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Miles of Aisles:
The 2005 Consumer Electronics Show

While curmudgeons may complain about the behemoth that the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has grown into�and it is exhausting for these old feet to plod around-- I have to admit that this year's just-concluded show had a dazzling array of electronics and home entertainment products on display. These included prototype High Definition DVD players (and recorders) as well as the world's largest HDTV plasma panel (102 inches diagonal-- 8.5 feet!), the latter courtesy of Samsung Electronics.

The Year of HDTV

Satellite digital radio tried to grab the headlines with all sorts of portable and miniaturized home satellite radio receivers from XM (and Sirius), but for me the 2005 CES was the year of HDTV and�wait for it�1080p (that's 1080 progressively scanned lines) HDTV displays. Those ranged from DLP rear projectors to 1080p plasma panels and LCD displays, all capable of 1080p resolution. By cramming more and more pixels onto a display and packing them closer together, greater detail is possible. If you have already purchased an HDTV set that will display the two existing High Definition formats�720p and 1080i�don't feel bad. Samsung worked with Texas Instruments (who invented the DLP chips that enable front and rear DLP projection) to develop a prototype rear-projection HD 1080p set that was set up beside an existing 1080i Samsung RPTV DLP set. What's the difference in terms of picture quality between 1080i and 1080p? Well, it's visible�a somewhat smoother and slightly more detailed image�but it's not dramatic.

No Bruises

Turf War: HD-DVD and Blu-ray

Remember those two names, because they have the potential to become the VHS and Beta and of high-definition DVD. Let's hope that doesn't happen, and that the two opposing camps will combine the virtues of each format and settle on one universal standard world-wide. After all, it was the universal adoption of a single DVD (and CD) standard that propelled the spectacular growth and popularity of the DVD and CD formats. Alternatively, if some consensus isn't reached or an overwhelming group of Hollywood studios backs one format over the other, the commercial viability of a High-Def DVD could be put in jeopardy. Millions of consumers are not yet crying out for an upgraded DVD format, and when confronted with two incompatible HD disc formats, may simply keep their hands in their pockets. For the record, here are the strengths and liabilities of each.

HD-DVD was developed by Toshiba and NEC. It was Toshiba that led the development of our existing DVD format, so that augers well for HD-DVD. HD-DVD also has the blessing of the DVD Forum, a 230-member group of entertainment and consumer electronics companies that established and oversees the current DVD standard. For companies making HD-DVDs, it has a huge advantage: it can be made on existing DVD pressing machinery with only slight modifications to the production lines. A single layer HD-DVD will have a capacity of 15 GB, enough for an HD movie with bonus content. (Current single-layer DVDs hold 4.7 GB). A double-layer HD-DVD holds 30 GB, enough for three HD movies on a single disc. These are read by a blue laser, but an HD-DVD player will have a combined red- and blue-laser optical pickup, so it will still play your existing DVDs. You won't be able to play an HD-DVD on your current DVD player, although there has been discussion of a dual-layer hybrid, with HD content on one layer and conventional Standard Definition video on the other. Warner Bros., who supported the development of the original DVD with Toshiba, has endorsed the HD-DVD format, as well as Paramount, Universal, and New Line, which includes HBO. Moreover, the next Windows operating system from Microsoft will back HD-DVD.


In the other side of the ring sits Blu-ray, and it has a much larger capacity than HD-DVD for HD images and other content. A single-layer Blu-ray disc holds 25 GB; a dual-layer disc, 50 GB, almost twice the capacity of HD-DVD. Moreover, Blu-ray is supported by Sony, and Sony Pictures, JVC, Panasonic, Pioneer, Hitachi, Dell, Samsung, TDK and Philips, as well as Hollywood heavyweights Disney, MGM and Columbia TriStar. But Blu-ray requires a big investment by manufacturers in entirely new pressing equipment, and costs more to make than HD-DVD. So cost factors will certainly influence the Hollywood studio execs, who always look at the bottom line. As to the prototype HD-DVD and Blu-ray demos, my initial reaction was that they were premature. While the image quality was good, it wasn't that good, and I could see various motion artifacts and other oddities that may have been related to the compression algorithms. I'm optimistic that any wrinkles will be ironed out in later-generation players but I was underwhelmed by the demos.


So don't kick yourself thinking that you should have waited longer before getting your new HDTV. At this time, there isn't any broadcast 1080p content available, so the new 1080p sets scale current HD material or Standard-resolution video content (DVD) and display it in 1080p resolution. Nice, but I must tell you that I'm still dazzled by my existing 1280 x 720p DLP rear-projection set. On well-produced High-Def shows or live HD sports broadcasts, I marvel at the detail, contrast and stunning color that a 1280 x 720p DLP set will deliver. I stare in wonder at nature documentaries, DiscoveryHD's �Sunrise Earth� -- even corny travel shows that showcase exotic locales. The latest HD show to grab my attention is �HD to the Max,� a weekly 90-minute showcase of IMAX films originally produced for the huge screens of IMAX theaters, and now impeccably transferred to HD video in stunning detail with a really creative mix of 5.1-channel surround sound.

But if you haven't yet taken the HD plunge, you'll be able to choose from either a new 1080p Samsung 56-inch DLP set, the HLR5688W, at about $5,000, or a 67-incher (HLR6768W) at $6,999, due out this Spring and Summer, as well as new 1080p DLP sets from LG Electronics (56-inch and 62-inch sizes) and Mitsubishi. LG also has a 71-inch HD 1080p LCD panel, the MW-71PY10, said to have a suggested retail of (gulp) $75,000. And Samsung is planning to introduce an 80-inch HD plasma panel later this year.

The Tour: DLP and Plasma

To give you a sense of the almost midway-like feel of the Las Vegas Convention Center's Great Hall, where most of the largest company exhibits are set up, I'll take you on a random stroll past some of the more noteworthy products.

