Posts Tagged ‘Home Theater’

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.

CES 2011: Afterthoughts

CES is a strange show. It’s so big and has so many exhibitors that you keep thinking about what you’ve seen for weeks afterwards – kinda like mental ‘aftershocks’ and flashbacks. And I’ve had a few of those since returning home almost a week ago.

Here, in no particular order, are some afterthoughts from CES:

It looked much more impressive than it worked.

Gesture Recognition – Hey, Where’d it Go? In 2007, 2008, and 2009, gesture recognition for TV operation was a BIG deal at CES. Hitachi, Toshiba, JVC, and others all showed sophisticated gesture-recognition systems at previous CES shows, and last year’s Toshiba exhibit managed to combine GR, their Cell processor, and 3D in a most impressive demonstration.

This year? Hardly any GR demos at all, aside from some rather crude examples found in the Hisense and TCL booths that barely worked. The TCL demo was so insensitive that visitors to that particular exhibit looked like they were swatting at flies, while the Hisense demo consisted of someone doing a work-out while following an animated trainer on a nearby LCD TV.

Yawn…

OLED TVs are coming any day now. About the same time the Cubs win the World Series.

OLEDs – We’re Still Waiting: Every year, Samsung, Sony, LG, and others tease us with demonstrations of gorgeous-looking OLED TVs in a variety of screen sizes. Yet, we continue to wait, and wait, and wait for production models to come to brick-and-mortar stores. (The XEL-1 doesn’t count.) Sony even built an autostereo screen into a 24.5-inch AM OLED display, while Samsung’s 19-inch AM OLED was 50% transparent.

We’d all like to replace our LCD and plasma TVs with OLEDs, but it looks like we’re going to be drooling and waiting a LONG time before that happens. Smart phones have already beaten us to the punch and it looks like tablet computers will be the next place to roll out (literally) OLED screens.

And yet, every year, we get our hopes up again…

These must be figments of my imagination.

Picoprojectors: Vaporware? After reading a recent Display Daily post by colleague Matt Brennesholtz at Insight Media, I fired off an email to eight different IM analysts, asking them if they had ever seen a picoprojector in use in 2010 other than at a trade show or a display technology conference.

This may surprise you, but each one of them responded with a simple, “No.” None of them had spotted any at retail, either. And yet, companies like Pacific Media Associates continue to issue optimistic sales forecasts for picoprojectors, while Texas Instruments had a full suite of “picos” at CES that were built into smart phones, a tablet computer, cameras, and pocket projectors.

I think tablet computers may derail picoprojectors, or obsolete them completely. How about you?

Maybe they didn't get the memo last year?

Hey Sharp, 3D was SO 2010! Sharp once again had an enormous CES booth filled with big, colorful LCD TVs (70-inches was the big news this year) and finally had a few 3D Blu-ray demos to go with them. Well, a year late isn’t too bad, I guess. The only problem is; Sharp’s share of the U.S. TV market has been steadily dropping since 2005 and is below 3%, according to NPD Display Search’s 3rd quarter 2010 numbers. That’s embarrassing! Even Panasonic now ships more LCD TVs than Sharp, who pioneered the LCD TV biz a couple of decades ago.

The four-color Quattron technology, while intriguing, doesn’t appear to have caught on with consumers so far, and we all know how disappointing sales of active shutter 3D TVs have been to date. To add to Sharp’s problems, Sony has not fully committed to fund its share of Sharp’s new Gen 10 LCD plant. Sony was originally on the hook for a 34% stake, but according to multiple reports may cap that investment at 12% and look to China for a cheaper source of LCD panels.

This would be a good time for a comeback, kid…

There's a contrarian in every crowd...

Mitsubishi Thumbs its Nose at the Experts: Yep, those ‘diamond’ guys are still making rear-projection DLP TVs, and apparently selling plenty of them, too. Their 92-inch roll-out at CES drew big crowds and will probably ticket around $5,000, which is less money than a decent front projector, screen, and home theater in a box will cost you. Did I say it could do 3D, too? Side-by-side, top+bottom, frame packing, checkerboard – you name it.

