I Want My HDTV -- But Which Flavor?


The introduction of high-definition TV by a number of global broadcasters and the arrival of giant flat screens are transforming the TV world. With broadcasters showing selected programs in HDTV, consumers have begun to replace their old cumbersome, chunky boxes with a more esthetic LCDs (liquid-crystal display) or plasma TVs. Thanks to higher-definition formats, people can now see every detail, from the expression on the face of a Super Bowl player to the sweat trickling down a singer's face performing in hot weather.

"The bottom line is that, going forward, wide-screen TVs with full HD resolution will definitely be a market requirement rather than just a luxury," says Bruce Berkoff, chief marketing officer at LG.Philips LCD, the world's largest maker of LCD panels.

DIGITAL MIGRATION. TV-set producers are betting HD will boost TV replacement sales. The forthcoming holiday season will give many consumers a chance to hop on the HDTV bandwagon as prices plunge dramatically, thanks to expanding capacity and fierce competition among manufacturers of LCD and plasma screens.

Prices continue to fall as Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese companies battle to capture a big share of the global market that's switching from analog to digital format, allowing broadcasters to air programming in HDTV with its movie-quality picture and sound. Two large Korean LCD makers -- LG.Philips LCD and Samsung Electronics -- together plan to spend $45 billion in the next decade to pursue this digital migration. Average prices of smaller, 20-inch LCD TVs have already tumbled from more than $5,000 in 2000 to under $600 today.

Giant flat-panel LCD TVs could soon become more widely affordable too. Analysts and display-industry execs expect the price of a 42-inch LCD TV to fall to under $1,500 in the next three years, from $2,900 at the end of this year. The price of a 42-inch plasma set, which should hit $1,800 by yearend, is expected to slide to $1,150 by 2007.

SHARPER DIFFERENCES. But not all flat-panel TVs are created equal -- and the choices can be bewildering. Cheap plasma sets tend not to be capable of showing true HD video. In fact, the majority of plasma TVs around are so-called HDTV ready. That means they can receive digital HD signals but they can show only standard-definition images.

And each technology has advantages and disadvantages. The difference will become sharper next year as more content becomes available in full-HD resolution. Consumer-electronics companies will begin to roll out next-generation DVDs, and movie studios will release disks in HD formats. Korea, where consumers are crazy about anything digital, is among a handful of countries spearheading the shift to HDTV. Moon Ihlwan, BusinessWeek's Korean correspondent, looks at the main issues concerning HDTV:

What are the differences among HDTV-ready, HDTV, and full-HD TV?

HDTV-ready can be very misleading, as it sometimes means the set can accept an HD signal, but it doesn't mean the set shows all 2 megapixels of full-HD picture resolution. Some "HDTV ready" TVs may actually discard most of the full-HD resolution and display an image that has been downscaled to standard definition.

An HDTV set with integrated tuner usually means it shows an image with around 1 megapixel of picture detail at 1366 x 768 (pixels, horizontal x vertical) or 1280 x 720. And full HDTV usually refers to a TV that can display the entire 1920 x 1080 resolution of full HD content without throwing any detail away.

When is full HD expected to hit the market? Will the capability first roll out in a playback format as Blu-ray and HD DVD become a reality next year?

For a long time, there was a "chicken or the egg" problem. Originally, not a lot of HD or full-HD content was available, and when that started to change, there weren't enough HD and full-HD displays in the market. Now this situation is changing very quickly. HD displays are widely available, and many LCD TVs are coming out with more than 2 megapixels of display resolution at 1920 x 1080, or "full HD."

In 2004 alone, 70% of U.S. prime-time TV was available in HD, and about 70% of that was in the 1920 x 1080 format. Next year, for the first time, optical-drive media such as Blu-ray and HD DVD will enable full-HD content to be widely available globally. "Optical disks such as Blu-ray and HD DVD will speed up availability of full HD content," says Berkoff at LG.Philips LCD. "We expect all major movie studios to take advantage of this format to reissue their movie collections in full-HD format relatively soon."

The LCD industry can now provide large quantities of 37-inch and over-40-inch displays with full HD. In 2006, these HD and full-HD wide-format displays will be available in large quantities in sizes ranging from 23-inches to 47-inches. Plasma TVs also offer HD displays of 42 inches and up, and full HD in 60 inches and up. "Many full-HD plasma TVs at 50 inches will be introduced from next year," says Chris Kim, vice-president for sales and marketing at Samsung SDI, a leading plasma panel maker.

