Cable Goes Local for HDTV

During the lead-up to the SuperBowl, we saw lots of local cable companies get in beefs over rebroadcasting the HD programming from local network stations. As I mentioned at the time, it makes sense to me that the owners of the local stations ask to share in the revenues earned by the cable companies for those rebroadcasts.

But what if the cable companies didn’t rebroadcast the local stations at all? That’s the idea behind a new breed of cable set-top boxes that go back to the future by adding a digital TV tuner. This lets the cable subscriber connect the box to rabbit ears or some other antenna, and get the broadcast stations directly over the air, for free. Not only do the cable companies not have to pay anything to the local stations — because they are not rebroadcasting — they also don’t have to set aside bandwidth for those channels. And the subscriber will likely get a better image for the local stations in the bargain.

Cable companies started by offering a better signal than subscribers could get from their own antenna, but that has changed now with digital television broadcasts. Either you get the picture or you don’t; there’s no snowy middle ground as is the case with analog signals. As a result, the benefit of cable has transformed into the delivery of more content choices, such as movie channels and on-demand programming. It makes sense for cable companies to strike back at local stations that want licensing fees; if this end run helps cable companies remain competitive with services from satellites and now the phone companies, it sounds like a good strategy.

It Joost Gets Better!

I’m fortunate to be one of the beta testers for the new Joost IPTV service. This is the system that was originally known as “the Venice Project“, created by the original inventors of the Skype Internet phone service. Joost keeps growing and getting more polished. The number of channels has been expanded, and includes a variety of programming. Much of it is admittedly aimed at a somewhat younger (and apparently hipper) audience than me, but I find a lot to enjoy among the short films, sports, and nature programming, among others.

For most of the content, the resolution is impressively high. And the “quality of service” is excellent; I have not encountered the distracting and disruptive skips, pauses, and buffer overuns that are a common part of many online video sources, even with low resolution streams. Joost appears to be using advertisements to fund the project, and the little interruptions are tolerable. Content is divided into various channels and is available on demand; if you don’t like the progam that you’re watching, just skip ahead to the next one.

If Joost is the future of free video programming on the Internet, then I think that the future is bright.

RP HDTV Post January Gains

In a press release, the display market research firm Pacific Media Associates (I work for this company) reported that in January rear projection HDTV unit sales increased 1.5% over December’s sales figures. That may not seem like much, but compare it with the 20% drop in sales of flat panel HDTVs: LCD and plasma. Texas Instruments’ DLP technology remained dominant, expanding its share of the rear projection market to 70%.

What happened? Online retailers offered LG models at deep discounts, which helped boost the sales figures. Close outs of some 55″ to 59″ 720p models caused prices for that segment to plummet nearly 40%. Still, it was the 60″ to 69″ 1080p segment that was the most popular, with almost 21% of the market.

It’s too early to tell, but there may be other forces at work. As the market for HDTVs expands, it’s likely that the new buyers may be more price sensitive than the early adopters have been. And I also suspect that we’re on the cusp of people starting to buy their second HDTV. And realizing that the first one they bought was too small for their viewing distance, they are now opting for larger screens. Both of these factors favor the choice of rear projection models.

Rear projection HDTV remains a small fraction of the total market compared with plasma and LCD, but the January figures show that there is still life in the segment, and it may be poised to grow even further.

Philips Bails on Plasma HDTV

A couple of weeks ago, the CEO of Philips Consumer Electronics stated that the company is phasing out its plasma HDTV products worldwide except for North America and Australia, and will just focus on LCD TVs. It is worth noting that Philips also was a player in the LCoS rear projection market for long time before abandoning that technology completely.

It is worth noting that Philips thinks that it can still be a viable competitor in the United States with plasma. This market is seen as supporting larger screen sizes that the rest of the world, as witnessed by the 63″ 63PFP7422D that Philips showed at CES in January.

The fact is that plasma panels are getting squeezed badly in the market. LCD HDTVs haved rapid gained a price advantage in sizes below 50″, and are showing signs of competing in the 50″ to 55″ size range. Meanwhile, rear projection models have enormous price advantages, especially at sizes 60″ and above. This does not leave much room for plasma. In addition, LCD and rear projection HDTVs are quickly moving to make the 1080p “Full HD” resolution standard. It is difficult and expensive for plasma to match this resolution, which only makes the competitive situation worse.

Matsushita — through its Panasonic brand — remains bullish on the potential for plasma, but they are the market leader in plasma. It remains to be seen just how long the other brands will be willing to hang in with the technology. Time may be running out for plasma.

Down with Wires!

A couple of weeks ago, Motorola announced the purchase of Amimon, Inc., a company that has created a wireless high-definition interface that it calls “WHDI“. Now, Motorola is big in wireless connectivity, but we think of it as a cell phone company. Why is it getting involved in HD?

The fact is that wireless connectivity offers a huge boost in the ease of use and lowers the cost of installation for home entertainment systems. Wire may be cheap, but labor is expensive. By the time you snake cables through walls, under floors, and over ceilings, you can burn through a lot of costly installation time (whether it’s a professional’s time or your own). Just as wireless home theater surround speaker systems simplify the cabling for sound, solutions like WHDI make installing video easier. The system has been demonstrated with uncompressed 1080i signals, making it an attractive alternative to a rats nest of wires.

A Computer for Your HDTV

One of the problems with an HDTV is that you can’t record high definition programming with most digital video recorders (DVRs). There are a few models on the market, but most are tied to cable or satellite service. If you want a DVR for over-the-air broadcast HDTV, one of your best bets at this point is to set up a computer running Windows Media Center Edition. This can be an affordable solution, especially if you use the same box for access to Internet radio and your library of music that can then be shared across a home network.

