OLED HDTV Update: LG 15″ This Fall

Now please don’t get excited. There is little news in today’s entry except to confirm what I’ve been saying all along; OLED HDTVs remain off in the future. And the Sony OLED TV that is already on the market does not count because it is not HD, though its astronomical price alone would probably disqualify it.

So over the weekend news broke that LG announced plans to start shipping an OLED HDTV in November. Let’s look deeper. If it’s the same display as it demonstrated at CES last January (and there’s no reason to expect it to be different), it will have a Wide XGA resolution: 1366 by 768 pixels. That is enough pixels to show a 720p HD image, so it qualifies as an HDTV. However, keep in mind that this size display has an optimal viewing distance of just two feet. If you want to get one of these for your bedroom, you’ll want to mount it on your belly when you’re lying down, or else it will be too far away to see the detail. It’s a personal screen at best.

Another detail of the LG announcement is that these sets will be offered only in the Korean market starting in November, and there are no announced plans for other countries at this time. Don’t hold your breath for these to appear in the U.S., because the production volume will no doubt be very low initially just as is the case with the Sony product.

And finally, no mention has been made about the price, but I expect it to also be along the same lines as the Sony product. On a square inch basis, I’d expect these to cost something like 20 to 80 times more than a 42″ 1080p LCD HDTV. In other words, you’re going to really have to want one in order to pay the premium price.

There is no news about “full size” OLED TVs from LG: 30″ or larger. Company representatives are saying that there are no plans to bring them to market at this point, and I will be surprised to see anything this size before 2011 or 2012. OLED HDTVs do look wonderful, but they remain expensive to build and there are many material and production problems that remain to be solved. All the while, LCD production costs continue to fall, making it harder and harder for new technology to compete on a cost basis. OLED HDTVs are going to have a very difficult time coming to market.

UPDATE 9/3/09: LG has posted specifications for their 15″ OLED HDTV on their Web site. This confirms that the TV will have Wide XGA resolution: 1366 by 768 pixels. The same page also shows a product roadmap that includes larger than 30″ OLED HDTVs, starting sometime in 2011. Given the history of production of large OLED displays, I will not be surprised if that target date slips even further into the future.

Musical Chairs: The DTV Converter Market

Remember playing “musical chairs” when you were a kid? The adults would make sure that there was one less chair available than kids, and then set you marching around in a circle until the music stopped, and then the kid who didn’t get a seat was eliminated? And the process repeated until one final victor was crowned? Little did we realize that we were getting metaphorical training for capitalistic enterprise.

In the market for digital TV converter boxes, the music stopped soon after June 12, when the full power stations ended their analog broadcasts. But instead of just pulling away one chair, pretty much all the chairs got folded up and moved back to the storeroom. Which would have been fine except that there were still thousands of converter boxes still out on the dance floor.

So what happens when you have lots of players and it’s much harder to find a seat? The players lower their sights, and will do just about anything to recover something from their investment. An interesting article in TV Technology piqued my curiosity, so I decided to go looking into what sort of deals the procrastinators might find.

As the TV Technology story indicated, there are hundreds of converter boxes offered for sale on eBay. As I write this, there are still the hopeful profiteers who think they’re going to get $60 or more for their converters, but for every one of these, there are a dozen sellers looking to get $10 or less and that includes shipping. I decided to check out Craig’s List to see what local markets are like, and where the sellers are offering a firm price (no auction involved). In the Philadelphia listings, there are plenty of converter boxes being offered for $10, and in some cases, that includes a used analog TV as well!

Clearly, the folks who got a second $40 rebate coupon from the government, thinking that they would be able to resell their extra converted box for a profit, have missed their opportunity (if it ever existed at all). The bottom line is that it probably will not be worth your time to try to sell a converter box at this point, since the market is so flooded with inventory. If you have an extra converter box that you don’t need, my advice is to make a few calls to local elderly residential facilities or social service agencies, and see if you can donate it to a needy recipient. We can always use a little extra good kharma.

World’s Biggest HDTV Gets Punted

Beware of chasing after superlatives. Those seeking to create “The World’s Whatever-est Thingie” sooner or later learn a lesson about hubris. Sooner or later, someone else will end up making a Thingie that is more Whatever than yours, and your creation will be relegated to the ash heap of other Thingies that are less Whatever. But on some occasions, the lesson takes another form, and often is the result of failure. The Spruce Goose, the giant seaplane built by Howard Hughes that never flew is one example. And now the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League have given us another example.