We “experts” predicted Mits would fall by the wayside as the LCD and plasma juggernauts rolled through the market. Uh, not quite. And with Mits’ new laser light engine, the issue of lamp replacement will eventually fade into the sunset. Texas Instruments is thrilled that they still have a RPTV customer, and as long as Mits can manage its bill of materials (BOM) costs, they can remain in the catbird seat for a few more years until something better comes along.

(Sound of a big raspberry coming from Irvine…)

DisplayPort: On Your Mark…Get Set…Get Set…Get Set: Is DisplayPort ever going to take off? I saw several cool demos of multi-monitor support and embedded 3D notebooks through DisplayPort in the IDT suite, along with a basic booth in the lower South Hall showing wireless DisplayPort over WHDI and a multi-channel audio concept demo.  But who’s using it, aside from Apple?

In the meantime, HDMI (Silicon Image) showed ViaPort (multiple connections to a TV hub and one to a AVR with automatic streaming for the highest-supported audio format), MHL (Mobile content through a mini HDMI interface to TVs and other devices), and ViaPort for digital signage (Blu-ray at full resolution to eight daisy-chained TVs through single HDMI connections).

Maybe they misplaced the starter’s gun.

What's next? VIZIO appliances? Cars? An Airline?

VIZIO – The Next Apple? Not only has VIZIO staked a big claim in the TV marketplace, they also rolled out a tablet computer and a smart phone at CES. The VIZIO Phone has a 4-inch display, GPS, WiFi, two built-in cameras, HDMI output (MHL), 2 GB of storage and doubles as a universal remote for VIZIO products.

The VIZIO tablet is pretty impressive, too. It also has WiFi, GPS, and a high-rez camera for videoconferencing, HMDI output, three internal speakers, and 2Gb of internal storage plus a MicroSD card slot. And yes, it can also work as a universal remote. The guys at VIZIO also thumbed their noses at all of the active-shutter 3DTV manufacturers and opted to go with passive 3D in a 65-inch LCD set that uses inexpensive RealD (circular polarization) glasses.

What’s next, Mr. Wang? Brick-and-mortar ‘VIZIO Zone’ stores in selected cities and malls? (Don’t laugh, he might just try it!)

Ghandi was into passive, too.

Active Shutter 3D – Has it Peaked Already? In addition to VIZIO, LG and JVC also showed new large LCD TV products with embedded micropolarizers and inexpensive passive 3D glasses. I saw a few passive demos here and there, but these were the big three as far a product rollouts. LG even had large bins with passive glasses at the numerous entrances to their booth.

While passive 3D certainly solves the problems with fragile and expensive glasses, it can play funny tricks with screen resolution as every other horizontal row of pixels has micro-sized circular polarizers that work in opposite directions. That can make the screen appear to have noticeable black lines on it when viewing normal content, a problem that would be solved by moving to 4K native resolution (thereby adding to panel complexity and costs).

Still, passive 3D could put a crimp in 3D TV sales this year as it feeds into the average consumer’s wariness of another TV ‘format war.’

Step Right Up and Getcha 3D Camcorder! This product category went from 0 participants in 2010 to “I lost count’ in 2011. Panasonic, Sony, ViewSonic, JVC – you name the company, they had a 3D camcorder out for inspection somewhere in their booth. And it wasn’t just the big boys, either. Ever hear of Aiptek? Didn’t think so. They showed a palm-sized 3D camcorder under their name that coincidentally appeared in the nearby ViewSonic booth.

 

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The question is how many of these cameras were using conversion lenses (Panasonic) and how many were capturing video through true 3D optical assemblies (JVC, Sony).  The Aiptek model in question may also have been converting 2D on the fly, but it was hard to tell from the sketchy details in their booth. Also, Sony’s and JVC’s cameras use the full-resolution frame-packing format, similar to Blu-ray DVD.

OK, who wants a 3D camcorder? (And a 3D TV to go with it?)

Wonder if their booth was open on Saturday?

Hey, Didn’t You Guys Just Lose $8.5B? Once again, the United States Postal Service occupied a healthy-sized booth in the upper South Hall. And once again, they were shilling for Priority and Overnight Mail, package shipping, and a new service called PremiumPostcard.com direct mail marketing.  They also featured something called the Fast and Furious Challenge, although no racecar was in sight this year.

