Can You Trust User Ratings?

You’re shopping for a new HDTV (or anything else for that matter), and you do some research on the Web where you find lots of user ratings for various products. It’s hard not to be influenced by a lot of positive ratings, but be careful. User ratings are not always reliable.

I’ve written about this before, and it has been covered elsewhere. There’s the problem that people are emotionally invested in their choice; they have a need to show that they made a smart decision. But if they have had problems with the product, reseller, or manufacturer, they are likely to have an equally unreasonable negative reaction. And then there’s the whole problem with some manufacturers paying people to post positive reviews for their products.

Well, now there’s some more research on the topic. Technology Review reports on a new study that sheds some additional light on the subject. Researchers fond that a relatively small number of users are responsible for a disproportionate number of ratings. This can skew the results of the “communal wisdom”.

My advice is to take the star counts with a grain of salt, and ignore them completely if you can. Instead, focus on the specific features that are mentioned as being particularly good or bad, decide whether or not these are relevant to your needs, and then go about verifying whether the reports about those features are accurate. There’s no substitute for doing your homework, and you can’t rely on a group of Web user ratings to spend your money wisely for you.

2010: Year of 3DTV?

Hannah Montana and U2 proved it. Chicken Little and UP! proved it. 3D movies are a big hit for Hollywood, and becoming a key part of the industry’s strategic plans. In spite of being available at far fewer cinema screens than traditional 2D movies, the 3D versions consistently pull in more revenue than their flat versions. Clearly, consumers are willing to pay extra to see a movie in 3D. And now we’ve started to see movie theaters experiment with showing live events – such as sports — in 3D for audiences.

It’s no wonder that companies think that the time is right to bring 3D technology into the home. There’s lots of action on this front, but two recent announcements have emphasized the movement in this direction. I’ve already written about Panasonic’s tie in with the new movie AVATAR. The company is equipping trucks with 3D home entertainment equipment and will be rolling around the country to show them off to consumers.

And now Sony has jumped on the 3D bandwagon. The company has announced plans to release LCD HDTVs and Blu-ray players next year that will support 3D content. Note that Sony already markets a variety of professional video cameras and other equipment used in the recording of 3D content. Perhaps this approach will help Sony regain some of the technological high ground that was an essential part of the company’s reputation back in the days of the Trinitron TVs and Walkman personal audio devices. Clearly, Panasonic and Sony have set a fast pace out of the blocks, and it will be interesting to see how hard it will be for the competition to catch up.

End of the Draft!

Last Friday, the IEEE finally ratified the 802.11n specification. You may find this to be a big yawner, but it really has some important implications for HDTV.

802.11n is the latest in the varients of the 802.11 specifications, which are commonly known as WiFi. 802.11b was the original and most common. 802.11a and 802.11g are about five times faster than 802.11b, but only 802.11g uses the same radio spectrum and so is more readily backward compatible. And 802.11n is about 30 times faster than 802.11b, at about 150 Mb/sec typical throughput. (By comparison, 100BaseT Ethernet is slower at 100 Mb/sec throughput.) As a result, you can have a broadband connection throughout your home without having to string cable everywhere. And this means that delivery of video content — including high definition – will be practical across wireless connections.

Now, this performance has already been available with products designated as “draft N wireless“, which have certification from the WiFi Alliance. The good news is that these products already should comply with this final version of the specification. Already, companies such as D-Link and Belkin have announced that their products comply with the newly ratified standard.

So if you have a “draft N” certified product, you should be ready for the new standard. And if you’ve been holding back from stepping up your home wireless network performance, you don’t have to wait any more now that the 802.11n standard is official. This will make it easier to bring the Internet into the livingroom, and will be one more important step toward accelerating acceptance of broadband delivery of movies and television programming to the home.

Quake Breaks Glass Supply

Did you notice the news reports last month about an earthquake in Japan? You may not have paid much attention, figuring that it didn’t have any direct impact on you. Well, if you’re in the market for an LCD HDTV before the end of this year, that quake could have had more impact than you thought.

As it turns out, Corning has an LCD glass production facility in Shizuoka that it had to shut down as a result of the earthquake. That created a hole in the glass supply, which in turn could have resulted in a shortage of LCD panels for the rest of the year.

The good news is that the repairs at the plant are already complete and Corning is in the process of restarting production. The company has also accelerated the schedule to restart some idle plants in Taiwan, in response to the growing demand for product. According to Corning forecasts, fourth quarter sales are now expected to be about equal with this year’s third quarter. Already, initial reports from NPD indicate that August sales of LCD TVs in the United States were up 14% over August of last year, giving a strong indication that demand is growing as consumers regain confidence in the economy and in their personal finances.

If there’s a cloud around this silver lining, it is this; Corning forecasts that demand for glass will still exceed supply. Couple that with the increasing retail sales could result in shorter supplies of HDTVs, which also could mean an increase in pricing. Fortunately, the stiff competition for holiday shopping dollars provides downward pressure on prices. Which force will win out? It’s hard to predict, but you can’t count on plummeting prices across the board on Black Friday this time around. The bottom line is that if you find a deal that gives you the set you want at a price you’re willing to pay, I recommend that you pull the trigger and buy it. Yes, you could save a little more (or spend a little more) if you wait a bit longer, but when you spread that difference over the ten years or so that you’ll own the set, the amount will be negligible.

