Posts Tagged ‘3D’

Product Review: Samsung PN50C8000 3D Plasma TV

Back in October, I had some time to test drive Samsung’s UN46C7000 3D LCD TV. Although it had many strong points, I’m just not a big fan of 3D over LCD, mostly because of the black level and viewing angle issues.

I figured plasma should be a better match to 3D, seeing as that it had the widest viewing angle, bright and contrasty colors, and no issues with the physics of light waves (when you watch 3D on an LCD TV, you are looking through as many as four different polarizers).

Samsung’s PN50C8000 ($2,599 list) showed up in early January for a round of testing and is one of the company’s top-line 3D plasma TVs. I paired it with the BD-C6800 Blu-ray player (MSRP $250), along with a copy of How to Train Your Dragon in 3D. (Thank God, as I was burned out after watching Monsters vs. Aliens umpteen-million times!)

 

OUT OF THE BOX

The PN50C8000 is remarkably similar to the UN46C7000 in design, except that it gets a much sturdier base. Once again, the finish around the bezel and on the stand is a shiny silvery color, while I still prefer darker bezels that are less distracting.

I will say that this is extremely lightweight plasma, tipping the scales at 63 pounds with the stand. It wasn’t that long ago that 50-inch plasmas weighed over 100 pounds, and that was without a stand! 63 pounds is well inside LCD TV country, so if you were hesitant to buy a plasma TV because of its weight, let that put your concerns to rest.

Samsung has provided plenty of input connections on this TV. There are four HDMI inputs, all of them version 1.4a compatible. Input #1 also supports connections to a personal computer, while Input #2 is the audio return channel (ARC) connection for an external AV receiver.

There’s also a single analog component video (YPbPr) connection, the ‘Y’ (luminance) connection of which doubles as a composite video jack. Unlike the UN46C7000, the PN50C8000 uses full-sized RCA jacks for these two inputs. But there’s a catch – you need to chase down small-diameter RCA connectors to use these connections as they are so close to the rear wall of the plasma TV. The provided F-style RF connector is the normal, threaded type, so leave your adapters at home. There’s enough space around it to screw in a normal F plug.

 

Here's what the back end of the PN50C8000 looks like. All of the connectors are on the right side.

 

All of the HDMI connections support CEC, so when you turn on your Blu-ray player, the TV also powers up and switches to that input automatically. Samsung’s also included a Toslink output jack so you can feed digital audio from TV programs to your AV receiver, but you’ll need to come up with the cable. HDMI input #2 will also provide an audio return path to your receiver.

MENUS AND ADJUSTMENTS

Menu adjustments are very similar to those on the UN46C700, so I’ve retained those descriptions from my earlier review of the UN46C7000.

Samsung’s menus are easy to navigate.  There are six image presets, labeled Dynamic, Standard, Relax, Movie, ISF Day, and ISF Night. Stay away from Dynamic mode, as the pictures are extremely bright and over-enhanced. Standard, Natural, and Movie modes all work well for everyday viewing, but if you are into calibration, you’ll need to use Movie mode. You’ll also find it to be one of the brighter modes. ISF Day and Night modes can’t be adjusted by the average user; only a calibrator can tweak those.

You can select from four different color temperature settings, five different aspect ratio settings, and a host of ‘green’ energy setting modes called Eco Solution. Seeing that this is a plasma TV, you can also adjust cell brightness (separate from black level and contrast) at levels from 0 to 20. Cell brightness has to do with how hard the plasma pixel are driven, and you will see a big change in overall brightness playing with this control. (I set it at 15.)

There is also a screen protection sub-menu that activates pixel orbiting at preset intervals. Or, you can turn on a scrolling feature to rid the screen of any ‘stuck’ images. (It’s just like an electronic Sham-Wow!)

There are other image ‘enhancements’ that Samsung has included, including three different black levels, three settings for dynamic contrast, and a shadow detail enhance/reduce adjustment. My advice is to leave them all off, particularly Black Tone and Auto Contrast.  Generally, these settings mess up gamma performance, and if you are into quality pictures, that’s a must to avoid.

For calibrators, there are two Expert Patterns (grayscale and color) for basic brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue calibrations. You can also select red, green, and blue-only modes, as well as Auto, Native, and Custom color spaces. The Custom mode lets you define your own x,y coordinates for primaries.