Ordinarily, I’d be kinda upset that taxpayer money was spent this way…except that the USPS operates as a quasi-private agency, living entirely off revenues from mail delivery. So maybe I should instead give them props for trying to drum up more business, except that it’s hard to understand how many of the surrounding Chinese manufacturers would benefit from any USPS offerings.

As long as they don’t drop Saturday delivery, I guess I don’t care…

CES 2011: Applications? Plenty! Buzz? Ahhh, Not So Much…

How do you like THIS for a videowall?

If you still needed any convincing that the U.S. economy is on the rebound, the 30-minute-long cab line at McCarran Airport did the trick. Attendance at this year’s running of the world’s ultimate gadget expo was WAY up, probably hitting 2007 levels. (CES claimed 140,000 in attendance, but my guess is that the real number was more like 90,000 – 100,000, based on cab lines and traffic.)

But CES was a vastly different show than in recent years. True “wowza!” product demos were few and far between. Instead, what we saw were ‘apps’ – practical, real-world applications of technologies introduced in the past couple of years. (And of course, umpteen million tablet computers.)

Smart phones were huge this year, and they were doing everything from shooting videos to doubling as game controllers and even talking to ovens and refrigerators. The Android OS rules this space, with Windows coming up far behind. If there was a possible use for a smart phone, someone demonstrated it in a booth (including 3D).

Ever expect to see 3D on an MH receiver? Neither did I.

A wonderful moment, indeed.

Discussions of “the cloud” were heard in every hallway. For those readers who don’t know what “the cloud” is, it’s the concept of storing and accessing media files from remote servers, streaming or downloading it to view on portable and desktop displays. Netflix streaming is a good example of “the cloud,” and many industry analysts believe “cloud” delivery of content is where everything is headed – no more big hard drives or optical disc readers, just fast wireless and wired Ethernet connections.

Speaking or wireless, it’s all the rage. I lost track of all the wireless connectivity demos, ranging from wireless USB 3.0 docking stations to full-bandwidth 1080p video and multi-channel audio streaming to TVs from Blu-ray players, using the 6 GHz radio frequency band.

And those tablet computers…they were everywhere, so many that tablets suffered the ignonimous fate of moving from the most anticipated new product at the opening of the show to “so what?” products by its closing. I saw just as many off-brand and white label tablets in the lower regions of the South Hall as I did at the Blackberry, ViewSonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic booths. Can you say, “buzz kill?”

That's a complete nVidia workstation graphics card, connected through 6 GHz wireless links.

How does a Wireless USB 3.0 docking station grab ya? Samsung's got it.

3D TRENDS

Last year’s show was dominated by 3D. You couldn’t get away from it! This year, the 3D pickings weren’t quite as abundant, although a few companies (Sony and Panasonic) continued to place a heavy emphasis on stereoscopic TV viewing in their booths.

Toshiba did too, except they chose to emphasize glasses-free (autostereo) 3D exclusively in their booth. LG opted to show passive 3D products that use inexpensive circular-polarization glasses, along with a single autostereo LCD TV. Meanwhile, Sony had concept demos of a portable 3D Blu-ray player and a 24-inch autostereo organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV.

The reduced emphasis on 3D might have something to do with the paltry sales of active-shutter 3D TVs in 2010. Sales numbers were nowhere near what anyone predicted, which could partly be blamed on the recession. But it could also be blamed on a perception that there is a format war brewing in the world of 3D TV (shades of the 1080i vs. 720p battles from ten years ago).

Toshiba's 15-inch prototype autostereo notebook display uses a built-in camera to adjust the 3D viewing angle to your position.

HELLO, 1958! Polaroid actually showed a blue-yellow anaglyph 3D demo at CES. (CAUTION: Don't watch Avatar this way...)

Toshiba’s recent announcements of glasses-free 3D TV certainly added to that perception, and that’s all they showed at CES. Meanwhile, LG and JVC seem to be leaning towards passive 3D (embedded polarizing filters) in their LCD TVs, and in fact LG had large baskets of passive 3D glasses available to both visitors.

