Five years ago, just about any flat-panel television could induce oohs and aahs, and high-definition was a rarity. Today, although flat-panel HDTVs are in only 25 percent of American households, they're common enough that the gee-whiz factor is gone. So where do HDTVs go from here?
Improvements in picture sharpness and advances in screen size are likely to be gradual. "It's kind of like computers: If you wait around, there will always be something better around the corner," says DisplaySearch HDTV analyst Paul Gagnon.
But the next step for HDTV isn't about technology per se. It's about the experience of watching, which brings previously peripheral considerations--such as design, ease of use, and integrated audio--to the fore. As a result, you'll not only like what you see on your set, but you'll also have a better time experiencing that content in your home.
In this post-iPhone world, where industrial design is king, TV manufacturers are paying particular attention to the look and feel of their products and to integrating software with hardware.
Just as cell phones, digital cameras, and laptops now come in colored packages, TVs too are moving beyond basic black. Manufacturers are also taking a cue from the sleek details found on smaller products. LG Electronics, for example, recently introduced TV sets with color and style tweaks. The 32-inch LG40 features such accents as a curved pedestal and a red front-drop bezel; the back of the LG60 is red, too, and you can see a flash of color peeking through the side and front.
An even bigger emphasis this year is on thinness. Hitachi, JVC, and LG have all revealed thin sets, ranging from 1.5 inches to 1.7 inches thick. Crafting such a slim TV is a technological challenge. LG, for instance, achieved its products' 1.7-inch depth by reengineering the circuitry around the LCD module--and reengineering the TV's cabinet--to remove unused space. In the future, you'll see even more slim sets on the market: Sharp's newest manufacturing facility begins mass production next year, and it will be capable of producing ultrathin 60-inch panels.
Despite the slimmer profiles, television manufacturers are stuffing new features into this year's cabinets, improved speakers being chief among them. A slew of companies, including Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, and Westinghouse, have added speakers that fire down instead of forward, which audio experts claim achieves more full-bodied sound. And in its latest models, LG has positioned hidden speakers--they're located behind the cabinet, so that the front bezel looks smooth. JVC has even introduced multiple models that have an integrated "Made for iPod Dock," which lets you play both audio and video from an iPod on your television.
Resolution remains a big area of competition among high-def-TV manufacturers. In previous years the standard resolution was 720p. This year the scale tips in favor of 1080p, the maximum resolution for HDTV. Among LCDs, which hold a slight edge in brightness over plasma, most 720p sets sold this year will be smaller-screen models (37 inches and under) selling at bargain prices. Among plasma TVs, known for their high-contrast images on massive screens, you'll have more 1080p choices than ever. By next year, this shift in resolution for plasma should be mostly complete; Pioneer, for one, says it will have eliminated 720p sets from its lineup by 2009. For the foreseeable future, however, LCD models will continue to offer 720p at smaller, entry-level screen sizes (20 to 32 inches), which don't benefit as much from 1080p.
Other technological improvements are headed your way. LCD televisions' 120-Hz technology--which helps LCD panels better handle rapid motion, such as in action scenes and in sports--will move down to midrange models this year.
Last year a TV with such technology cost $500 to $600 more than one without it, but this year that feature should add only $200 to $300 to the price, explains Tim Alessi, LG product development director. By next year, Alessi believes, the additional cost will be minor or nonexistent.
Now that 120-Hz technology is becoming more mainstream, LCD TV makers can focus on other potential breakthroughs, such as adding LED backlights to less-expensive models. Also introduced last year (by Samsung), LED backlights can offer a wider range of colors and higher contrast. Sound pioneer Dolby is among the companies exploring this technology. Currently, LED-backlit displays remain a rarity, limited to one or two premium models per year. DisplaySearch's Gagnon doesn't expect to see them any more often in the next year or two, but he does believe that, over time, their pricing and availability will improve.
After what seemed like years of hype, OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) display technology has finally become a large-screen reality: At CES Sony introduced the first OLED TV aimed at consumers. The 11-inch XEL-1 offers brilliant colors and high-contrast images in a superthin panel (only 3 millimeters thick), but at $2500 it's less of a mainstream consumer breakthrough than a proof of concept. Sony says it intends to release larger displays next year.
Other manufacturers are keeping an eye on OLED, but only Samsung is speaking publicly about its future plans. The company showed two prototype OLED displays at CES, one 14 inches and the other 31 inches; however, like other manufacturers, Samsung doesn't expect to bring OLED displays to market until at least 2009, as the models become cheaper to produce.
For many vendors, OLED remains on the periphery. "It's still kind of a novelty," says LG's Alessi. DisplaySearch's Gagnon predicts that the technology probably won't reach its prime for another three or four years.
If you're in the market for a high-definition TV now, none of the developments slated to come this year and later is a reason to hold off. Better design, sound, and resolution will all be welcome improvements, but when they finally arrive they are unlikely to make you regret purchasing a set today. And don't let the distant glimmer of lower prices hold you back, either: According to both IDC and DisplaySearch, HDTV prices won't fall as quickly this year as they have in the past.