For color temperature calibration, Samsung provides two-point and ten-point RGB gain and offset adjustments. The theory is to do most of the calibration in two-point mode, then go back through a multi-step grayscale in ten-point mode for fine-tuning. Other adjustments include Flesh Tone enhance (leave it off), xvYCC mode (leave it off as well, no one currently supports extended color in packaged content), and the usual edge enhancement (peaking) stuff. As I’ve said before, HDTV doesn’t need enhancement!

There are a couple of noise filters that have some effect on image quality. The MPEG noise filter attempts to use low-pass filtering to get rid of mosquito noise and macroblock (excessive compression) artifacts. Be warned that low-pass filtering softens high-frequency image detail, so go easy on these controls. For HD programs, you probably won’t need them, unless you happen to be one of those unfortunate subscribers to U-Verse (720p and 1080i HDTV @ 5 Mb/s looks pretty awful).

Samsung’s Auto Motion Plus corrects for 24-frame judder by pulling the frame rate up to multiples of 60 Hz. In the case of the PN50C8000, the corrected frame rate is probably close to 240 Hz, the same speed at which it operates in 3D mode. What this actually does to images is to make filmed content look like it is live, or shot at video rates.

The result is a very smooth presentation, free of flicker and judder, but it just doesn’t look the same as a movie. The motivation behind Auto Motion Plus (and every other TV manufacturers implementation of it) is to get rid of motion blur and smearing, something that all LCD TVs suffer from to various degrees. Try it – you may like it, you may hate it.

I’d be remiss here in not discussing any of the connected Samsung apps, which let you stream movies and TV shows directly from YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu Plus. While this is a handy feature, don’t expect picture quality to come anywhere close to that of a Blu-ray disc, or even an HDTV channel. Watching Netflix movies over the Internet is more akin to looking at VHS tapes, or composite video from DVDs – the resolution just isn’t there. So use these features more for their convenience than their quality. ESPN updates are also accessible, and if you are addicted to ‘tweeting’ and ‘friending,’ you also have one-touch access to Twitter and Facebook.

3D MENUS

Samsung 3D TVs automatically recognize the HDMI v1.4a frame packing format. This format, which delivers movies at 1920x1080p @24 Hz resolution, is so unique that if you start playing a 3D Blu-ray disc, the PN50C8000 will automatically switch into 3D mode – no further adjustments required.

The two frame-compatible 3D formats (1080i side-by-side and 720p top+bottom) require some help from you to be shown correctly. Once you’ve established that you are indeed seeing the unprocessed 720p or 1080i 3D program from your content provider, go into the PN50C8000’s 3D menu and turn 3D mode ON.

Your will then be presented with a menu of 3D frame compatible formats to choose from, including side by side (1080i) and top & bottom (720p), plus other formats. Aside from frame packing and side-by-side/top & bottom, you are most likely to run into the checkerboard format when playing back 3D games and other non-standard media.

Samsung also has 2D to 3D conversion algorithm built-in to all of their 3D TVs. My advice is not to try and add synthetic 3D effects to everyday TV shows and movies, but stick with content that has been specifically formatted for 3D.

ON THE TEST BENCH

Unlike the UN46C7000 and its persistent auto-dimming feature, I was able to tune up the PN50C8000 quite nicely with basic menu adjustments, plus some assistance from the 10-point white balance menu. I used AccuPel HDG4000 test patterns and ColorFacts 7.5 to perform the measurements.

After my best calibration, I measured brightness in Movie mode at 80 nits (23.4 foot-Lamberts). That number didn’t vary by much, ranging from 73 nits in Relax mode to 83 nits in Movie mode with the Cell Light setting at maximum (20). Why so low?

 

After calibration, the PN50C8000 produced this beautiful 2.3 gamma curve.

 

Apparently this plasma TV employs a front-surface vertical polarizing filter to improve black levels and cancel out reflections. It’s an old trick – Pioneer KURO plasma TVs also used it – but it reduces the vertical viewing angle. You can verify this by walking right up to the TV and looking down at the screen; a you get closer, you’ll see image brightness drop off dramatically.

That additional polarizer (or patterned glass filter) reduces overall brightness, too. While 80 nits is plenty at night, it’s a little dim when viewing under high ambient lighting. But there’s only so far you can push image brightness on this TV.

Fortunately, image contrast doesn’t suffer from the additional filtering. ANSI (average) contrast measured 815:1 in Movie mode with cell light set at 15. Boosting cell light ‘to the max’ at 20 kicked that number up to 913:1. Peak contrast in normal cell mode was 939:1, while with maximum cell lighting, it was just shy of 1000:1 (991:1). Black levels measurements were impressive at .09 nits in Movie mode – that’s deep, bro.

