Alfred Poor on Video about HDTV

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of discussing HDTV and related topics with David Gewirtz of ZDNet, which he captured on video. We covered a wide range of topics, including OLED HDTVs, 3DTV, screen sizes, Smart TVs, and “direct LED” TVs. The video runs almost a full hour and was made during a Skype video call. (David has invested a lot of time and effort to develop a pretty sophisticated “Skype Studio” for recording interviews like this, and he gets some impressive results.)

So here’s the video if you want to hear more about my latest thoughts about buying HDTVs. If you or someone you know are thinking about getting a new set, you’ll probably find some helpful information here.

If you have any questions, you can email me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com or send a Twitter message to @AlfredPoor.

A Sound Idea

Futuresource Consulting has just released a free analysis report that highlights their observations about consumer electronics products and trends at CES 2012. One of the points that they made in their announcement press release caught my attention:

Ever-thinner TV displays boosted interest in speakers, soundbars and home theatre systems.

I confess that I’ve been a bit puzzled over the fascination with thin when it comes to HDTVs. I understand that it’s cool, and that it generally results in a set that weighs less, but those don’t strike me as compelling features. When you think about it, the thickness of the display is one of the few features that you can’t discern when you’re actually using the product. From straight on, a 4 mm-thick OLED display looks the same depth as a “bulky” rear-projection display.

Now the Futuresource report points out another drawback for thin TVs. I grant that the sound system quality for most flat panels rivals that of the dashboard speaker in my 64 Mustang, but making the drivers ever thinner can’t help matters any. I remember Pioneer engineers showing me all sorts of clever designs they had to get better sound out of a flat panel HDTV, but is it really worth the effort? In many cases, a $25 desktop computer speaker set with a subwoofer will outperform the sound quality of the flat panel. If I thought it would save them some money, I’d recommend that manufacturers just drop the charade and sell their thinnest TVs without speakers at all. (Howver, I suspect that they’re not spending enough on the sound components to make much difference.)

So while you’re dreaming of a razor thin HDTV for your living room, remember to budget a little for a separate sound system; there are some bargains in compact home theater surround sound packages. You don’t listen to the movie soundtrack through an AM radio at the local cinema, and you should not have to do the same at home, either.

XPAND 3D to Tame Chaos

XPAND 3D is leading the charge to bring some sense to the active-glasses stereoscopic 3DTV market. Yesterday, the company joined with Panasonic to announce the M-3DI standard for 3DTVs, computers, and home projectors, as well as digital cinemas that rely on active shutter glasses technology. This new standard provides a communication protocol for the signals between the display and the glasses. This means that one pair of glasses will work with all frame-sequential stereioscopic displays that conform to M-3DI.

This broad standard eliminates the need to get different glasses for every different manufacturer. As a result, third-party glasses makers should be able to focus on M-3DI compatible models, which could drive down costs by increasing manufacturing volumes.

The new standard has been endorsed by a long list of major players in addition to XPAND 3D and Panasonic: Changhong Electric Co., Ltd., FUNAI Electric Co., Ltd., H isense Electric Co., Ltd., Hitachi Consumer Electronics Co., Ltd., Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, Seiko Epson Corporation, SIM2 Multimedia S.p.A., and ViewSonic Corporation. There are some big names missing from this list, but these should have enough clout to make this new standard stick. We may see the others sign on before long.

Mitsubishi Abandons LCD HDTVs

When you’ve got an also-ran share of an enormous market and there are no signs that you can make a substantial dent in the leaders’ share, what can you do? Mitsubishi has decided that if you can’t beat them, quit. In a press release last week, the company announced that it was leaving the LCD HDTV business. Instead, it will focus on its DLP rear projection HDTVs as well as front projectors and business display products. According to the release from Senior VP Cayce Blanchard, Mitsubishi will manufacture and sell microdisplay rear projection HDTVs in sizes 73″ and larger. (The company showed a 92″ model at CES 2011 in January.)

This is a daring maneuver, but I’m not sure what other choices the company has. Sales of rear projection HDTVs have dropped to the point of invisibility on most sales charts. At a time when consumers are dazzled by wafer-thin flat panels, the bulky rear projection models just don’t hold the same appeal no matter what advantages they may have. It remains true that rear projection remains an incredible bargain; Amazon has a 73″ Mitsubishi set for just $1,200 which is only 60% of Amazon’s lowest price for a much smaller 65″ plasma HDTV. Consumers want flat, however, and that’s where their money goes. Consumers are slowly realizing that their first HDTV was too small for the viewing distance, so there’s hope that Mitsubishi’s big screens will come into favor in time.

In the meantime, the company is “evaluating its dealer network,” according to its release. I suspect that this will mean greater focus on retail outlets where the price advantages can be highlighted, but that remains to be seen.