The new giant display in Cowboys Stadium has an altitude problem.

The new Cowboys Stadium boasts a 600 ton display hanging over the center of the field, spanning the distance from about one 20 yard line to the other. The LED side displays show full color 1080p video, with 48-foot wide displays at each end for the less fortunate fans in the end zones. And this whole contraption is hung 90 feet above the field. (Apparently, the NFL rules require that all overhead obstructions be hung at least 85 feet above the ground, but apparently the league wasn’t contemplating some stadium designer hanging a cruise ship over midfield.

So what happened last week in the new stadium’s first pre-season NFL game? The punter from the Tennessee Titans bounced a kick off the giant display. And the best that the referrees could come up with was to run the play again.

According to some sources, the average hang time for an NFL punt is 4.6 seconds. Calculating just on the basis of gravitational acceleration (the ball spends as much time going up as coming down), then this yields an average height of about 85 feet. And this is the average hang time, folks. A six-second hang time is not out of the question, which would yield a height of nearly 97 feet. This is a calculation well within the reach of any high school physics student, so it’s a little startling that the Cowboys apparently did not do the math.

The NFL is going to review the situation, but for now, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is adamant that he will not raise the display. Jerry has never been one to shy away from chasing superlatives.

Is That a Hard Drive in Your HDTV?

Okay, now I’m really puzzled. I had (well, I still have) a Panasonic DVR that we loved to use. It made recording programs off-the-air so much easier to use than the old VHS recorder it replaced. But with the end of analog broadcasts, it’s now just a somewhat complicated DVD player. And aside from TiVo, I’m not aware of anyone who is offering a DVR with digital tuners. The reason that I’ve been given is that there just isn’t any demand for DVRs any more.

That makes sense. Most people have cable or satellite service, and almost all of these provide DVR functions either in the set top box or back in the cable company’s servers. This can be a bundled or extra cost feature, but it is readily available. And even if you don’t have it, full episodes of many of the popular shows are available online, either through the network’s Web site or a service such as Hulu. So people just don’t see the need for a separate DVR these days. I get it.

The new 'Real BHR' Mitsubishi LCD HDTVs have both a hard drive and a Blu-ray recorder.

The reason that I’m puzzled is that Mitsubishi and Hitachi seem to think that people want DVRs after all. Both companies have announced new lines of HDTVs that contain built-in hard disk drives to provide digital video recording funtions. The Mitsubishi “Real BHR” LCD sets come in 32″ and 37″ sizes, the LCD-32BHR300 and LCD-37BHR300. They feature a 320 GB hard disk drive, as well as a Blu-ray recorder. Hitachi is offering its P-XP035 series of plasma HDTVs in sizes from 42″ to 50″, with a 500 GB hard drive for DVR functions.

Now, both of these announcements are for sets that will only be available for the Japanese market at this point, so maybe there’s a difference about that segment that I don’t understand. But I’m curious if they will eventually be rolled out for sale over here.

3D HDTV Is Unstoppable

I don’t know exactly how it will happen, or even whether or not I think it’s a good idea, but brace yourself; 3D television is coming to a living room near you. Just as the local cinema created demand for the color television and stereo sound (and later, surround sound) that are now standard features for home entertainment, the rousing success of 3D feature films is going to drive content producers to make a similar experience available for consumers in their own homes.

As with just about any technology advance, hardware is out in front of the software at this initial stage. Remember how we had USB ports on computers for years before we could do anything practical with them (or that the operating systems actually supported them)? The fact is that millions of rear projection HDTVs sold in this country over the past five years or so are entirely capable of displaying 3D images. The lack of a standard way to deliver the content has meant that there has been too little available to get most people interested. But that’s all about to change.

Expect to hear a lot more about 3D HDTV in the coming months. Last month, the UK’s satellite service Sky announced that it will start broadcasting a channel dedicated to 3D content next year. Panasonic made a worldwide splash last week by announcing a marketing tie-in with James Cameron’s AVATAR, the new Twentieth Century Fox feature film scheduled to debut in December in both 3D and 2D versions. Panasonic plans to use this partnership to launch consumer education projects that promote the company’s new 3D-capable products. Panasonic already has plasma HDTVs that can display 3D images, and the company will be announcing 3D-enabled Blu-ray players. According to one source, as many as 100 3D HD Blu-ray titles will be available when the players launch.

