The (Near) Future of Flatscreens


Dual-view screens, 3D capabilities, absolute blacks and even lasers and are just a few of the technologies coming soon to a flatscreen near you.

Feb. 20, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Think what you want about shopping for a TV, but one thing you can’t say anymore is that they’re all the same. In fact, today’s TVs bear little resemblance to the me-too tube TVs many of us grew up with. More and more they’re being designed to be part of the décor rather than just a box destined for the family room. Flat keeps getting flatter while cabinets are retooled to minimize the amount of space a TV takes up.

But the design overhaul isn’t just about the physical aspects of the TV. New speaker designs, display technologies and features are reshaping the way we’ll look at TV for a long time to come. The custom electronics world calls it the “wife acceptance factor”—the need for electronics to have a design-friendly approach for them to get through the front door. There’s no question that women’s design preferences have had an impact on the look of TVs today including the trend toward thinner bezels, touches of color in the cabinets and rounder, softer edges. But while the designer look may have originated from the woman’s point of view, it has quickly been adopted by members of both sexes and has set the tone for future generations of thinner, highly styled TVs.

Philips CEO Andrea Ragnetti underscored the importance of design in today’s electronics at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Noting that products have generally reached a high standard of performance, he says design is the next challenge for electronics makers. “In a world where technology is pretty much 100 percent effective all the time,” Ragnetti said, “design comes to the forefront. What used to be a CE device is today more a signature piece of furniture that helps define you and your personal style.”

Philips has introduced to the United States the Aurea line of TVs first launched in Europe last year. Moving away from the “masculine technology box” and toward a more feminine approach is part of an overall philosophy toward integration with the home environment, according to Ragnetti. “Consumers have shared with us their desire for products with a simpler and softer, more sophisticated design that blends the masculine and feminine and makes a sophisticated statement about their lifestyle aspirations.”

The new look debuts in Philips’ 7000 series TVs that will hit stores between April and May. Suggested retail prices range from $1,699 for a 42-inch LCD model to $2,799 for a 52-inch model. The rounded, black edge of the 7000 series frames are wrapped inside an acrylic frame.

LG touts the marrying of technology and art. Allan Jason, vice president of marketing, said that it’s been a surprise how important design has become. “You want the panel to look as good [turned] off as it does on,” Jason said at LG’s CES press conference where the company launched new designs based on thinner frames. Included in the lineup are a 1.7-inch-thick set and a bedroom TV with subtle red accents that packs a side-mounting DVD player.

LG’s 1.7-inch Super Slim LGX 42-inch LCD boasts a two-toned look with red back and black front bezel. Features include LG’s TruMotion 120Hz screen refresh technology, 24p input, four HDMI inputs and a USB 2.0 jack for direct access to JPEGs and MP3 files. To achieve the thin frame, LG engineers positioned speaker actuators around the perimeter of the bezel, which replaced traditional speaker drives and grilles. LG says in addition to providing a sleeker look, the new design creates a wider sweet spot with a virtual wall of sound.

Red, it seems, is the accent color of the year, as Samsung, too, has introduced a subtle red accent to its Touch of Color concept. In a world of me-too piano black frames, companies are looking for a way to stand out, yet remain unobtrusive. “By using a new manufacturing process, we’ve been able to actually infuse color directly into the bezel to provide a seamless appearance,” says Dan Schinasi, senior manager of product planning for HDTV at Samsung.  “We feel this advanced design will set the television apart amidst a sea of black flat panels, while still blending seamlessly with consumers’ home décor.”

Such decisions aren’t made lightly, Schinasi notes. Designers selected red for the accent through a lengthy process that included taking cues from the fashion, automotive and even credit card sectors—along with consumer feedback—to select the most visually appealing color. “After testing over 100 colors, red emerged as one of the top choices in the U.S.,” he said.

That’s for now, at least. How long will red be “in” in the fickle world of fashion? That could emerge as an issue for design-sensitive buyers who don’t want to purchase a color that fixes them to a particular point on the fashion timeline.

Hitachi joined the thin campaign at CES, taking the wraps off its series 1.5 LCD monitors (32-, 37- and 42-inch displays) that measure an inch and a half deep. The TVs employ a passive cooling design and a redesigned power supply that help achieve the 1.5-inch spec that’s one-third the depth of conventional flat panels. To achieve the svelte look, engineers also had to remove the tuner from the equation, meaning consumers will have to rely on the tuner from a DVR, cable box or satellite receiver to receive TV signals.

Part of the lure of the thinner panels is a lighter weight design and the ability for consumers to mount the TVs closer to the wall. The thinnest panel of all belongs to Sony, which officially introduced the XEL-1, the 11-inch OLED TV the company has been previewing over the past year. Measuring just 0.11-inch deep, the $2,500 XEL-1 costs more than some 50-inch plasma TVs.

For your $227 per diagonal inch, you get a display with a contrast ratio of more than 1,000,000:1, exceptional color, a new level of detail, a super wide viewing angle and high brightness. “You can position OLED anywhere and have a great picture,” says Randy Waynick, Sony senior VP of home products. “You can put one next to a window and still have a bright image and they’re so light you can hang them like a picture on a hook.” Adding to OLED’s appeal is its low energy consumption.