CEA Offers Individual Memberships

The Consumer Electronics Association hosts a little event in Las Vegas every January called the “Consumer Electronics Show,” better known by its initials: CES. The original intent was to hold a trade show for electronics dealers, such as home stereos and televisions. Then the corporate side of the computer market got boring and Comdex went away, so the slack was picked up by CES and it became the biggest personal computer show in this country as well. And now it includes car electronics and mobile phones and digital cameras. If it has digital chips and is intended for consumer markets, chances are that it’s represented at CES.

The problem is that the CEA exists for the dealers and the manufacturers. It’s not really for the consumers (who figure so prominently in the organization’s name). If you are part of an eligible company, it is still an expensive proposition to join the organization. At least that was the case until now.

Last week, the CEA announced a new “Tech Enthusiast” membership. For $29 a year (discounted from $49), you can now get an individual membership. The organization is setting up a special website for these members where you’ll find news on the latest trends, discounts and give-aways, and more. You can find out more at www.CEAtechenthusiast.com for more information; enter the promotional code “CES2012” to get the discounted rate.

What does this mean for the CEA and the CES? In the short term, it’s probably a good move, but I’m not so sure about the long term. I went to Comdex (once; nobody ever said I had to go again). I also went to PC Expo in New York City many times; it was one of the top trade shows in the personal computer market for many years. PC Expo declined rather rapidly from its peak. The show floor got incredibly crowded. The show organizers seemed more interested in collecting admission fees than screening for the dealers who were the intended audience. As a result, an increasing portion of the crowd was made up of individual consumers, not dealers and corporate buyers. The aisles were clogged with people who were not prospects for large sales. This held little appeal for the exhibitors, and many of them moved to private display spaces in area hotels so that they could meet with their key prospects. As major exhibitors abandoned the show floor, the crowds thinned and other exhibitors dropped out, and the return on the investment shrank. And before long, the show blew away like dust over the Hudson River.

If the CEA encourages more consumers to attend CES (which is plenty crowded already), what implications will this have for the exhibitors who are trying to fill their order books? I have already seen more and more major brands move off-site, often into spaces that are not part of the official CES which means a loss of revenue for the CEA.

I can see how this new membership category will likely create new revenue for the CEA, I wonder if the gains might not be offset by decreased revenues from exhibitors who flee the exhibit halls and set up their own parallel event. I don’t expect CES to disappear any time soon — there isn’t any real alternative available in this country — but it will be worth watching to see the exhibitors’ reaction if the crowds increase.

Japanese Disaster Has Worldwide Impact on CE

Words fail. Disaster, devastation, catastrophe; nothing seems adequate to describe the situation in northern Japan. The triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami, and electrical power plant failures has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives and untold billions in damages. No doubt, it will be weeks or months or even years before the magnitude of the losses can be tallied.

But already the consumer electronics industry is marking the impact of the events, which may have far-reaching impacts on all companies involved. For example, Sony reportedly has six manufacturing plants in the stricken area, all of which have been shut down. Factories in the region make everything from lasers used in Blu-ray players to Flash memory chips. Production will be disrupted, which in turn will have an effect on products farther down the supply chain. Component shortages could easily lead to higher prices for the finished products, even for companies that were not directly affected by the disaster. And if Japan’s electrical grid remains crippled for an extended period of time, the disruption of the supply chains could be lengthy and significant.

It’s too soon to tell where the greatest impact will be felt, but you may not want to wait until next fall if you’re thinking about buying electronics products. If you see a deal on a consumer electronics product that you want at a price that is right for you, know that we no longer can be certain that prices will continue to fall as they have in recent years.

CES 2011: 3D Glasses Improve Rapidly

“Those goofy glasses.” It’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks for 3DTV with many consumers, and I can’t blame them. Many of the active shutter glasses look like something out of a 50s science fiction B movie. And the passive glasses that you get in the movie theaters make Buddy Holly and Elvis Costello’s eyewear look stylish.

But CES 2011 is full of new ideas for glasses. (No, the show doesn’t open until today, but after two days of press events, I’ve seen a lot of new approaches.) On the shutter glass front, it’s clear that some manufacturers still don’t get it. Sony offers a range of sizes and colors, but they all look like they could double as snorkeling goggles. In contrast, XPAND has improved its line of “universal” shutter glasses that work with all 3DTVs and projectors on the market today. The newest XPAND YOUNIVERSAL models are programmable, so that you can tune them to your individual preferences, such as changing the settings for “dark time” and “transition time”. You can make adjustments for viewing distance, your age, and other factors. And they come in different sizes and with different nose pieces to accomodate different facial features.

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of new shutter glasses was by Samsung, which showed a sleek, stylish model that weighs only one ounce.

On the passive glasses side, Marchon 3D announced a new patent for curved lenses, which gets away from that flat-lens bug-eyed look that you get with the typical cinema glasses. They have various models starting at $35 a pair, but also have designer lines including some by Calvin Klein. They even offer photochromatic lenses that get darker in the sunlight, so that you can use the same 3D glasses as your sunglasses. And you will even be able to get them with prescription lenses so you’ll only have to wear one pair when watching 3D.