But now there’s a new problem; most computers are plug ugly. That’s why Intel organized the “Intel Core Processor Challenge“, which offers a $1 million prize for alternatives to the traditional “big beige box”.

The Decomatic 12b from Slipperyskip Computers

One of the seven finalist designs is the “Decomatic 12b” from Jeffrey Stephenson of Slipperyskip Computers. This clever art deco design is attractive and interesting. It’s designed to run silently, and packs all the power you’d want in a home media computer. The sad part is that it’s a one-off design, but maybe if it wins Intel’s prize, some smart computer company will license the design. (Or maybe they’ll choose one other of Jeffrey’s creative and clever designs. I’ve known Jeffrey and his work for years, and it’s great that he’s made it to the finals of this contest.)

You can vote for the “People’s Choice” award among the seven finalists at the Intel contest Web site (and those who vote apparently are eligible for a weekly drawing that awards a $100 gift certificate): So go check out the designs and see if you don’t agree with me that the Decomatic is the coolest of the crop. Someday, maybe all computers will be as attractive as this.

Plasma HDTV Stays Aggressive

Three years ago, the average 42″ high-definition plasma television sold for more than $5,000. Today, you can buy five of them and have money left over. Earlier this month, VIZIO announced a 42″ plasma HDTV that sells at an everyday price of $999.99. That’s a price point that we’ve seen in loss-leader promotions and close-outs, but this is dramatic for a regular price. The VP42HDTV is sold through Costco, and is rated at a 10,000:1 contrast ratio. It has a pair of HDMI connectors, as well as two sets of component video inputs.

Pricing continues to be agressive in the 40″ to 50″ size range, even though LCDs appear to have won the upper hand. VIZIO’s pricing shows that there is still life in plasma at this size, however, and the LCD models will likely have to match it to maintain market share. (VIZIO does have an L42HDTV LCD model that is priced just $100 higher at $1,099.99.) The winner in all this is clearly the consumer, as products like VIZIO’s exert a downward pressure on prices for the whole HDTV market.

Feds Help with DTV Transition

In February 2009, transmission of analog television broadcasts will stop. By some accounts, this will mainly affect the 78 or so million TVs in US households that receive over-the-air (OTA) signals. The NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) has been charged with implementing the rebate program that will help pay for digital tuner conversion boxes that will be needed to view digital broadcasts on existing analog sets.

In the initial round, consumers can claim up to two coupons worth $40 each starting in January 2008. If the initial round uses up the $990 million allocated to the program, an additional $510 million will become available. The first round will be available to anyone with an analog-only television. The second round will be just for those consumers who self-certify that they do not subscribe to cable or satellite service. The funds represent a portion of the proceeds that the federal government received from selling the use of many of the analog television broadcast frequencies.

Some experts indicate that the conversion boxes may cost between $50 and $60, but many sources that I’ve consulted indicate that $50 is probably the high end for 2008 prices. Some even indicated that they wouldn’t be surprised to see prices closer to $25. It’s not clear how the coupon program will work if prices fall to that level; will the government pay consumers to get a conversion box? And all televisions and other devices with TV tuners sold in this country after March 31 must have a digital tuner, so it’s quite possible that the 78 million household number will be considerably smaller by the time the 2009 shut-off occurs.

Pocket Projectors Get Brighter

Could your next cell phone be an HDTV? It’s possible, given the advances in light sources for small projectors. As demonstrated at CES by a number of companies, the lighting packages are getting small enough to include in a typical “smart phone” housing. Earlier this month, Osram Opto Semiconductors announced a new six-LED package that could be used to create brighter and more colorful tiny projectors. The solid state white light source is rated at 50,000 hours of use, so there will be no need to replace it during the lifetime of the product. By comparison, typical projector lamps are rated at 2,000 to 3,000 hours of use. The new Osram module is brighter than a 50 watt halogen lamp. The company plans to have the module in full production by this summer.

Tiny and efficient light sources such as this can transform the display industry. Instead of lugging around a projector, it can be built right into your PDA, phone, or laptop. These are getting bright enough to project a page-sized image under normal lighting conditions, or a wall-filling picture with the lights out. This will make a video viewing experience available any time and any place, much as we now enjoy listening to music wherever and whenever we’d like. I expect that new technologies such as Osram’s LEDs will lead to new display applications that we have not yet imagined.

New Pioneer 1080p Plasma HDTV

Pioneer has announced a new 50″ plasma HDTV monitor intended for professional markets. The PDP-5000EX appears to be the pro version of the PRO-FHD1 consumer model that came out last fall. According to a Pioneer press release, the panel uses a deep waffle rib structure that increases the amount of phosphor available for a brighter image and less light leakage to adjacent pixels. The set includes HDMI, DVI, component, and composite inputs. It also accepts 1080p 24 Hz signals and shows them at 72 Hz, which eliminates the need for 3:2 pulldown conversion used by other displays.

Pioneer says that the display will be available “this spring” but did not announce a price. The consumer model has been selling for about $6,500.

There’s certainly a market for high-end products such as this, but the premimum price is going to limit the number of people who will choose it over the lower-priced plasma, LCD, and rear projection offerings. The cost is high because it is difficult to make small pixels using plasma technology, and according to Pioneer, the pixels on this panel are half the size of the previous generation. This is why you will find true 1080p plasma panels — with a full 1920 by 1080 pixel count — both rare and expensive for the near future, at any size. Direct view LCD and rear projection displays are going to offer a better value for 1080p resolution for now.