HD broadcasts will be widely available in the U.S. and Japan next year. They'll begin in earnest in China to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And in the rest of the world, HD broadcasts are developing more quickly than was expected. For instance, the 2006 World Cup will be broadcast in Europe in full HD.

Exactly how much more information is contained on Blu-ray DVDs in terms of picture quality? And is it true that full-HD screens will improve picture quality by showing several times the detail of standard TV?

Full-HD content with more than 2 megapixels of display resolution at 1920 x 1080 delivers about 4 to 6 times as much picture information as existing standard-definition DVDs, depending on the region of the world you're in.

Actually, a Blu-ray DVD can be used to store any file or format of information, from data files for a PC to standard-definition video. However, movie studios that get the majority of their profits from DVDs have a great economic incentive to reissue their movies in full-HD format.

What are the pros and cons of rival Blu-ray and HD DVD standards. Which companies are supporting which standard?

Blu-ray, developed by Sony (SNE), is the front-runner, having won backing from the majority of major movie studios, including 20th Century Fox Film Studios (NWS), Disney (DIS), and MGM. Big-name consumer-electronics makers, including Samsung, Sharp, and Panasonic, and PC makers Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Apple (AAPL) also support Blu-ray. Competing for the next-generation DVD standard is Toshiba, which developed HD DVD, strongly supported by Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC).

Blu-ray disks will hold at least 50 gigabytes and perhaps 100 GB or more, while HD DVD will start at 15 GB and top out at 45 GB. Blu-ray disks prevent Hollywood movies from being ripped to a computer's hard drive without a studio's permission. This is in contrast to what some computer companies want: Sleek PCs that shuttle music, photos, and video from room to room in the home, and grab off the Web everything from Hollywood blockbusters to podcasts.

Will games be important content for HDTV displays, with gamers playing movie-like titles?

Absolutely. Game consoles are expected to be important boosts for sales of full-HD LCD TVs. New consoles coming soon from both market leaders, the Xbox 360 from Microsoft and the PlayStation 3 from Sony, will both support wide-screen full HD. This will be a huge motivator for developers of ever-more-realistic content, who always want the best-looking resolution possible. Thus, all gaming and related film companies are likely to rewrite existing content and create new material in full-HD format.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of thin-film transistor (TFT-LCD) and plasma technologies vs. cathode ray tube (CRT) and projection technologies?

Plasma is a cheaper technology than LCD and has an advantage at larger sizes, at least for now. It also has the edge in displaying motion very well, which is the one weakness that TFT-LCDs have yet to completely overcome, though it has largely been eliminated with high-quality electronics and system tuning. Plasmas still consume more energy, while pictures on LCDs that are rear-projection sets don't look as good when viewed from extreme angles.

TFT-LCDs have some advantages over plasmas, especially at 40 inches and below. For one thing, LCD is the only flat-panel technology that can currently deliver full-HD resolution of 2 megapixels at less than 50 inches, as well as HD resolution of 1 megapixels at virtually any size. Meanwhile, the vast majority of plasma TVs around today are still limited to standard-definition resolution of less than half a megapixel. LCDs weigh less than plasmas and have a longer useful lifetime.

TV makers expect plasma and LCD camps will compete fiercely in the 40-inch bracket in the near future. "Pricing will be the determining factor for household TV sets," says Yoon Boo Keun, senior vice-president at Samsung Electronics.

LCDs and plasmas are preferred flat-panel choices to CRT TVs. Even new "super slim" CRT TVs remain essentially thick and heavy, and aren't available in meaningful quantities. Rear-projection TVs, on the other hand, are widely used only in the U.S. and China, where people tend to have room for larger screen sizes. CRTs are also much thicker and heavier than LCDs or plasmas, and have other picture quality weaknesses.

Display industry officials expect rear-projection TVs to eventually be restricted to the ultralarge TV market, while CRTs will remain a cheap alternative in the smaller-than-30-inch segment.

When will TV broadcasters go fully digital in U.S. and other countries?

Digital broadcasting and, more important, HD and full-HD broadcasting have already started in several countries. However, it will take time to go fully digital, depending on how quickly people buy digital TVs, penetration rates, and laws regarding broadcasting. It will take at least a few years in the U.S., quickly followed by Korea, Japan, China, and Europe. Overall, though, full-HD digital broadcasting is happening quicker and on a larger scale than expected.

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