White balance uniformity was outstanding. I measured a maximum color temperature shift of 215 degrees Kelvin across a full white field, which is reference monitor performance.  The PN50C8000 also tracks a rock-steady color of gray, varying by just 245 degrees from 20 to 100 IRE.

 

Color temperature tracking on the PN50C8000 is rock steady.

 

Gamma performance is also noteworthy. After some tune-up (and disabling auto contrast and black tone), I was able to come up with an almost-perfect 2.3 gamma curve, which emulates the classic CRT gamma response and provides great low-level shadow detail, except for some pulse-width modulation noise.

The RGB histogram shows why. Red, green, and blue track each other very closely from 20 IRE on up to full white, with most of the variation coming in the blue channel. I’ve seen this erratic blue tracking in Panasonic plasma TVs as well and it’s not anything you can correct easily – outboard color gamut and gamma correction hardware and software would run about $6,000, so don’t lose any sleep over it!

Like most plasma TVs, the PN50C8000 has two much cyan in its green phosphors, pulling the color space towards blue for a brighter image. The yellow and blue coordinates are on the money, while cyan is shifted too much towards blue (predictably) and red is a bit over-saturated when compared to the BT.709 standard gamut for HDTV signals.

 

Hre's how the PN50C8000's color gamut compares to the BT.709 HDTV color space (dark outline).

IMAGE QUALITY

It doesn’t matter whether you are watching 2D or 3D programming, you will find the pictures this TV produces very pleasing to the eye with excellent color shading and contrast. Those attributes come in real handy when viewing 3D content, especially if you are sitting off-axis. Interestingly, my calibration of the PN50C8000 was the brightest, not to mention very accurate. So I didn’t need to switch out of Movie mode to kick some more photons to the 3D glasses.

Watching How to Train Your Dragon in 3D is a real treat. I thought this was the best 3D movie of 2010, and it was evident that a lot of care went into designing and executing the 3D effects. The flying sequences are just amazing, particularly when Hiccup and Toothless the dragon are swooping and skimming above the ocean, dodging and twisting through rock formations and around cliffs.

In fact, I think it actually looked better on this TV than in the theater (Sony SXRD 4K projector and RealD glasses). Just for fun, I set the TV up in the concessions lobby at the Ambler Theater’s annual Oscars Party (Dragon was nominated for best animated feature and best score, two awards it should have walked away with IMHO) for the 400+ attendees to test-drive. Most of them were predictably wowed by the flying sequences in 3D.

As I mentioned in my review of the UN46C7000, the 3D experience using frame compatible formats isn’t quite as impactful as a 3D Blu-ray disc. The latter format has more detail, more contrast punch, and is just a lot more satisfying to watch. Because the two frame-compatible formats are half-resolution, 3D coverage of sports and other programming – even movies – leaves a bit to be desired.

That unusual low gray noise I mentioned appears to be sub-field sampling noise. It’s evident when playing Blu-ray movies in low-level scenes and on  occasions it can be pretty distracting. Panasonic and LG plasma TVs also exhibit this pulse-width modulation (PWM) noise to varying degrees, but I didn’t notice it as quickly as I did on the PN50C8000. Apparently operating in 1080p/24 mode seems to aggravate it; I didn’t notice it much at all while watching prime time programs in the 720p and 1080i formats. If you spot it, make sure the sharpness control is set to near zero and experiment with the MPEG noise reduction, as that can help minimize this artifact.

My only other negative comment is that you will sometimes notice ghost images on the PN50C8000 after even short periods of operation. It doesn’t matter what brightness level you are running, or even if the display is calibrated – the ghost images still appear when you are showing a dark gray to 50% white screen.  What I’m seeing is not burn-in, as you can turn off the TV, turn it back on, play back different content, and observe an entirely different ghost image.

What I would suggest is to ‘wear in’ the TV when you first get it out of the box – leave a full white test pattern on screen for 200 hours, or use the internal scrolling pattern for the same length of time. That will ‘settle down’ the blue phosphors (which naturally age the fastest) and any subsequent calibration should hold nicely for a long time.

CONCLUSION

Samsung’s PN50C8000 is definitely on the cutting edge of plasma TV design. The performance of this TV (aside from the low-level PWM noise) approaches Pioneer’s late, lamented KURO sets. It is a strong performer with excellent color quality, grayscale shading, and color temperature tracking. You’ll have plenty of contrast and deep, rich black levels to enjoy, even if the overall brightness is on the low side for a consumer TV product.