This marketing push does put the promotional cart a bit in front of the technology horse, in that standards have not yet been ratified for how 3D content should be delivered on Blu-ray (or other distribution means, for that matter). This may well be one of those cases where the Golden Rule applies; he who has the gold (by being first to market with the strongest product) gets to make the rules. If Panasonic can grab an early lead and make it stick, it could help the company keep its plasma HDTV business going.

But whether or not Panasonic turns out to be the engine that drives 3D into your living room, it will get there one way or another. The 3D movies have been such a success for local cinemas that Hollywood has made major investments in producing future titles in 3D. And they’re going to want to recover as much of that additional investment as they can, and getting a few extra bucks per title as 3D Blu-ray discs is one likely way that they can increase their revenues.

UPDATE 8/26/09: I have been invited to speak to the Philadelphia Area Computer Society (PACS) about 3D HDTV on Saturday, December 19, 2009, from noon to 1 PM. If you’re in the Philadelphia area and would like to attend, more information is available at http://pacsnet.org/meetings.php.

Blockbuster: Closing Shop?

In an investor phone call last week, Blockbuster CEO James Keyes pointed to unmanned kiosks as the possible future for the company’s movie rental business. He stated that plans call for 500 kiosks to be in place by the end of August, and more than 2,500 up and running by the end of this year. Ultimately, there could be 10,000 kiosks in operation by the middle of 2010. At the same time, the company may accelerate the closing of its storefront operations. Of the 7,100 stores now operating in the U.S. and other countries, about 300 are targeted to close this year.

Part of what is driving this shift is the success of the RedBox kiosk operations. With DVD rentals of just $1 each, the company is rapidly grabbing market share in the movie rental business, and almost entirely at the expense of Blockbuster’s share. Last quarter, Blockbuster earnings fell 22% while Netflix rose 20%. Redbox revenues soared 110% for the same period. Blockbuster is also saddled with $350 million in debt that comes due by the end of 2010.

Blockbuster is exploring the use of recordable media — such as SD memory cards — for use with their kiosks. This would eliminate the need for physical DVD discs and would simply inventory problems, but I don’t expect this to be a significant factor any time soon. Even if Blockbuster can get Hollywood to sign on for such a service (and that’s a big “if” given the studio caution about streaming movies online), most consumers don’t yet have devices that can play back movies stored on an SD card.

Blockbuster is clearly not going to go gentle into that good night, but it’s very likely that we’re witnessing a major shift in the movie rental business, and I don’t think that it’s going to turn out well for Blockbuster.

Video in Your Magazine

And now for something completely different. When subscribers to “Entertainment Weekly” open up their copies of the September 18 issue (if they live in New York or Los Angeles), they will find an ad from CBS promoting the network’s new lineup for Monday nights this fall. That’s no so amazing, until you find that you will actually be able to watch clips from the shows in the ad.

Yes, there will be a small LCD panel embedded right into the magazine page. It won’t be high-definition — it’s just 320 by 240 pixels, or quarter VGA — but you can expect that to improve over time if this is a hit. The panel is made by a company named Americhip, and you can see a demonstration of how the panel can work in this video:

The page includes controls so that you can choose among five different clips. The Entertainment Weekly ad reportedly will have about 40 minutes of video. The panel is less than 3 mm thick, and can be recharged by connecting the page to a USB port.

This is an interesting novelty at this point, and is probably a pretty expensive stunt for CBS, but it’s received a lot of buzz already and so I expect you’ll be seeing more video in magazines in the future.

DIY Mount with Extra Features

I have a woodworking shop, I do odd jobs and repairs around the house, and I’m a bit of a packrat. As a result, I’ve got all sorts of tools and gadgets and spare parts down there somewhere. So when it comes time to install a typical wall mount for a flat panel HDTV, I’ve got the stud finders and levels and other tools I need to get the job done. But if you’re putting up one and you don’t plan on doing it again any time soon, it seems a bit of a waste to go and buy all these tools for a one time use. If you’re one of my neighbors, drop on by and I’ll loan you what you need. (Offer me a cold beverage, and I might just strap on my tool belt and come install it for you!) But if that’s not an option, consider the Level Mount from Elexa.