The LG autostereo LCD TV worked about as well as the Toshiba models. As you change your viewing position, patterned film retarders (PFRs) built-in to the LCD surface create a new perspective and viewpoint, blocking some pixels and revealing others. It works, but you’ve seen the same effect before with static digital signage displays in retail stores and in airports. And it’s not easy to watch 3D video this way for very long.

There were plenty of autostereo handheld display demos. LG’s new Optimus smart phones were shown as game controllers for 3D gaming systems, but were also displaying mobile 3D content. Nearby, LG had a demonstration of autostereo 3D as broadcast from Las Vegas DTV station KLVX, using the MH mobile digital TV standard.

Sony showed an autostereo media player in its booth, along with the aforementioned portable Blu-ray player with autostereo screen. (Frankly, I think the market for portable BD players is pretty miniscule, but the autostereo images looked quite nice.)

Sony's 24.5-inch autostereo AM OLED was a show-stopper.

JVC's got some skin in the 3D game with this 65-inch passive 3D LED LCD TV.

Sharp, who last year missed the boat on 3D – and whose U.S. market share in TV sales continues to drop precipitously – rolled out the 3D bandwagon this year, with a full line of Quattron 3D TVs out for inspection, including a new 70-inch model. Hidden away in another part of their booth were demos of 3.8” and 10.6” autostereo LCD displays for handheld devices.

JVC, who has been concentrating more on projection products lately, unveiled their first consumer passive 3D TV. It’s a 65-inch, edge-lit LED model with embedded micropolarizers that work with RealD theater glasses. Back in the Central hall, Hisense, Konka, and TCL all showed Chinese-made 3D sets with active shutter glass technology, while VIZIO threw its hat in with the passive 3D crowd, unveiling several models that use embedded polarizing filters and passive eyewear.

Hmmm…maybe there IS something to this 3D format war, after all…

NETWORKED TVS

It was hard to find a TV at CES that didn’t sport some sort of Internet connection. Panasonic (VieraCast), VIZIO (VIZIO Internet Apps), Sony (Google TV), LG (Smart TV), and Samsung (Samsung Apps) all had full plates of NeTVs out for inspection, along with numerous connected Blu-ray players. By the way, the ‘connected’ part of Blu-ray players is the big reason they are finally selling so well, as consumers apparently can’t get enough of YouTube and Netflix streaming.

There were also plenty of demos of smart phone control of TVs, using WiFi to stream back a lower-resolution version of the content being displayed on-screen. I’m not really sure why anyone would need that functionality, especially if they are already sitting in front of the TV watching whatever program or movie is playing out. Maybe it’s just in case you need to run to the bathroom?

Don't have Internet connectivity on your plasma or LCD TV? LG's got the fix.

You want a TV remote? I'll show you a TV remote!

LG went everyone better with their ST600 Smart TV adapter. Remember ATSC set-top boxes from the DTV transition? Well, the ST600 is an Internet TV adapter that works with any set through its HDMI port.  It costs about $150, and gives you a Web browser, plus one-button access to popular Internet TV sites like Netflix, CinemaNow, VUDU, Hulu Plus, YouTube, MLB TV, Pandora, and others.

Sony prominently featured their Sony Smart TV product line, based on Google TV. This product has really stumbled out of the gate, probably because of the incredibly complex keyboard remote control (remember Web TV, anyone?) and the fact that a majority of Web video surfing can be accessed with directed one-button Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube apps. Maybe we’ll see a simplified version of the product from Sony in 2011.

Panasonic rolled out its own tablet computer, as previously mentioned. The Viera Tablet is part of a “cloud” focused content delivery strategy (there it is, again!) that will let consumers access on-demand and VIERA Connect content. The tablet will actually be available in several different sizes, ranging from 4” to 10,” and also functions as a TV remote control.

Sharp also featured connected Blu-ray players, with directed apps for VUDU taking center stage. Three new models use wireless connections to access Netflix, VUDU, Pandora and YouTube content via streaming connections. They also took the wraps off a 70-inch Quattron LCD TV with built-in WiFi and a support for CinemaNow, Netflix, VUDU, and DLNA video streaming.