As far as plasma goes, there’s simply nothing better for viewing 3D – no off-axis contrast flattening or color shift, no crosstalk (common on LCD TVs), and if your head isn’t perfectly level, don’t worry – you won’t see any double images. From my perspective, 3D on a plasma TV comes closest to watching 3D on a DLP Cinema projector of any home theater experience so far.

Full specifications and other product information are available here – http://www.samsung.com/us/video/tvs/PN50C8000YFXZA

Current MAP on this TV is $2,299 as of March 8, 2011.

Power consumption tests – Over an 8-hour period, the PN50C8000 consumed an average of 205 watts while in Movie mode with full-screen HD and SD content. Cell light was set to 15 and peak brightness was 85 nits.

Panasonic’s 2011 TV and Blu-ray Press Briefings

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Panasonic held press briefings on its 2011 TV and accessory product line at the House of Glass on 25th Street in New York City. Good choice of venue, considering all of the plasma and LCD TVs that were set up for inspection in front of enormous floor-to-ceiling windows.

 

As usual, plasma still rules the roost at Panasonic, although LCD technology continues to make inroads. This year, you’ll find 19 new models of plasma TVs and a few new glass cut sizes, such as 55 inches (replaces the 54-inch size) and 60 inches (goodbye, 58 inches).

 

The line breaks down into three categories (and I’m using Panasonic’s descriptions here) – twelve Full HD (1080p) 3D plasma TVs, four 1080p FHD plasma sets, and three 720p plasma TVs. (Yes, there is still a market for 720p plasma.)

As usual, Panasonic's got 3D plasma covered.

The fact that almost two-thirds of all new Panasonic plasma TVs are 3D-ready reflects the market’s response to higher-priced 3D TVs in 2010: Consumers just weren’t interested in paying a premium for 3D. Now, you can get into a 3D plasma TV for as little as $1100 (TC-P42ST30), while a 50-inch set will cost you $1,500 (TC-P50ST30).

 

The top-of-the-line models carry the VT30 suffix and are being marketed in 65-inch and 55-inch sizes (TC-P65VT30, $4,300 and TC-P55VT30, $2,800). Readers may recall that Panasonic’s first 3D offering a year ago was a 50-inch plasma with two pairs of active shutter glasses for $2,800 through Best Buy, so you can appreciate just how much pricing has changed over time.

 

In addition to the pair of VT30 models, there are four GT30 plasma 3D TVs from 50 inches ($1,900) to 65 inches ($3,700), and four ST30 variations that also range from 50 inches ($1,500) to 65 inches ($3,300). In the non-3D 1080p (S30) plasma category, Panasonic has four choices from 42 inches ($800) to 60 inches ($1,900), while the three 720p sets are priced at $600 (TC-P42X3), $700 (TC-P64X3), and $800 (TC-P50X3).

 

Many of these sets offer the VIERA Connect feature, which provides a host of connected Internet TV channels and specialized apps. Like Samsung, Panasonic is also hosting a connected apps marketplace and will open its platform and middleware technology to third-party developers and manufacturers.

No matter what the technology is, everyone eventually finds a way to goof off with it.

Some of the more interesting apps that I saw included wellness and fitness apps from Body Media and ICON, one of which lets you track your weight on TV. (Somehow I think that’s not going to be very popular with couch potatoes.) Of course, Skype is ever-present, as are Twitter and Facebook apps and Hulu Plus. And it goes without saying that Netflix is also on all VIERA Connect TVs.

 

Over on the LCD side, Panasonic raised some eyebrows by unveiling two of the smallest 3D TVs I’ve seen to date. The TC-L37DT30 (37 inches, $1,300) and TC-L32DT30 (32 inches, $1,200) both use IPS (In Plane Switching) LCD glass, generally the better choice for TVs as it doesn’t have any off-axis color shift issues. And both TVs have LED backlights, which aren’t too common in this screen size.

 

I checked out some 3D content on both panels and it was surprisingly free of crosstalk, a problem that often pops up with LCD 3D TVs due to all of the polarizers in the optical path. Both models have the full VIERA Connect suite and also claim a 240 Hz refresh rate.