I believe that all these improvements are slowly going to wear away at the average consumer’s resistance. Price and appearance are improving rapidly, and that’s after only selling about a million sets in this country in 2010. As the numbers climb — and they will climb — the competition to sell the glasses will result in more improvements and even lower costs.

CES 2011: 3Takes on 3DTV

CES 2011 Day -1: No, the show doesn’t open until tomorrow, but I arrived in Las Vegas yesterday because it starts two days early for the press. So I had a bunch of events to deal with yesterday. There are a lot of interesting themes emerging already, but I was particularly interested by three different views on 3DTVs that I encountered at last night’s events.

First, I got my first look at the new Vizio 65″ LCD 3DTV that uses passive glasses instead of active ones. I have not yet spoken with the folks from Vizio, but the set looked very good to me. I think that with its low price, it stands to be a real game changer. It uses a panel from LG Electronics, so I expect that we’ll see a similar set from them before long.

I also came across a new DLP rear-projection 3DTV from Mitsubishi. It was hard to miss; it has a 92″ diagonal screen. That’s the equivalent of four 46″ sets tiled together. It’s really big. It relies on active glasses, and the image looked good.

Then I went to a Toshiba press event, and discovered that they intend to sell three different types of 3DTVs: active glasses, passive glasses, and no glasses. I know that people are anxious to get a no-glasses solution (see my Monday comments), so I’ll focus on that. The company had two autostereoscopic screens on display at the event. The Toshiba representatives were very clear that these were simply engineering prototypes and that they did not have any information about when they might become commercial products. One was a notebook computer with a head-tracking feature so that you could see 3D without having to keep your head in one spot. As I’ve been saying, this is fine for a single-viewer application, but won’t play in the living room. The other was an LCD HDTV that only had three “sweet spots”, and all three were close together directly in front of the screen. The resolution looked great, because the screen had 4K resolution (about twice a regular 1080p set) to make up for the resolution lost to the autostereoscopic feature. It looked okay, but you really had to be in just the right spot or else the 3D effect would not work correctly.

From all this, my take-away so far is that 3DTV continues to be an important topic, that passive glasses solutions are likely to gain market share rapidly, and that we’re no closer to a multi-viewer autostereoscopic solution.

Tomorrow, I’ll have some highlights from the Press Day press conferences, and on Friday, I’ll report on the first day of the actual show. Stay tuned….

XPAND 3D Glasses on Amazon

The XPAND Universal X103 3D glasses are now available for pre-order from Amazon.

XPAND has announced that its new Universal X103 3D glasses are available for pre-order on Amazon. Priced at $129, they cost less than some of the glasses available from the 3DTV manufacturers, but are designed to work with “any 3D-ready display, regardless of brand” according to the company. (I do not have every brand of 3DTV available to me here, so I have not had the opportunity to test the accuracy of this claim.)

Note that these only work with 3DTVs that require active glasses. This means that the left and right images are presented one after the other, and the glasses are used to block the image from reaching one eye or the other in sync with the display. The advantage of this approach is that you get full resolution images; sets that use the passive polarized glasses that you use at the local cinema only deliver half the resolution because each image is split between the left and right eye. At the present, it costs much more to manufacture a passive-glasses 3DTV, and as far as I know, there are not yet any on the market in this country. Some companies — such as Vizio — have demonstrated products using this approach. I do expect sets requiring passive glasses to show up before the end of the year, however.

Unless the passive-glasses 3D sets can lower their production costs significantly, however, I expect that you’ll be able to buy an active-glasses set and a family-pack of active glasses for less money. And the XPAND glasses can help ease the minds of consumers, keeping them from getting locked into one specific brand for their 3DTV purchases.

I still think it’s too early to buy a 3DTV — wait another year or two for the content to catch up — but if you really want to get one this holiday season, be sure to consider the XPAND glasses as a way to save some money and hedge your bet on the 3DTV brand.

‘Tis the Season

Ho, ho, ho, the holiday buying season is upon us. On Tuesday, I received what I think was my very first holiday sales pitch for consumer electronics. Judge for yourself; here’s the heading graphic:

Is October 5th too early to start holiday sales? It's apparently not too early for CompUSA.

CompUSA is a division of Tiger Direct, and the company has a reputation for aggressive marketing and attractive prices. (This particular email had a 55″ RCA 240 Hz LCD HDTV from RCA for $999.99, and a Magnavox Blu-Ray player (refurb) for $69.99.) Still, invoking Santa in the first week of October seems a bit extreme to me. But I could be wrong; after all, there were only 81 days left until Christmas, after all. Of course, that’s only slightly less time than the whole summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Maybe stores should start running Back to School specials at the start of June.

I get it. It’s been hard to separate consumers from their money these days. Maybe starting a holiday sales theme now will scare some buyers into jumping at a deal. Not me; I view this as a harbinger of tough times ahead for consumer electronics retailers. I’m going to sit tight, because I think the best deals are yet to come.