Sharp's got a new 70-inch LCD glass cut, and wireless Internet connectivity to go with it.

Samsung didn’t have quite as many sexy NeTV announcements, but they did have the largest LCD TV at the show (75 inches) and prominently featured their Smart Hub technology. You can access the usual suspects through wired and wireless Ethernet connections, along with Blockbuster, MLB.TV, AccuWeather, Facebook, Hulu Plus, and History Channel content, among others.

PROJECTION TRENDS

There wasn’t a lot of projector news from CES. Texas Instruments used the event to launch a new line of DLP Pico HD chipsets. These are tiny WXGA-resolution (1280×800 pixels) digital micromirror devices (DMDs) that are used in picoprojectors and pocket projectors, and there were plenty on display in the TI suite. They had picos running in GE digital cameras, Sharp smart phones, and even a prototype tablet computer.

Sony even showed a DLP-based picoprojector in a new digital camera at Digital Experience, an interesting development considering that both companies parted ways back in 1996 after Sony built its first and only SVGA DLP high-brightness projector.

Yes, Pico DLP chips really are that small.

Even digital cameras are equipped with picoprojectors nowadays.

Other picoprojectors were shown from LG, ViewSonic, Acer, and Optoma. The Optoma iPod docking station with built-in picoprojector was a clever product, as was the GE digital camera. But most of these projectors cast small, dim images, and you have to wonder how the explosion of tablet computers will affect this market, considering that both picos and tablets would be used for very small group presentations.

Several 3D projectors took a bow in Las Vegas. Mitsubishi finally has a model number for its LCoS 3D projector (HC9000), while Sharp announced the XV-Z17000 DLP 3D chassis. Samsung’s also got a new 3D box, the SP-A8000, which also uses DLP technology. Over in the JVC booth, the previously-announced DLA-X9 and DLA-X7 D-ILA (LCoS) 3D front projectors now have THX 3D certification – apparently the only models to earn that appellation so far. The general consensus is that DLP produces better blacks and higher contrast than LCoS 3D projectors, but that will remain to be seen. (I expect to have a review sample of the Mits unit in mid-March.)

Mitsubishi’s big screen TV division continues to hang on in the rear-projection DLP marketplace and is actually doing quite well, thank you very much. (It’s easy to capture 100% market share when you are the only player!) They launched a 92-inch DLP set with 3D compatibility, and while it doesn’t have a model number yet, expect it to sell in the mid-$5000 range, with active shutter glasses an extra.

Is a 92-inch 3D screen big enough for ya?

NO?? OK, then how about a 155-inch OLED screen?

WIRED VS. WIRELESS NETWORKING

I met with most of the major networking groups at CES. Two of them (HDBaseT and DiiVA) are very close in theory and practice, with structured wire being used to distribute video and audio between connected devices. Both systems also support USB connectivity for remote gaming control, and both systems can deliver power to connected devices (100 watts for HDBaseT and 24 watts for DiiVA).

Many commercial interface manufacturers are incorporating HDBaseT infrastructures into their AV switching products, the latest being Crestron (Digital Media) and Gefen. AMX already uses a version of HDBaseT in their AV switchers and distribution amplifiers.

DiiVA is apparently gaining popularity in China, where new apartment buildings and houses all have structured wire pulls. Most of the companies that have DiiVA-compatible products are also (not surprisingly) based in China.

Keep your eye on Diiva for both consumer and commercial applications.

A touch of the button is all it takes to get you in a surround-sound sweet spot, courtesy of Summit Semiconductor.

On the wireless side, Summit Semiconductor, Aeleron, and Amimon all showed system-on-chip solutions for high-bitrate video and audio distribution. Amimon is the founder of the Wireless High Definition Interface (WHDI) and showed wireless display connectivity to remote PCs, as well as Blu-ray 1080p playback to specially-equipped LG and Hisense wireless LCD TVs.

Aeleron featured Ultra WideBand (UWB) connectivity of 1080p streaming and docking systems that work with TVs, laptops, smart phones, and other media players. They also featured DLNA-compatible UWB adapters for in-room signal distribution (UWB can’t go between rooms) and driverless HDMI interfaces.