 

Panasonic also has three E3-series models (32, 37, and 42 inches) which also employ LED backlights and will sell for $700, $800, and $950, respectively. Instead of full VIERA Connect features, these models offer Easy IPTV (Netflix, Amazon, and CinemaNow, plus Napster, Pandora, and Facebook).  Another 42-inch LCD model (TC-L42E30) will ticket at $1,100 and adds easy IPTV plus LED backlighting and 120Hz processing, while the TC-L42D30 is a full 1080p LCD TV with VIERA Connect for $1,150.

Who knew there was a market for 32-inch 3D TVs? (Is there?)

What’s interesting is that Panasonic now has as many 42-inch LCD TVs in their line (3) as they do plasma (3). What does that say about the future of 42 inches as a plasma TV size for Panasonic? Company representatives replied that Samsung and LG also sell plasma, but those companies are known largely as LCD TV brands. In contrast, Panasonic built its rep on top-notch plasma picture quality. Is it a price point play? Could be, as the 42-inch LCD sets have higher MSRPs than the equivalent PDPs. Maybe we’re getting closer to the day where 42-inches will just become an LCD size.

 

Over in the Blu-ray department, Panasonic has four new models, one of which left me scratching my head. To set things up here, I should mention that Blu-ray player prices have taken precipitous drops in 2010, and that has resulted in an upwards spike in BD player sales. But I would venture – and so far, anecdotal evidence supports me – that consumers are buying Blu-ray players mostly for the connectivity features (spelled N-E-T-F-L-I-X).

 

Right now, you can buy several Blu-ray players now for less than $100, and more than one analyst firm predicts we’ll have $40 and $50 BD players by the end of 2011. Not surprisingly, the price premium assigned to 3D BD players has largely evaporated; I picked up a Samsung BDP-C6900 last fall for $244 and you can find them on line for about $170 now.

 

The ‘connectivity thing’ is clearly driving a majority of BD player sales. So it was a puzzler to see Panasonic’s new DMP-BD75 in the lineup, as this $99 2D player has no provision for WiFi connectivity; only a conventional RJ-45 Ethernet jack. Bad choice! Consumers don’t want to hard-wire Blu-ray players; they want to use a WiFi connection. But the DMP-BD75 doesn’t even have a WiFi dongle option. This product could be gone from the line as fast as it appeared.

Three of the four new Blu-ray players are 3D models.

The other three players make a lot more sense. The DMP-BD310 ($399) is the blue-chip model and comes with VIERA Cast and 2D to 3D conversion, plus built-in WiFi connectivity and dual HDMI outputs. Skype is also included, bringing conference calling and an answering machine to your TV. (What WILL they think of next?)

 

Stepping down, the DMP-BD210 is ticketed at $299 and has the same features, but only one HDMI output. Both models have touch-free drawer operation – simply wave your hand along the top cover and the disc drawer opens and closes automatically. (Kids are going to have a lot of fun with that!) The DMP-BD110 lops another few bucks off the price, but doesn’t have built-in WiFi or the ‘magic door’ option. A WiFi dongle is available as an option.

 

I should mention that WiFi setup and network configuration on all three 3D models is a quantum leap from 2010s models, which practically required you to have Microsoft network certification to complete the process. Now, it’s as easy as setting up a Cisco/Linksys Wireless-N router, which is to say that the BD player basically does all the work. ‘Bout time!

 

Panasonic also has a new portable Blu-ray player (DMP-BD200), a portable DVD player (DVD-LS92 -really? Who uses those anymore?), and believe it or not, two new DVD players. One has progressive scan, while the other is upconverting.

 

Given that progressive scan DVD players are selling for about $35 these days and upconverting models are around $50, you have to wonder why Panasonic even wants to play in that space anymore. I say, ditch the red laser format and just go blue – the players are certainly cheap enough…

CE Pro's editor Grant Clauser is suitably impresed with the new soundbar.

I also saw a few demonstrations of new soundbar technologies and home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) products, three of which are built around Blu-ray playback and two around DVD playback. The most interesting product was the SC-HTB520 soundbar, which is packaged with a separate wireless subwoofer and sells for $400.

 

In the demos I sat through, this soundbar did a surprisingly good job creating a virtual surround sound field and would be of interest for folks who don’t have the space or inclination to set up six different speakers. I could see this soundbar installed with lots of family room TVs (like my 42-inch Panasonic plasma) to add a little spatial separation for prime time TVs shows and sports broadcasts.

3D At Home: No One’s Buying It??

Last week, the Hollywood Reporter reported (accurately) that a majority of the attendees at the 2011 Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat believe that 3D in the home is ‘dead’ and will never catch on.

