The companion bill, H.R.5435 was introduced in February, but remains in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

As always, it’s the exceptions that cause problems, and the challenges facing border TV stations are one unintended consequence of the digital TV transition. I expect that we’ll uncover a few more sticking points before the transition is complete.

Mounting Advice

Premier Mounts is… well… one of the premier companies making flat panel mounts. According to some reports, about three out of four flat panels in corporate settings get mounted, but only about one in four in homes. If you think you might want to be one of that 25%, Premier has just posted a short video — under four minutes — that gives you a good overview of selecting and installing a wall mount.

The video has lots of good advice, but I’d make a few more points. First, finding wall studs is not always easy, and you need to be sure to drill in the center of the stud because electrical wires are often attached to the side of the studs. An alternative to hitting the studs is to miss them on purpose, and use heavy duty dry wall hangers instead. Make sure that you follow their installation instructions carefully, and make sure you use plenty more than required by the weight of your mount and flat panel.

Also, I recommend that you consider connecting the cables before you lift the panel up and place it on the mount bracket. Often, the connectors are in the back or underneath and can be hard to reach. It’s much easy to connect them securely when you can get at the connectors easily. And on the subject of wires, you may not want an unsightly jumble of wires coming down the wall from the panel. In general, I recommend leaving it to the professionals to fish wires through walls. For most do-it-yourselfers, I suggest getting some plastic wire channels at your local home products store. These have an adhesive strip on back so you can just cut it to length and stick it on the wall to hide the wires. Most of them can be painted, so you can then paint them to match the wall so that they all but disappear.

Trying to decide on the right size HDTV for your room? Get the answer in Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV, now available in paperback from Amazon or other fine booksellers.

Canon Back on Track with SED

An appeals court ruled last week that Canon had not broken its license with Applied Nanotech Holdings for the company’s SED — surface-conduction electron-emitter display – technology. SED is a novel flat panel display technology that puts tiny electron emitters behind each sub-pixel. The result is an extremely thin panel that produces an emissive image similar to that of a picture tube (CRT) television.

Canon had partnered with Toshiba a few years ago to create some initial prototypes that wowed visitors to CES and other trade shows. The panels showed impressive color with outstanding black levels. Applied Nanotech threw a wrench in the works by claiming that only Canon had licensed their technology, and that including Toshiba in the venture was a violation.

This court ruling appears to clear the way for Canon to start up again with its SED program, now that it has bought out Toshiba’s interest. Applied Nanotech has not announced whether or not it plans to appeal the court’s ruling, but it may be moot at this point. Canon had already decided that they were not going to be able to produce the panels at a price that is competitive with LCD technology at this point, and was instead going to market the displays to video production companies for use as high-quality monitors. This further delay in initial production only increases the price gap with LCDs, as that technology has continued to wring out costs through increased volume and efficiency.

It remains a long shot that SED will ever be able to catch up to challenge LCDs in the mass market. It will be interesting to see whether or not Canon decides to even try at this point.

HDTV Alternative Technologies

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, LCD is the worst display technology except all the others that have been tried. The panels take many complex and precise steps to manufacturer using discrete sheets of glass substrates (instead of a more efficient roll of some material), and the finished product blocks about 95% of the light from the backlight even when it is showing a full white screen. And yet, the technology remains the most cost-effective and functional for everything from giant HDTVs to tiny cell phones.

The fact that LCD dominates the display world does not mean that it will reign forever. Picture tubes (CRTs) ruled the television market for about 75 years, but they eventually were replaced. I expect that it will be no different for LCDs, though I believe that the accelerated pace of technology advances will likely limit LCD’s dominance to somewhat less than 75 years.

Case in point: Field Emission Technologies (FET) is a spin off from Sony that is pursuing the commercial production of Field Emission Displays, or FEDs. This technology was the darling of the display industry with giants such as Motorola sinking enormous sums into research. The technology works by putting thousands of microscopic electron emitters behind each sub-pixel. The result is an image that looks like a CRT, but is as thin — or thinner — than an LCD. Unfortunately, the early research efforts stumbled on making the transition from the laboratory to the production line.

The situation has changed. FET has made arrangements to purchase one of Pioneer’s plasma production plants (which is idle now that Pioneer has stopped making its own plasma panels). And they are planning to produce 26-inch FED panels by the end of 2009. The target is 10,000 units per month which is not a huge quantity, but it’s enough to demonstrate whether or not mass production is feasible.

