Monitor vs. TV: What’s in a Name?

I long for the old days, when things were simpler. Back when a computer monitor was a computer monitor, and a TV was a TV. It’s not that way anymore. Almost all TVs now have a way that lets you connect it to a laptop or desktop computer: either a VGA connector, or an HDMI connector that can hook up to a DVI port. But we still have computer monitors that don’t have TV tuners, so you can’t watch television programming on them (unless you stream it over the Internet or something like that).

Samsung now has 90 series and 30 series desktop computer monitors that include television tuners.

Well, not so fast. Samsung has announced their 30 series of “computer monitors” that are available now, and a new 90 series of monitors that will ship in September. The 24″ FX2490HD has an LED backlight, 1080p resolution, two HDMI connectors in addition to VGA and component video connectors, and a USB port that lets you play content stored on a thumb drive. And it includes tuners and a coax connection for cable or over-the-air signals. It even can do picture-in-picture.

Hey, I don’t know about you, but this waddles and quacks like a familiar waterfowl. I really don’t get why it’s not an HDTV. I do get that it’s a compact display, and if I were sending a kid off to college, this would be just the sort of space-saving convenience that I’d want to send along. But why this would do the job better than some other 24″ display that is called an HDTV escapes me at this point.

Netflix in Your Pocket

Last spring, I wrote about Netflix demo’ing its streaming service on a Windows Phone 7 operating system. Now comes word that Netflix is releasing free applications for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch that will let subscribers access streaming content on these portable devices.
Netflix streaming is now available through a free app on the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch.
The free apps can access the streaming service across either a WiFi or 3G data connection. You can even stop in the middle of a movie or TV episode, and then when you come back, it will pick up right where you left off. This works even if you restart on another device, such as your home computer. You can download the free apps from the Apple iTunes store.

This announcement is particularly interesting in the light of recent news reports that Apple is negotiating to rent TV episodes for $.99 each. The all-you-can-eat Netflix service is available to any subscriber with an $8.99 monthly subscription or higher, so the break-even point is just 10 shows a month, no matter whether you watch on your phone, media player, computer, notebook, video game console, or Internet-connected TV or Blu-ray player. Netflix is expanding its footprint across the entertainment landscape, and Apple’s pay-as-you-go model may be a difficult sell.

No-Glasses 3DTV This Year?

There’s been a buzz caused by a news item from the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. According to the story, Toshiba has plans to release 3DTV models later this year that will not require the special glasses used with other 3D displays such as those from Panasonic or Samsung. Here’s the key section from the story:

Toshiba has developed an integral imaging system that emits rays of light at different angles, allowing viewers’ brains to recreate 3-D images without special glasses. The new technology also will enable viewers to enjoy 3-D content from numerous viewing positions, and the images will not strain the eyes, the sources said.

Before you join the excited throngs, note the “numerous viewing positions” phrase. While the article is not specific, this sounds exactly like a typical lenticular lens arrangement that has been used in computer monitors and other displays to create auto-stereoscopic (no glasses) 3D images for years. In fact, it’s exactly the same concept behind those “flicker” baseball cards that I knew about half a century ago; as you turn the card, you see a different image. A flat panel display using this approach will let you see one image with the left eye and a different image with the right eye. But there’s one huge catch; you have to be seated in a specific location in order to see the two images in the correct eyes.

Early displays of this type only had only one “sweet spot”. I think it was about five years ago that Philips demonstrated a large flat panel that had nine viewing points, but as far as I know, they have never made it into a commercial product. (It was expensive at the time, and they figured that it would be used for digital signage, not home entertainment.)

So the key point here is that you will have to sit in specific locations around the room in order to see the 3D effect. I know that people say that they don’t like the idea of having to wear “goofy glasses” just to watch TV, and to spend all the money required to have enough glasses on hand when company comes over. But I believe that forcing people to sit in specific locations in the room is going to be even less popular.

And there’s an economic reason why I don’t think this will work. With existing 3DTV sets, they don’t cost much more than equivalent sets without 3D support. And that difference is going to rapidly fall to near-zero. By putting the extra cost in the glasses, they can keep the price of the sets competitive with 2D sets. If you increase the production costs of the TV significantly however — and I expect that the cost for these Toshiba sets will be considerably higher — people will balk at paying extra. And as the cost of the glasses falls, which it will, the auto-stereoscopic approach is going to be too expensive by comparison.

This story is a case of old wine in new bottles, and I don’t see how it can be successful for Toshiba.