Torrent HDMI Cables Get Distribution

I first wrote about Torrent’s Sureconnect HDMI cables back in June. These cables have a feature that makes the connection more secure, and the plug less likely to pull out of the connector by accident. They also have a clever feature in that an LED lights up to indicate that you’ve got a solid connection.

In the past few weeks, the company has made a couple of noteworthy announcements. Their products are now available through both Amazon and Dell.com. Presumably other retailers will follow, but these two make a pretty good start.

The cables aren’t inexpensive, but they also cost less than the top-priced brands. In addition to the more secure plug design and connection verification light, they are made using high quality materials that are friendly to the environment. I still contend that most users will be fine using the least expensive HDMI cables they can find, but if you’re looking for a step up or need a plug that will stay put, the Torrent cables are worth a look.

HDTV and Video Phones

Dick Tracy had his two-way wrist video communicators, and I don’t know about you, but I believed that we’d all be using them by now. The idea of video phone calls has had a strong appeal for decades, but many efforts have failed to make them a practical reality. But maybe that’s changing at last.

All the pieces are falling into place to make this commonplace, however. We’ve got HDTVs in a majority of homes, and broadband Internet connections. More and more TVs can now connect directly to the Internet. And digital cameras are so ubiquitous that it adds nearly nothing to the bill of materials cost to include one with just about any electronic device. And the MPEG4/H.264 compression makes it practical to send good quality live images over a broadband connection.

We already use Skype to place video calls with family members, and it’s free. As HDTV set makers dig deeper to find features to differentiate their products from the competition, it’s reasonable to expect that Skype could become a standard feature for Internet-connected HDTVs, just like Yahoo! widgets or Vudu or Netflix support.

So video phone conversations could be the next big thing in HDTVs. Stay tuned!

Vudu Scores Twice

Vudu is an online service that provides streaming access to rental movies and other content. Two of the key attributes of the service are 1080p resolution and instant streaming (provided you have sufficient bandwidth). As a measure of the growing interest in broadband-delivered video content, two major HDTV manufacturers have recently announced plans to support Vudu directly in their sets.

Mitsubishi is now shipping two Diamond Unisen LCD HDTVs — the 46″ model LT-46249 and the 52″ model LT-52249 — that support the Vudu service. And LG includes support for Vudu on their LH50 and PS80 series of flat panel TVs.

As support for broadband delivery of content becomes a standard feature for more and more HDTV sets, this will only expand the interest and demand for these services. The adoption of broadband video content is accelerating rapidly.

No Labor Day

I hope that you’re getting the chance to enjoy some time off today. I am. When you read this, I may be tucked away in a shady spot enjoying a cold beverage, or I may be preparing to fire up the grill for a traditional attempt at charring dinner. But in any case, I’m not working on the Almanac today.

I do want to thank you for your interest and support in this project. I don’t think I expected this level of success when I launched it four years ago, and I certainly have enjoyed the journey so far. So I hope you’ll grant me this day off, and will come back tomorrow for the latest installment of news and commentary about HDTV and related home entertainment issues.

And as always, I welcome your questions, suggestions, and comments. You can always write me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com; I look forward to hearing from you.

YouFlix?

Many sources have published reports that Google is negotiating with Hollywood studios for deals to offer streaming movie rentals on YouTube. The service already has permission to stream some full length movies for free, but these are older titles from the back catalog with limited appeal. YouTube wants to offer the latest movies, and if possible, on the same day as the DVD release.

Hollywood already makes its movies available for rental as downloads and streaming from other services, including the Apple iTunes store, Vudu, and CinemaNow. The difference here is that YouTube is the runaway leader in terms of traffic. In July, it delivered 8.95 billion views in the U.S.; that’s “billion” with a big B. By comparison, Hulu managed 457 million views which is about one twentieth as much. It’s no surprise that Hollywood might want access to the YouTube traffic to try to wring some more revenue out of its movies.

HDMI 1.4: What Is It Good For?

My good friend and colleague Ken Werner of Nutmeg Consultants sent me a link to an interesting white paper on the Key Digital site. The article provides a comparison of all the versions of HDMI from 1.0 to 1.4, listing the different features supported by each version.

What sets this apart from other similar comparisons is that the author then analyzes the significance of each of the features, with special emphasis on those added in the HDMI 1.4 specification. I confess that I am among the many writers and analysts who did not think through all the implications of some of these features. For example, one of the clever functions in the new standard is that it includes support for an Ethernet networking connection. That sounds great as it should help eliminate cable clutter to your HDTV, right? But not so fast. As the Key Digital paper points out, what happens when you switch from one input to another, such as from your Blu-ray player to your cable set top box? What happens to your Internet connection? Wouldn’t it be better to just use a dedicated wired (or wireless) connection straight to the TV, so it doesn’t get switched when you change sources?

The writer draws the conclusion that HDMI 1.1 probably is all that is needed for most current HDTV applications and installations. Some of the later features are either redundant or support functions that are not yet provided in most signal sources. In any case, I recommend this as a quick and thorough exposition on HDMI technology.