Yes, I know you’ve heard about and read several surveys taken in the past year that show little or no enthusiasm for 3D at home. However, when people who create and distribute movies and TV shows for a living give 3D at home the thumbs-down, that’s big news.

I’ve attended every HPA Tech Retreat since 2002 and presented at most of them. Last year, we had a 3D supersession where many attendees expressed skepticism that 3D at home was viable. This year, the number of naysayers was substantial, as evidenced by a show of hands during the Day 1 presentation recaps by HPA leaders Leon Silverman and Jerry Pierce.  (This year’s Retreat had 450 registrants, by the way.)

The annual broadcasters’ panel brought forth more skepticism, with Fox saying that until there was a workable, viable ATSC 3D standard, they would stay on the sidelines. Those sentiments were pretty much echoed by ABC, NBC, Sinclair, PBS, and CBS.

As I mention in another post, we had a great breakfast roundtable discussion on 3D in the home, and whether it was a flop, partially successful, or had any real future. We also discussed the relative scarcity of 3D movies, which led to a question about why Hollywood isn’t remastering more of their older 3D movie titles into the Blu-ray format. The reply was that the cost to do those remasters probably wouldn’t be justified by Blu-ray disc sales, let alone rentals.

Let’s face it; 3D TV stumbled badly out of the gate in 2010. TV manufacturers locked up the most desirable 3D Blu-ray discs as part of exclusive TV bundles, creating an instant shortage of compelling 3D content. Want to watch Avatar in 3D? Sorry, you’ll have to buy a Panasonic 3D TV. How about any of the Shrek movies? You’ll need to buy a new Samsung 3D TV. Despicable Me? You’re looking at a new Sharp Aquos, pal.

What’s that – you just dropped $2,000 on a new 55-inch 120 Hz LED LCD TV a year ago? Hmmm – that’s a problem.

How about the new 3D TV networks? Well, ESPN 3D is a barker channel during most of the day. The World Cup was fun, but half the shots didn’t benefit at all from 3D.

Last fall, DirecTV’s 3D pay-per-view channel was showing Journey to the Center of the Earth, followed by Journey to the Center of the Earth, followed by Journey to the Center of the Earth…well, you get it.

As far as 2011 goes, the outlook for 3D TV sales isn’t very sunny. Nielsen’s annual State of All Media survey, taken in Q4 of 2010, showed that “…76% of respondents ‘probably won’t or ‘definitely won’t’ buy a 3D TV in the next 12 months. 2% of respondents already own a 3D TV, while only 6% “definitely’ or ‘probably’ will buy one.”

The problem is compounded by VIZIO and Toshiba saying that consumers don’t need to buy expensive LCD glasses to watch 3D TV. VIZIO is leading a charge to passive (half-resolution) 3D TV, with the selling point being that you can use those same 50-cent RealD circular polarized glasses they gave you at the local multiplex cinema.

According to a news story in today’s TWICE magazine, LG showcased their new line of passive 3D LCD TVs – called Cinema 3D – at the Film Independent Spirit Awards last week. The TWICE story quoted LG Electronics USA president Wayne Park as saying, “We think we can take advantage of — at least in 3DTV — the leadership position for the whole industry…with our distinguishing 3D technology, we can bring a much more affordable and enjoyable experience to the consumer, so that our 3DTVs can leap ahead of the industry.” Also, “Park said he believes passive-glasses technologies will ultimately win out over active-shutter systems due to the many benefits that resonate with consumers.”

Toshiba’s claim that you can drop glasses altogether upsets the apple cart even more, and has apparently convinced the average Joe that there is a format war in 3D (shades of the 1080i vs. 720p battles ten years ago). Skipping past the technical details, what today’s consumers are hearing is that 3D is very much in the laboratory stage and that it is probably a smart idea to sit on the sidelines for a while until all of the details are worked out – and until 3D TVs without glasses are widely available.

So, what’s a TV manufacturer to do?

First off, it’s evident that consumers will NOT pay a premium for 3D functionality. There are simply too many 2D TV models available for less than $1,000, including a couple of 55-inch screens. Asking consumers to pony up an additional $500 – $1,000 just to watch a handful of movies and 3D networks is a waste of energy right now…particularly when you consider all of the people who bought new big-screen LCD and plasma TVs in the past five years.

