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The Steadier State of the Flat-Panel TV

LAS VEGAS --The single most obvious, eye-catching device at this CES, as at every other one I've covered, is the flat-panel television. At first, flatness alone was enough to draw people's attention. Then manufacturers competed to see who could make the biggest flat-panel display (the record still belongs to the 150-inch plasma Panasonic showed last year),

But prices have plunged over the past few years, while the basic technology behind these sets looks pretty much nailed down. So manufacturers are having to turn to other areas to set their sets apart, to judge from the exhibits of four mainstream flat-panel vendors -- LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sharp.

ces_tvs.jpg

One of the most striking changes this year is an emphasis on energy efficiency and lower environmental impacts. All four companies, along with many others, touted efforts to cut the power consumption of their LCDs and plasmas -- a goal often illustrated with a booth display of a future set hooked up to a power meter, showing its use in watts. They also promoted their efforts to reduce the amount of toxic materials, such as mercury, needed to build the sets.

LED (light-emitting diode) backlighting in LCD (liquid crystal display) sets seems to be a big part of that push. Instead of the fluorescent backlights normally used in LCDs, LEDs draw less electricity -- and last longer, provide a brighter image and allow manufacturers to construct a thinner set. Unfortunately, they've also been painfully expensive to incorporate into large screens. Manufacturers say that cost should drop, but LG and Samsung, each with a big chunk of their exhibit devoted to LED-backlit sets, wouldn't provide estimates for what those models would cost when they go on sale later this year.

Many upcoming flat-panel sets will also connect to Web content, as I noted yesterday. But you'll still have the problem of being limited to sources selected by a vendor. For example, Panasonic sets and Blu-ray players can play Amazon Video on Demand movies, but Samsung's (at least for now) can't.

Then there are future flat-panel features that look less practical. Take super-flat sets that are only an inch and change thick, versus three or four inches: In houses with the LCD or plasma on a stand and not hanging on the wall, this doesn't strike me as a meaningful upgrade. Or consider 240 Hz technology, which aims to cut screen blurring on LCDs even more than the 120 Hz feature on many new sets (in which the set generates and inserts an additional frame of video between each existing frame); in demos at LG and Samsung's booths, it yielded only minor improvements compared to how much better a 120 Hz picture can look than a standard 60 Hz picture.

Then there's 3D technology, which a lot of manufacturers seem to think will grab consumers' attention as much as HDTV did at its debut. But not only will this technology be enormously expensive and suffer from a severe lack of 3D content, the industry also has to settle on a single standard among the four or five proposals out there (by a Panasonic executive's count). Good luck with that -- remember, this is the industry that brought us VHS vs. Beta, HD DVD vs. Blu-ray, Super Audio Compact Disc vs. DVD-Audio, Memory Stick vs. SD Card vs. xD-PictureCard, and so many other format wars.

Speaking of standards, LCD and plasma's dominance of the overall TV business appears stronger than ever. I don't think I've seen a single "microdisplay" rear-projection set on the floor, much less a CRT. And the ultra-thin OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology that debuted in a $2,500 Sony set at least year's CES doesn't seem to have made it into any more shipping products.

In other words, if you've been worried that buying a flat-panel set now would mean missing out on some exciting new feature, you can probably relax and go ahead with the purchase. Prices will probably keep declining and performance should keep improving, but -- with the possible exception of LED backlighting -- it doesn't look like this part of the business is in for any big changes over the next couple of years.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 9, 2009; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  CES 2009 , TV , Video  
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Comments

I have 1 20" CRT TV in an unused bedroom, 1 13" TV connected to a DVD player in our second bedroom, and 1 20" CRT monitor on my computer. These screens don't seem like they're going to die any time soon. I think a lot of people are like me in that there's just no need for a new TV b/c of more advanced technology. What's old works great. And it's the green thing to keep using your old gear until it dies (unless of course my CRTs used megawatts of electricity, which they don't).

Posted by: digraph0152 | January 9, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

re: 3D, no way I'm gonna get sucked into that one. BetaMax gal here...burned once but not twice.

Posted by: tbva | January 9, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I agree with digraph0152. I'm still driving my 19-year-old Honda Accord to keep it out of the landfill (as well as to save more on taxes / insurance than I'd make up for with gas savings on a new car - not to mention the purchase price).

And I was amazed yesterday evening to see how much better the DVD I'd just burned looked on my '90s-era CRT TV in the "exercise room" than it did on the 42" widescreen plasma in the "TV room". Our sole Windows machine still has a CRT monitor, as does the first-generation iMac, though due to space constraints in the family room (20 inch deep by 46 inch wide cubbyhole for two computers), I just sprung for an LCD monitor to go with our newest computer, a Mac mini.

Posted by: Chalres | January 9, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I also was among those who thought there was no reason to get rid of "perfectly good" CRT TVs and PC monitors. But I'm now very happy to have shed all of them in favor of LCDs. Viewing movies and HDTV in 16:9, having a bigger screen for computing, reclaiming desk space, and lowering energy costs are all part of the joy. I've convinced several like-minded friends to make the switch and all have thanked me profusely at the day, week, and month milestones. When I go into someone's home or office and see a big old clunky CRT screens it makes me really wonder about them, especially now that prices have dropped.

Posted by: jfw9 | January 10, 2009 3:32 AM | Report abuse

I was in a Walmart the other day and was surprised to see not a single CRT tv. Not sure if all were HD or not, but gone are the days of finding a 19" TV for $150 or less. But now I have to wonder what is happening to all those perfectly good CRTs. I suppose a bunch are ending up in landfills. Probably having so many lighter flat TV's is good for the home burglary industry.

Posted by: rjma1 | January 10, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

At least for some of us there is no such thing as a perfectly good crt. On the other hand my 22 inch wide screen lcd monitor does fine for HDTV as well as my computer. Should I ever have enough bandwidth to get high quality video over the web, it should do well for that too. 60 Hz works fine for me as well. I can't imaging why anyone would pay for 120 Hz TV or blu-ray. Most of those people lived for years with VHS.

Posted by: dnjake | January 10, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

rjma1

You can find CRTs on craigslist. I bought a JVC PnP 27in for $25 a month ago in the DC area.
Now, PNP is useless for OTA, but would work with cable

Posted by: edlharris | January 10, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Display-wise, we 'got done' for the forseeable future last year with our Panasonic 700-series 58-inch 1080 model.
It's a very high quality image, and should remain that way (one hopes) for quite a few years.
Our good 27-inch regular tv my mother now enjoys; it has a digital tuner, so she is set for the changeover.
But old is good. Apart from the Blu-Ray player, I also still have my VHS and Betamax hooked to the Panny TV.

Posted by: BaronEmpain | January 10, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

whoa whoa whoa, wait. BaronEmpain, you STILL have a Betamax? Really? Why?

Posted by: captainparadox | January 10, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

My 34" Sony Wega CRT has darker blacks, wider dynamic range, a far larger color gamut than any plasma, LED, LCD, DLP, or what have you. And it's a 16x9. Give me a 34" OLCD and I might consider switching, but LED, LCD and plasma aren't tempting in the least against my trusty, technically superior CRT. It's 3 feet deep, and 309 pounds, but hanging my TV on the wall was never really a big desire.

Posted by: faldencomm | January 10, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

I just bought a new 46 inch Samsung and love it! I was able to find a great deal on it using this site:

http://www.zingsale.com

It's a free service that tracks prices of products from online stores (like amazon) and sends you an email when the price drops. I also used it over holidays to save on a new GPS for the car

Posted by: chris250480 | January 10, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

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