The one hitch in the plans is that FET is targeting the initial product as a “master monitor” for video production. In other words, this will be a professional quality product with a high price tag. We can only hope that they can sell enough into this market to get them through the initial production phase, and that their roadmap includes ways to cut the production costs (and increase the panel size) so that they can get down to a selling price that can challenge LCD.

The LCD sky is not falling; it will take years before any technology will be able to reach the economies of scale that make LCDs so affordable now. But it’s good to see that manufacturers are still trying to bring alternatives to market.

Wal-Mart Sales Are Up

Spurred in part by flat panel TV sales, Wal-Mart reported a 6.7% increase in sales for July compared with a year ago. Given the uncertainty of the economy, higher food and gas prices, and rising unemployment, it’s interesting to see that flat panel sales continue to be strong at Wal-Mart.

I have to wonder what the product mix is in these sales figures. Is it primarily smaller-size bargain brand models, or are the larger top-brand products also selling? How much of this was fueled by the stimulus checks, and will we see similar strong sales for August? Summer is traditionally a slow time for TV sales, so it takes fewer units to make a bigger percentage impact, so these gains could easily be wiped out in the coming months.

And I’m also curious how the other retailers “up stream” of Wal-Mart are doing. Comparable store sales were also up for Costco, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club, but down at Target. Are these increases eating into the sales at consumer electronic big box stores such as Best Buy and Circuit City? And what about the AV specialty stores?

The LCD manufacturers have spent the summer trying to figure out about how many panels to produce, with many cutting back their output to avoid adding to their existing inventory. They are clearly nervous about the level of orders they will get from the LCD TV manufacturers, who in turn are worried about whether consumers will show up during the holiday buying season. If the retail sales go soft, expect to find some great bargains as early as October this year.

Reader Question: How Green is My HDTV?

Q: Some weeks ago, I heard you mention thedifference in power consumption between LCD and plasma televisions on The Personal Computer Show. I have found that Crutchfield provides a comparison option which includes their own testing of TVs. When you have some time, could you compare the four 46″ models I have listed below, using Crutchfield.com. From what I can determine there does not seem to be a great deal of difference of power consumption in actual real world use. Thank you.
David Whitfield, Ohio

A: Thanks for the question, David. As with most technical issues, the generalities are sometimes contradicted by specific instances. This is a complex topic, but let me take a stab at it.

First and foremost, I commend Crutchfield for putting in the time and effort to measure power consumption for their televisions. A review of the four models you cite does show a plasma unit scoring slightly lower than an LCD unit using the Crutchfield measurements. Unfortunately, I cannot find any details on the Crutchfield Web site about how they got these results, so there has to be some question about how to interpret them.

The problem is that LCD and plasma screens consume power differently. Plasmas draw the most power when displaying a white screen at full brightness, because plasma power consumption is a direct result of how much light is needed to create the image on the screen. A picture of a snowy mountain top in daylight is going to draw much more power than a shot of a bad guy lurking in the shadows of a Gotham City alley. This is why it would be helpful to know how Crutchfield tested, because the images you put on the screen will affect the results.

LCDs, on the other hand, change their consumption little as the image changes. For most, they have fluorescent tubes as backlights, which remain on at full brightness whenever the set is on. The LCD layer blocks or transmits the light as needed to create the image, but the backlight stays on. The backlight is more efficient than the plasma panel, however, which is why the LCDs use less power than the plasma maximum.

And there’s one more factor that Crutchfield does not report, and that’s the brightness of the display. In general, LCDs are capable of producing a brighter image than a plasma. I expect that if the brightness on these LCDs was dialed back down to match the output of the plasmas, the power consumption advantage of the LCDs would show more clearly.

Note that some new LCD TVs are using LED backlights instead of fluorescent. Not only do these tend to give better color performance and consume a bit less power, they also make it possible to dim the backlight in darker regions of the image on the screen. This can cut power consumption in half.

Finally, it’s worth considering how significant the savings are. If you leave a single 100 watt light bulb burning while you watch TV instead of turning it off, you will wipe out the difference between the most power hungry model and the least on your list. Using Crutchfield’s estimate of 6 hours a day and $.10 per kilowatt hour, that difference is just $2 a month. So it may not be worth spending hundreds of dollars more just to get a set with lower power consumption.