Get Connected at Your Outlet

According to a press release from Western Digital, research by Parks Associates indicates that 42% of the consumers unwilling to connect their TVs to the Internet felt that either the router connection is too far away, or that it would be too complicated to set up, or both. WiFi does help solve the connection problem, but unless you get an 802.11n system, you’ll be limited to a theoretical 54 Mb per second which may not be fast enough for some applications including high definition video. Running network wires to your television can also be an expensive hassle. But there is a third option.

The Western Digital LiveWire device lets you use your home's electrical wiring to create network connections.

The Livewire Powerline AV Network Kit from Western Digital is designed to solve this problem. It uses new HomePlug AV technology that provides up to 200 Mbps throughput simply by plugging the devices into electrical power outlets in your home. One device connects to your router and gets plugged into an outlet, and then you just plug the other device into an outlet near your television and make the network connection. You can even connect four separate network devices — such as a game console or Blu-ray disc player — to the remote device.

With more than 37 million Internet-capable devices expected in U.S. homes by the end of this year, according to Parks Associates, more consumers will be looking for an easy and reliable way to make the connection to their high-speed broadband service. HomePlug AV compatible devices like the Livewire kit could be just what many of them need. They still are not as fast as a gigabit Ethernet connection, but they should be fast enough for most applications.

Survey: Most Have Seen 3D Movies

TWICE commissioned a survey about consumer opinion about 3DTV, and the results have some interesting highlights. A good place to start is the fact that about 78% of the respondents have seen at least one 3D movie in a cinema. This is interesting because nearly the identical 78% have never seen a 3DTV.

Now, nearly the same 78% of those who had seen a 3D movie were positive about the experience, but only 54% had positive comments about the 3DTV viewing experience. Only 54% of the total said that they would consider buying a 3DTV, but most of them figured it would be more than a year before they’d buy one. The three most common reasons for not getting a 3DTV were the need to buy additional items (41%), the cost (36%), and the lack of content (24%).

TWICE published the results under the headline “Consumers Know 3D But Need More Convincing”. My take on the results is a bit different; the consumers appear to be well-informed, and they are waiting for the prices to come down and the amount of available content to go up. I wouldn’t call that a need for convincing as much as this is the sign of a patient attitude. Aside from the early adopters, the value proposition just isn’t strong enough yet for the average consumer. I expect that we’re right on track for broader acceptance of 3DTV in late 2012 and into 2013.

Gefen Levels the Audio Field

I know I’m not the only one who gets peeved about this; you’re watching a show, then a commercial comes on and blasts you out of your seat with a high volume setting. It’s not just broadcast video; I’ve also noticed this (with dismay) on streaming sites such as Hulu. I’ve written about this problem before, including a mention of a product from SRS Labs that uses the company’s technology that is also built into many current HDTV models.

Now comes the announcement of another device, this time from Gefen.

The Volume Stabilizer by Gefen uses Dolby technology to smooth out the volume of video programs.

The box can accept and output either analog stereo or digital (TOSLINK or S/PDIF) audio signals. It relies on Dolby Volume leveling technology, which can also enhance the low and high range levels in order to create a more natural-sounding experience, no matter how loud or quiet you have the volume set. And it has a simple bypass button on the front so that you can turn off the effect if you want. The Gefen product is a little pricey at $179 direct, but it has sophisticated modeling technology inside that may well outperform the feature that is built into your TV set (if it has volume leveling).

Broadcom Helps HDTV Lose Wait

Did you ever notice that with technology, it often seems to be two steps forward but one step back? Before digital TV, our analog tuners could change channels at the speed of a thumb-press. (This was even true in the early days of the remote controls. My grandmother had a Zenith Space Command, and when my uncle’s black lab came in the room and shook its dog tags, the jangling sound would cause the channels to change wildly!) Now we’ve advanced to HDTV and lots of fancy features, but not everything is an improvement.

For example, what happens when you want to channel surf and you press the Channel Up button? Probably nothing, at least for about a second. I sometimes will press the button three or four times in rapid succession, in hopes that I’ve got the count right to get to the desired channel. It’s a small price to pay for the other benefits, but it’s still annoying.

That’s why Broadcom has developed “FastRTV“, which provides nearly instantaneous channel switching for cable system set-top boxes and other devices. And the great thing about it is that the cable company doesn’t have to do anything different to the digital signal that it is already sending out. The company claims that the switching speed is up to five times faster, but judge for yourself; scroll down on this page to find a video demonstration of the technology.

Now, Broadcom is a company that makes chips that go into the set-top boxes and other devices that the cable companies buy for their customers, so you can’t just go on Amazon and buy a FastRTV device for your system. But it might not hurt to ask your cable company if they offer boxes with this feature. Comcast apparently is deploying boxes with the FastRTV feature, and others are likely to follow suit.