Second, release the exclusively-bundled 3D Blu-ray discs immediately to the open market. If you want someone to buy a fancy new sports car, make sure there are plenty of gas stations where they can fill it up!

Third, drop the prices on 3D Blu-ray players to a level commensurate with networked Blu-ray players. Those are selling very well because consumers are using them as Internet TV set-top boxes to gain access to Netflix (20 million subscribers and counting).

Fourth, continue exploring marketing partnerships with content producers to create 3D channels that more people can watch. Currently, only the Sony-Discovery-IMAX 3Net channel and ESPN’s 3D channel are available to any viewer on any Pay TV system. 3D on DirecTV does nothing for a Comcast subscriber, or a Dish Network subscriber. Comcast’s new 3D channel is inaccessible to Verizon FiOS customers. Content drives TV viewership – HDTV started in 1998 but didn’t really take off until about 2004, when all of the major TV networks finally had a strong slate of HD programming to watch.

Unfortunately, the perceived format war between active shutter, passive, and autostereo (a really inferior way to watch 3D, if you ask me) is going to keep sales of 3D TVs down in 2011. Consumer enthusiasm is so low that most of the 3D demos at my nearby Best Buy appear to have been turned off for good. (Not that they could find any working active shutter glasses if they needed to…)

At this past Sunday’s Ambler Theater Oscars Party, I set up a Samsung PN50C8000 3D plasma TV with four pairs of glasses (fresh batteries in every one) and a 3D animated movie (Monsters vs. Aliens), smack in the middle of the concessions lobby. Plenty of people (young and old) came over to watch for a few minutes, were appropriately wowed, asked what the 3D set-up cost, said “that’s nice, but I can’t see having to wear glasses to watch TV” and then walked away to one of the three main theaters.

They’re just not buying it.

Who Wins In The New Media Landscape?

The past few weeks have been mostly a blur for me, what with trips to and presentations at the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat the week of February 14, plus presentations to the Delaware Valley chapter of SCTE last Wednesday (my annual CES recap) and the New York City chapter of SMPTE last Thursday (plasma and OLEDs as candidates for reference monitor technologies).

Through it all, I’ve been staying on top of a blizzard of news stories and press releases pertaining to media distribution (over the top, or OTT), the continued decline in packaged media sales and rentals, a new streaming service from Redbox (presumably with Amazon) and a new 3D channel from Comcast.

If you’re not tracking this brave new world of media distribution and consumption on a daily basis, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the changes. At the Tech Retreat, we had an interesting breakfast roundtable discussion on 3D in the home, and whether it was a flop, partially successful, or had any real future.

That discussion also turned to the relative scarcity of 3D movies, which in turn brought up a comment from one of the participants (Ethan Schur of TDVision) as to why more studios didn’t remaster more of their older 3D movie titles into the Blu-ray format.

The reply, as worded by participant Wade Hannibal of NBC Universal, is that the cost to do those remasters probably wouldn’t be justified by Blu-ray disc sales, let alone rentals. Similar comments were offered after we watched a beautiful restoration of Stanley Kubrick’s 1965 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove on Thursday evening. Kudos to everyone involved, but how would Sony Pictures possibly recover its investment, instead of charging it off as goodwill against taxable income?

The fact is; Hollywood does not like streaming at all. At least, not the way Netflix practices it. The revenue stream isn’t substantial enough to replace the lost income from DVD and Blu-ray sales and rentals. But with Netflix now boasting in excess of 20 million subscribers (second only to Comcast) and Blockbuster in Chapter 11 – and possible Chapter 7 bankruptcy – the studios are rapidly losing all of the high-value outlets they once had for selling movies and TV shows.

Along with Jerry Pierce, I moderated a panel discussion at HPA on over-the-top (OTT) video. Panel participants included Dan Holden of Comcast, Jeff Cove of Panasonic, and Dani Grindlinger of TiVo, and the discussions were lively. Is OTT video a real threat to traditional pay TV channel subscriptions? Comcast’s Q4 2010 financial results, released during the conference, would seem to indicate ‘no’ as they only lost about 135,000 subscribers during that time period.

TiVo has made some nice gains with Charter Communications, who will offer their Premiere series of DVRs to customers for traditional pay TV service. But TiVo also supports Netflix, YouTube, and other Internet video channels that could compete with Charter’s bread-and-butter services. Is this tantamount to letting the fox into the chicken coop and hoping he’ll stay honest?