On entering the Great Hall, the Texas Instrument (TI) DLP exhibit is always interesting, because it lets you check out a wide range of different brands of DLP rear-projection sets, all nicely calibrated and within a few feet of each other. Highlights of the TI exhibit were a new ultra-thin RCA Scenium Profiles 61-inch DLP rear-projection set (model HD61THW263) just 6.8 inches deep. RCA worked with InFocus to develop the light engine and ultra wide-angle internal lens that enables the RCA's amazingly shallow depth. The RCA's picture quality was excellent, with no visible picture distortion despite its thinness; whether consumers will actually try and wall-mount this set (it's designed for wall-mounting with an accessory bracket), I'm not sure. And though it's expensive (a bit under 10 grand), it nevertheless offers real competition to large and costly HD plasma panels. InFocus, which builds a range of DLP front projectors, has a 61-inch DLP rear-pro model almost identical to the RCA, the Screenplay 61MD10, also 6.8 inches deep and 135 pounds.

Toshiba's New DLPs

Toshiba showed an excellent-looking new 52-inch rear-projection DLP set, the 52HM94. It's gratifying to see Toshiba back in the rear-projection market after its setback trying to develop LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) technology, which it had to abandon because of production/supply problems with the LCoS chips. Historically, Toshiba, along with Sony, Mitsubishi, Hitachi and Panasonic, have been among the premier makers of excellent direct-view and rear-projection CRT sets, so it's great to see the company recover with a DLP HD set as impressive as any in the Texas Instrument exhibit. Right beside the Toshiba DLP was a new Panasonic DLP that looked equally good, and a Samsung DLP unit with the aforementioned 1080p display. I wasn't as knocked out by the rear-pro DLP sets from Optoma or Mitsubishi at the TI exhibit; while good, they didn't seem to have quite the contrast and brilliance of the others.

Just past the TI exhibit was Panasonic, with an enormous floor area in which they showed plasma and LCD panels, DLP and LCD rear-projection, and a new LCD front projector, the AE700, which will replace the very popular AE500. What is it about LCD front projectors that I still see a grid-like pixel structure, something I never see in a DLP rear-projector? Given the often less than ideal conditions of show demos of front projectors, I shouldn't make snap judgments, but the AE700 LCD front projector didn't do it for me.

On the other hand, what caught my eye at Panasonic was a wall of new Panasonic plasma panels in 42-inch and 50-inch diagonal screen sizes. Panasonic specs the life of these plasma panels at 60,000 hours (that's 32 years of TV-watching five hours a day, more than any sane person should indulge in). Panasonic also says they are immune to burn-in problems because of a new pixel-shifting technology that Panasonic developed. The picture quality of the PX50 and PX500 plasma panels was a knockout and retail is said to be $5,000 or less. Like most of the new HD sets, the Panasonics have built-in ATSC HD and NTSC tuners as well as being CableCARD ready, which permits HD reception from cable systems without the need for an outboard set-top HD box. I previously felt that Pioneer plasma panels were the pre-eminent HD plasma display (with very high prices), but Panasonic's new plasmas have taken the lead and at greatly reduced prices.

Sony's SXRD Technology

For video fans hungering for the long-awaited and much-delayed appearance of viable LCoS sets (Liquid Crystal on Silicon), and after several false starts by a number of major players, including chip-maker giant Intel, who also abandoned LCoS because of chip shortages, it seems that Sony's variant of LCoS may win the day. Sony calls its version SXRD (Silicon X-tal Reflective Display) and claims to have smaller pixels that yield a true 1920 x 1080 resolution, which is greater than any existing HD material. The two Sony 70-inch sets are the Qualia 006 and the Grand Wega KDS70XBR100. Both are expensive ($13,000 and $10,000 respectively) but critics so far have been impressed. Previous implementations of LCoS have not, in my judgment, lived up to the promise of the technology, which originally claimed to combine the best features of LCD and DLP. The Sony SXRD sets use three panels and a reflective technology (like DLP) as well as real-time monitoring of picture content with instantaneous adjustment and enhancement of black levels and contrast. I missed the Sony displays, but critics elsewhere will no doubt weigh in.

One final note on the video front: Full marks for ingenuity and execution go to Optoma for a tiny DLP front projector (Enhanced Definition, not HD) that combines a built-in top-loading DVD player and Dolby Digital decoder in a single package no bigger than a hardcover book that is slated to sell for $1500. It even has crummy little built-in speakers but an optical digital out lets you connect it to a Dolby Digital 5.1 channel surround system. While it's not HD, the projector keeps the DVD data entirely in the digital domain for processing (the latter includes enhancement of contrast) and throws a remarkably bright, contrasty and pleasing DVD image that rivals many true HD projectors. The demo was staged in a mock living room using only a white wall as a screen. To these jaded eyes, the image looked better than several other HD front projectors selling for many multiples of the Optoma's proposed price. In another theater, Optoma showed an HD DLP front projector that was startlingly good. The H79 will sell at about $9,000 but in this case, it's worth it. It threw the kind of HD image that reminded me of early demos of $30,000 3-chip DLP units a few years ago.

Speakers and Audio

The Alexis Park Hotel, a short bus ride away from the main convention center, is always packed with bizarre and exotically beautiful high-end stereo gear, some of which sounds very good, and some fairly awful. I did a quick tour and heard several disappointing and very expensive speakers (strident, sibilant and bright), as well as some impressive and wildly expensive ($9,000 and $22,000) models from other speaker companies. While both models were beautifully finished, as one might expect at those prices, I didn't hear music in any way more neutral or transparent than I hear from Axiom M80s, M60s, or M22s at a tiny fraction of the prices.

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