So it may take a little time, but eventually technology takes another two steps forward to put you ahead of where you were. And one more little annoyance is eliminated.

R.I.P. SED — Canon Kills Flat Screen Technology

It was 2008 when I last wrote about Canon’s SED technology, after they won a lawsuit over a technology license agreement and their decision to abandon efforts to make a consumer product and focus instead on a high-end monitor for commercial video production facilities.

According to a report in Network World this week, Canon has finally thrown in the towel and pulled the plug on the project. After 15 years of work, the company apparently has conceded that they to market. And so dies one more branch of the technology tree that hopes to bring us thin, energy-efficient, emissive, high-resolution flat panel color displays.

SED stands for “surface-condition electron-emitter display” (though some shortened that to just “surface emitter display”). It is a close relative of the field-emitter display (FED) technology. Canon came up with a way to create a microscopic gap between two conductors, then bridge it with a material that would emit light when the gap produced electrons. I remember seeing the first public prototype demonstration in Boston at a Society for Information Display conference around 1997, and it created an instant buzz. The fun fact about it was that Canon engineers used a standard BubbleJet printhead on an X-Y positioning system in order to deposit the tiny amounts of material required at each junction.

A few years ago, Canon started showing pre-production prototypes in television sizes at CES and other events. The image quality was stunning, and since it was an emissive technology like plasma, there were no viewing angle issues. And the panel didn’t produce any light when the power to a pixel was turned off, so the blacks were incredibly rich and deep.

Sadly, Canon could not produce a competitively priced product, even at the professional level. They might have had a chance back when an HDTV cost $5,000 to $10,000, but there’s just no market for something in that price range when the competition is around one-tenth that price. The rapid and steady fall of plasma and LCD prices — about 20% a year for the past few years — has made it all but impossible for new technologies to ramp up to the production scale required to compete on price.

OLED is still hanging on, thanks to its success in the mobile display market including cell phones and MP3 players, but I still think we’re years away from a 32″ OLED HDTV, and years beyond that before they become competitive with LCD pricing. FED is also still hanging around, as researchers explore how carbon nanotubes (CNT) may form an emitter layer that is inexpensive and reliable. But don’t hold your breath.

It’s not enough to have a better technology at this point. It also has to be cost-competitive and ramp up almost overnight to production at the level of millions of units per year, all while maintaining sufficient yield results that you can still scrape off a little profit from the money that flows through the operation. Expect your flat panel choices to be limited to LCD and plasma for the time being.

Weekend in 3D

Rather than spend it at Bernie’s, how about spending the weekend of September 10 through 12 at your local electronics store? The Consumer Electronics Association (hosts of the mammoth CES show in Las Vegas every January) and ESPN are joining forces to create “National 3D Demo Days“. ESPN will provide continuous 3D programming for those three days from 10 AM to 11 PM Eastern.

The content will include live college football, recorded coverage from this summer’s FIFA World Cup soccer tournament (the other “football”), and footage of the Harlem Globetrotters, and highlights from X Games 16. The CEA has posted a list of participating retailers here:

The fact remains that we don’t yet have that much 3D content available, but this is a good effort to help consumers learn more about the technology and find out what they need to get so that they can take advantage of the 3D coverage at home. I also suspect that this is part of a concerted effort to get subscription television services including cable and telco to allocate resources to the distribution of 3D content and channels as they become available.

We’ve got a chicken and egg problem here, and it looks as though both sides are working together to bootstrap the process. I still think that unless you’re an early adopter, you’re best off waiting until late 2012. By that point, 3D capability should not add much of a premium — if any — to the cost of a new television, and the supply of 3D content should be much greater by then. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go join the fun the second weekend in September.

LCD Makers in Court: Piling On

Many of the major LCD panel manufacturers have already pleaded guilty to price fixing charges in U.S. federal courts — paying close to $1 billion in fines — and now the states are lining up to get a piece of the action in the form of defending their citizens who were ripped off by the price fixing. New York and Florida were first to step up to take their swings at the plate, and now Illinois and Washington have stepped into the batter’s box. These suits go after the big players — including Samsung, LG, and Sharp — as well as other LCD manufacturers. The states are seeking damages for overcharging, penalties, and fees from the defendant companies.

The part that amazes me in the story is that this is one cartel that must have been particularly inept in their efforts to fix prices. Apparently in spite of their efforts, prices for flat panel HDTVs have fallen about 20% a year for the past few years — in spite of improved technology and new features — and we still have experienced situations of serious oversupply that has helped drive prices down. If they were keeping prices artificially high — which they apparently have admitted doing — then my mind boggles at how much lower the prices might be by now.