The Level Mount comes with a built in level and as well as an electronic stud finder.

Now, I haven’t tested it, but it looks like a fairly typical wall mount. It is rated for up to 200 pounds, so it should hold just about anything up to a 50″ HDTV. It fits the VESA 75, 100, 200, 400, 600, and 800 mounting pattern standards, so it should fit just about any flat panel that accepts a wall mount. It doesn’t tilt, however, but when you consider the fact that Buy.com is selling it for $39.99 including shipping you might be willing to do without a tilt feature. And the value gets even better when you find that it comes with its own bubble level built in, as well as an electronic stud finder (batteries included), bundled for free with the mount.

Looks like I’ll have to get my own cold beverages, I guess.

Truth Patrol: “The Portable Pocket HDTV”

HDTV Truth Patrol

Hammacher Schlemmer is known for its unusual and hard-to-find products, but this latest item would make be think twice before relying on the company’s accuracy in describing technology products. The description of their Portable Pocket HDTV is very straightforward in what it says:

This portable LCD TV is mistakenly described as 'HDTV'.

This is the pocket-sized, portable color HDTV that receives high-definition digital broadcasts.

That’s pretty clear cut, I’d say. But wait, read the very next lines in the description:

The portable unit displays content using 480 x 272 resolution on its 4 1/4″ display for crisp images and sharp motion devoid of streaking or blurring. It provides a 16:9 screen mode for true HD aspect ratio; its generous 60ยบ viewing angle allows adjacent viewers to watch programs easily.

Huh? I’m sorry, but 480 by 272 pixels is not high definition. Folks, this is not even enough resolution for standard or enhanced definition images. The fact that the display has a widescreen format, and that the set has a digital tuner so that it can get over the air digital broadcasts are certainly nice features, but there’s no way that this is a high definition display.

I’m not too worried about it becoming an overnight hit, however, with a 4.25″ diagonal display and only 1.5 hour battery life. At just under $200, I don’t expect to see these go flying off the shelves.

The bottom line here is be sure to read the specifications, and if they’re not published, make sure you get the details before you lay your money down. Don’t count on the catalog copy writer knowing what the heck he or she is writing about, and be a smart, cautious consumer.

You can win your very own Truth Patrol t-shirt if you send in an example of published misinformation — unintentional or otherwise — that might lead an HDTV buyer astray. Just send a link or a scan to alfred@hdtvprofessor.com?subject=”Truth Patrol”, and if your tip is published in the HDTV Almanac, you’ll receive a t-shirt of your very own.

DVD Archiving at Risk

I am not a lawyer, though it seems hard to be a consumer these days without the training. As I understand it, however, we have the right to make archival copies of the content that we buy (or license) such as computer software or music CDs or DVD movies. This protects our investment so that we can recover the content in the event that the original copy becomes permanently incapacitated.

But then there’s the DMCA: Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Among other things, it says that it’s illegal to try to figure out how content is copy protected. If you have a way to copy the protected content, it’s more or less proof that you have violated the law.

But the appeals court ruling handed down last week turns out to hinge on a much more straightforward legal principle: contracts. The case in question actually dates back to 2004, when negotiations between the DVD Content Control Authority (DVD CCA) and Kaleidescape broke down. Kaleidescape wanted to sell a box that would let you “rip” your DVD movies and store them on a hard drive that you could then access through your local network. The initial court decision in 2007 was in the company’s favor, but the DVD CCA appealed. The ruling last week stated that the lower court did not correctly interpret the terms of the contract between DVD CCA and Kaleidescape, and that the lower court now will have to reconsider the case.

As a result, Kaleidescape can still sell its products until the lower court decides whether or not it violated its DVD CCA license when it created its products. If the DVD CCA should prevail, however, it could have a profound impact on sales of DVDs and possibly Blu-ray discs as well. Why would you purchase something if you can’t make a backup to protect your purchse? A decision in favor of the DVD CCA is likely to just drive consumers to use other sources for their content, such as on-demand services on cable, satellite, and the Internet. Hollywood could be making life more difficult for themselves here.