Panasonic, who was among the leaders in pushing 3D last year, now has a Viera tablet PC and their TVs offer a wide range of connected (OTT) services, including Netflix (who else?), Pandora, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, MLB.com and NHL.com. But they’ve also opted for a proprietary ‘apps’ platform, which means that app developers have yet another proprietary format to deal with.

The one company missing from our discussion was (of course) Netflix. Their business lately can best be described as “a house on fire,” and with their stock price in the mid-$200s per share, they don’t need to explain themselves to anyone.

But there will be pushback against the big red N. And that will come with higher rights fees in future licensing agreements from the likes of Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, Disney, Fox, et al not to mention major TV networks. It’s been pretty much conceded that packaged media (for better or worse) is on the way out, and that digital downloads and streaming are what the marketplace wants.

So the big question is how to make any money from it. Believe me, studios are very concerned about future revenue streams, which is why some of them are also discussing a shorter exclusivity window with movie theaters before popular movie titles would be available on pay-per-view (probably for $29.95 or $39.95), a proposal that is being roundly criticized by the North American Theater Owners (NATO) group.

The so-called 28-day reserve period that protects Blockbuster against Netflix and Redbox may also have to go out the window. The latest news from ‘the Block” is that it may shed as many as 600 stores, and that even a move to a streaming model isn’t going to save their chestnuts as studios sue to get millions of dollars back in unsold DVDs and Blu-rays.

However all of this turns out, there will be casualties. Blockbuster looks to be cooked and I don’t see anyone else looking to get into the brick-and-mortar DVD rental/sale model. What DVD/BD sales there are will be handled by the likes of Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon, and even my local Acme market (which had a 3’ x 3’ bin full of $9 DVDs in the candy aisle last week, including recent titles like Kick-Ass).

Netflix will likely pass Comcast in total subscribers by June of this year; maybe sooner (they added 3 million subscribers in Q4 of 2010). Redbox should have its movie streaming service up and running by then, and they may soon be joined by none other than YouTube. What kinds of deals will Hollywood ink with these companies?

One of the great ironies of all this is that Blu-ray player sales are picking up speed as their prices continue to drop. But anecdotal evidence so far is that consumers are buying BD players mostly for Netflix streaming – it’s cheaper than buying a new TV to gain Internet connectivity, and you can always play the occasional DVD or Blu-ray disc if you need to. (And I know where you can find some really good deals on cheap Blu-ray discs, over by the detergent, paper towels, napkins, and household items aisle…)

3D: Americans Still Aren’t Buying It

Nielsen’s latest report on American media device ownership and use is now available here, and it contains plenty of useful tidbits of market information.

For example, the average American watches 35.6 hours of television a week, which is almost as much time as they spend at a full-time job. As for our constant obsession with ‘too much TV viewing’ for kids, we’re looking at the wrong age group: Children 2-11 watch about 26 hours a week, while adults over 65 are hooked to the boob tube almost 50 hours a week.

As far as media devices go, 75% of respondents own a computer with high-speed Internet, while 46% own at least one HDTV. Digital video recorders were next on the list (35% of respondents own one), followed by handheld media devices like iPods (20%), NeTVs (14%), peripheral devices with Internet video connections like Blu-ray players (10%), Netbooks (9%), E-book readers (5%), tablet computers (less than 3%) and 3D TVs (2%).

About 116 million U.S. homes own at least one TV, with 105 million of them cable- or satellite-ready. 100 million homes have a DVD player, while (gasp!) 71 million still have a VCR. HD-compatible TVs are found in 65 million homes, and 56 million homes have digital cable TV service. In addition, 43 million have a digital video recorder.

Are you following the cord-cutting stories? According to Nielsen, the number of homes equipped with broadband service but no cable TV is relatively small and unchanged through 2010 (about 4%), while homes that have both broadband and cable TV actually increased from 62% to 66% from January 2009 to January 2010.

Another very interesting part of the study reveals that 76% of respondents ‘probably won’t or ‘definitely won’t’ buy a 3D TV in the next 12 months. 2% of respondents already own one, while only 6% “definitely’ or ‘probably’ will buy one. That’s not good news at all for TV manufacturers, who are currently struggling with profit margins and an ultra-competitive marketplace.

The fact that 14% of respondents own a NeTV and 10% own some sort of connected peripheral indicates that focusing on connected TVs may be a better strategy for manufacturers in 2011. 3D is still a tough sell for any number of reasons, but NeTVs are appealing to just about everybody, particularly those keen on streaming movies and TV shows, even if they are in less-than-standard definition.