Do you have questions about HDTVs? Write me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com and I’ll do my best to help.

Subscription Fees Lose Out to “Free”

My friend and colleague Steve Sechrist at Insight Media wrote a great piece in that company’s free “Display Daily” newsletter about problems facing two subscription-based mobile TV services. Mobile Broadcasting Corp. in Japan will shut down next spring after failing to sign up enough subscribers in spite of 10 years of trying and Toyota’s endorsement. In Germany, Mobile 3.0 is throwing in the towel as well. In both cases, free access to broadcast television on competing services seems to have dealt the fatal blow; consumer seem to prefer free over paying a monthly fee. Go figure!

But this raises the question of who will pay for these free video services. It looks as though the answer may be advertisers, because cell phones have some unique characteristics that could make them ideally suited for a specific form of advertising. MultiMedia Intelligence has just released a new research report on mobile TV and advertising, focusing on what they call “Call to Action” ads. While you’re watching video on your cell phone, you can press one button and get instant interaction with the ad on the screen. This could trigger a text message listing the closest Starbucks to your current location so you can get the advertised coffee special, or it could send a request to a car dealer for a brochure about the car being advertised.

The key here is that the two-way communication features of the cell phone make it ideally suited for interactive advertising. And getting a tangible response from the consumer is an essential first step for any advertiser. Not only does mobile TV make this easy and appropriate, it also means that the advertiser gets hard data on how many people are responding to the ads. And this makes the mobile TV service provider happy because it means that this data will justify the advertising costs.

“If it’s free, it’s for me.” That seems to be the dominant theme in technology today, from open source software to Web sites. Outside of the movie rental market, it looks as though any subscription-based service from telephones to television is at risk of competition from no-fee alternatives. And I’m not so sure that someone won’t come up with a system that could even make the movies free. As always, stay tuned….

Converter Coupons Go Unused

The federal government is providing rebate coupons to consumers who want to buy a converter for their analog-only television sets before the transition to all digital broadcasts next February. (See the HDTV Almanac entry for details about the coupon program.)

The NTIA has issued about 20 million coupons so far. However, the coupons have a 90-day expiration, and of those that have passed that date, less than half have been redeemed. The NTIA is now negotiating with IBM, the main contractor for the program, to issue an additional 6 million coupons to take the place of some of those that expired.

According to a press release from Zenith, the company has shipped more than a million converters, and about 6 million units of all brands have been bought using the rebate coupons. Estimates for the number of US households with TVs and no cable or satellite subcriptions are as high as 20 million. And if you consider the fact that many homes with cable or satellite also have an “extra” TV somewhere that is not connected, and so depends on a broadcast signal, the total number of households could be even higher. So with less than 200 days to go until the digital TV transition (or a bit more than a month, if you live in Wilmington, NC), it would appear that fewer than a third of those who will need a converter box have used a coupon to buy one.

I’m expecting a bit of a crunch on converter boxes this fall, so if you need one and haven’t requested your coupons yet, do it now.

Olympic Coverage Includes Online

NBC is touting the fact that it will offer 1,400 hours of Olympic coverage on its various networks, including NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, and Telemundo. It also will have 24/7 live and repeat HD coverage on Universal HD. If you want to check out what networks are available to you on your cable or satellite service, just enter your ZIP Code and service at http://www.nbcolympics.com/tv_and_online_listings/zone=ET/day=1/index.html to see what’s available.

But if you have a broadband Internet connection, you can also get free access to another 2,000 hours of coverage. You can got to www.nbcolympics.com to view live and repeat coverage of just about every sport in the Summer Games. As a result, you don’t have to settle for the watered-down network coverage of your favorite sport — such as sailing — just because the marquee sports like swimming and gymnastics get all the prime time coverage. You may have to watch at some odd hours, but you’ll find the coverage online. And if you install Microsoft’s new Silverlight software, you’ll be able to watch multiple sports at once, use picture-in-picture, and other features.

What you want to watch, when you want to watch it, where you want to watch it; that’s the promise of television on the Internet. And the Olympics are shaping up to be an excellent example of what this can mean to sports fans everywhere.