OLED produces a gorgeous image, but with 11 inches the most Sony could summon in a first-gen product, how realistic is OLED as a home theater-size TV?

That’s a question others in the industry are batting around. Sharp president Mike Troetti told journalists at CES that the company is studying OLED but believes that the product lifespan of OLED is limited to three or four years and is difficult to mass-produce. Waynick counters that, although a lot of work needs to be done to bring production yields up, Sony has years of development under its corporate belt. “We see the adoption rate faster than others,” he said. “We’re not going to completely transition from LCD to OLED, but in five years we believe OLED will be a much more dominant product.”

Samsung showed a 31-inch prototype OLED TV in its booth at CES but didn’t give a timetable for production. According to Schinasi, that product won’t be viable this year or next. “Viable means affordable,” Schinasi says, “and if we have one that costs $31,000 that’s not viable.” Still, Samsung is investing heavily in the technology for its form factor and energy efficiency. “OLED is a thrifty display.”

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi introduced its long-awaited Laser TV, which, as the name implies, uses lasers as the light source for a flat-panel TV. Mitsubishi says lasers produce the truest color possible and better depth of field than other TV technologies. Mitsubishi showed a 50-inch model with 3D capability that could turn your living room into a mini IMAX theater (don’t forget the glasses). Look for the Laser late this year just in time for Christmas.

With all the talk of future TV types, Pioneer won’t let us forget the plasma—with good reason. The company gave CES attendees a peek into the future of plasma at CES with prototypes of products developed as part of the Kuro project. One, a 50-inch super thin plasma panel that measures 0.35-inch thick and weighs 41 pounds, would offer a more appealing solution for wall mounting over current flat TVs that require heavy bracing and bulky mounts. The ultimate, said Russ Johnston, executive VP of marketing and product planning, would be “a TV with no bezel at all.” He also envisions a TV so thin it will “appear to float on the wall.”

Contrast has been a Pioneer bragging right all along, and the company’s extreme contrast TV claims to be the first plasma that is absolute black with no measurable light emitting from the screen. With no idle luminance, as Pioneer calls it, blacks are completely black, enabling colors to be deeper. The super high contrast, which Pioneer says is beyond measurement, results in truer, more accurate colors.

Neither Kuro product will see a retail floor in 2008, but you can expect them to carry a premium when they do arrive. Pioneer’s philosophy behind the Kuro line is to deliver a high-quality, high-margin line that sells above commoditized flat-screen TVs.

Gamers continue to get TV engineers’ attention as a desirable demographic unto their own. Last year Sharp was the first company to introduce a TV aimed at gamers and at this year’s CES Samsung and Toshiba followed suit. Toshiba has added a gaming mode to its full line of Regza LCD TVs, which allows users to bypass video processing circuitry and thus avoid delay that can occur when playing games. The TVs feature side-mounted input for easy connection of consoles.

Toshiba, joining Mitsubishi, Syntax-Brillian and JVC, showed thin bezel designs measuring from 1.5 to 2.13 inches, and Sharp expanded its D64 series of thin-bezel TVs with 32- and 37-inch models. Sharp says the new cabinets are 25 percent slimmer than previous models allowing for more screen size in less space with weight reduction benefits as well by as much as a fifth over previous TVs. JVC’s 42- and 46-inch thin-bezel models measure 2.9 inches at the center and 1.5 inches thick over the rest of the panel. JVC says its LCDs are thinnest of any TVs with built-in tuners.

Thin may be in but size still counts, too. Panasonic showed a prototype of a 150-inch plasma TV—billed as the world’s largest—at CES with no release dates or pricing. The company’s 103-inch plasma still rings in at $70,000, though, so you do the math.

Dual-View DLP TVs from Samsung and Mitsubishi were spotlighted at the Texas Instruments booth. Dual-View technology enables two gamers to enjoy full-screen, high-def games simultaneously on the same screen for a cool twist on head-to-head gaming. Although all 3-D ready DLP HDTVs are capable of DualView it will be awhile before you see it in a store near you. The TI demo used two game players merged into one, and Schinasi of Samsung says a Dual-View-compatible game player would have to be developed to make the concept viable. “It’s phenomenal technology but more of a future statement,” Schinasi says.

The whole approach to TV is going through a revolution. HP’s new MediaSmart Receiver turns any HDTV into a Media Center Extender. That means you can bring in photos, music, movies and videos stored on PCs around the home into the family room TV. The MediaSmart Receiver works with Microsoft XP and Vista PCs and includes wired and wireless (802.11a, b, g and draft n) network connectivity. HP hasn’t officially tagged a price but the $300 figure is a good bet when the product ships this spring.

Sony has taken the modular approach in its Bravia line, allowing consumers to pick their own features from add-on modules that snap to the back of the set. Modules are available for Internet connectivity, HDMI expansion and wireless HD transmission. The latter enables you to store equipment away from the TV. “This way, when you bring in your 52-inch Bravia,” says Waynick, you don’t have to detract from the look with racks or an entertainment center.” Another module is a compact DVD player that fits unobtrusively on the back of the TV—with side access to the slot. When modules are connected, their functions are automatically imported into the menu system of the TV.

No question about it. These aren’t your father’s TVs.

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