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CES 2008 Whirlwind Tour

My visit to the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year was limited to a day’s whirlwind tour of the Main and South convention halls, which I squeezed in after spending a few days talking to editors and demonstrating Axiom’s Audiobyte computer speakers and EPZero subwoofer in an entirely pleasant suite at the Mirage Hotel. I hope that my CES impressions, while brief, are still useful and at least suggest trends that will show up this year on retailer shelves and web sites.

Perhaps the biggest news was Warner Bros. (and New Line Cinema’s) abandoning support for Toshiba’s HD-DVD and getting in line to back rival HD disc format Blu-ray along with Disney, Sony, Lion’s Gate Entertainment, and 20th Century Fox. While the format battle has been personally dispiriting to me, especially in view of Toshiba’s terrific energy a decade ago in developing and establishing DVD as the worldwide standard, I suppose it was inevitable that the Hollywood studios would migrate to the format with the greatest studio support.

Kevin Tsujhira, president of Warner Bros.’ Home Entertainment division, didn’t mince words in his statement: “A two-format landscape has led to consumer confusion and indifference toward high definition, which has kept the technology from reaching mass adoption. . .” Translation? Sales of both formats have been tepid compared to standard DVD sales, so one format has to disappear quickly if companies are to capitalize on potential hi-def movie disc revenues.

Bigger Displays

As in previous shows, mammoth LCD and plasma screens appeared, with Panasonic’s 150-inch plasma display topping out as the largest. But once you got past sheer size, contrast and blacker blacks were the buzzwords, with demos in darkened rooms showing blacks like those seen in outer space. This is all to the good, but let’s not forget that such contrast is really only impressive in pitch-dark rooms. Pioneer’s demo of its Kuro line of plasma displays in which the new prototype Kuro with super blacks emerged out of the dark (the set was invisible in the room because its blacks were so black) was striking.

Plasma screens from Panasonic still excelled, especially at extreme viewing angles to the sides, whereas LCD displays, while much improved in terms of wider viewing angles, still have so-so contrast and tepid color when viewed from the side. On the other hand, if you are sitting more or less in front of the display, who cares? (I’m just here to point out the differences!)

Overall, variations in image quality from the best manufacturers are becoming so very small that if I were buying a flat-panel display today, it would be difficult choosing among Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Pioneer and Sharp, except perhaps by price. I’d still likely opt for a plasma over an LCD, because plasma panels simply look better from any angle, but I wouldn’t be unhappy with the best plasmas or LCDs from any of the aforementioned brands.

Thinner and Thinner

Thin was in (isn’t it always?), and Sharp, Sony and Samsung showed flat, ultra-thin displays less than 1 inch thick, some only a few millimeters in depth. Sony’s knockout OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) sets were back again this year, in an 11-inch diagonal screen and this year with a price attached: $2,500. Stunning image quality but in that screen size (11 inches diagonal) even conventional LCD hi-def images look ultra-sharp. Still, there are suggestions that OLED technology may become affordable and practical in larger screen sizes by 2012.

Last But Not Least, 3-D Video! 

It seems that each year the CES brings yet another demo of three-dimensional (3-D) video processing. In past years, such demos have been deeply flawed, with flickering images, clumsy uncomfortable glasses, and images that are dim and low contrast.

Guess what? This year, I viewed a Samsung demo of 3-D video that was remarkably good. True, you still had to don glasses, which weren’t as annoying as those in the past, but the 3-D effects were terrific and there was no flickering of the image or poor contrast. The source material was a game system, and I bet that Samsung’s new line of plasma panel displays that are 3-D compatible could become hugely popular with gamers. (The process won't work with LCD screens because the pixels don't turn on and off fast enough.) The accessory processor is modestly priced and of course you do have to get source material that’s been programmed to work with the system.


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