Summit’s demo was perhaps the most interesting. It featured uncompressed distribution of wireless multi-channel surround audio to randomly-placed powered speaker columns. A special remote activates a supersonic Doppler system that automatically adjusts the levels of all speakers so that you are sitting in t ‘sweet spot,’ no matter where you are in the room, or where the speakers happen to be placed. It takes all of ½ second for this adjustment to be made.

Back over in the Hilton, Sigma Designs has found a way to reduce line noise and broad spectrum interference in HomePlug systems. Turns out, all those battery chargers and AC adapters are pretty ‘dirty,’ which clips the available bit rate for moving video and audio through decoupled AC power lines. With the Sigma enhancements, the receive speed (to a media player or TV) is as much as 65% of the transmit speed (from the playout source). With normal HomePlug appliances, the receive speed can drop to as little as 20 – 25% of the transmit speed.

Who knew HomePlug systems were so noisy? (not to mention iPad AC power adapters...)

Guess what? Your smart phone can talk to your oven now. And your refrigerator, and washer, and dryer, and...WHAT??? No! Not the TOILET!!!

THE WRAP

There was so much more to report on from CES. Many of the new TVs and accessories will be featured in upcoming spring line shows, where I’ll take a closer look at each. You can also find news about specific model numbers and pricing at many other media outlets, along with each manufacturer’s specific Web sites.

If there was anything to take away from the show, it was that TVs were not the big news at CES this year. Instead, multi-function smart phones and connected media appliances generated all the buzz. We’re definitely in for a protracted battle between the “your TV should be the hub!” advocates and the “Connect outside the TV!” evangelists, not to mention the “go wireless!” and “use wired connections!” camps.

I tend to favor the “connect outside the TV” and “go wireless” arguments, although it is a tricky task to stream high-definition video in an uncompressed format between rooms in a house. (And no, the FCC taking away more UHF TV channels won’t help at all – there’s not enough spectrum space in the UHF band for 512 MHz channels!)

3D will continue to muddle along this year, as the economy slowly recovers and consumers sit on their hands. The confusing “glasses or no glasses” messages won’t help. Active-shutter 3D and passive 3d are clearly superior to autostereo 3D for viewing TV shows and movies, but you have to test-drive all three modes first to understand why. Look for the passive systems from LG, JVC, and VIZIO to pick up more market share as the year winds on and consumers realize they can use their freebie movie theater glasses at home.

LG's placing its bets on passive 3D TV.

Samsung's flexible OLED displays don't get bent out of shape.

NeTVs are here to stay and potentially a lot more popular than 3D. Sony’s Google TV approach may be too complicated for most consumers, who are likely to favor the simpler direct channel apps offered by everyone else. And if they can access Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus, they may not need much else. Look for LG’s Internet converter box to be copied by other manufacturers so that older TVs can join in the fun.

It was nice to see a few OLED TV demos this year, but once again the technology just isn’t ready for prime time. Look for Samsung to show an OLED Galaxy tablet later this year, if for no other reason than to prove they can make one. But it will be a while before you can buy it. The rest of the tablet and smart phone crowd will stay with tried-and-true LCD technology for the time being.

Blu-ray disc and player prices will continue to plummet. I’ve predicted that major brands will stop making conventional DVD players altogether in 2011, moving to Blu-ray as their exclusive platform. While we didn’t see any BD players with internal hard drives like those sold in Japan, they’re not far off. Too many people are using Netflix streaming and would like to try a straight digital download for improved image quality. What better place to enable a DVR than in a BD multifunction media hub?

And get used to using your smart phone to do everything. Game console controls, TV remotes, autostereo displays, even diagnostic tools to use with connected major appliances – all of these smart phone applications were shown at CES.

So was a iPhone case with a built-in bottle opener, which might turn out to be one of the most useful smart phone “apps” of all…

No comment!

Hmmm…A New Blu-Ray Player. Why Not?

The Blu-ray format has struggled for several years to gain the wide acceptance accorded to its lower-resolution sibling. Even though the latest market figures show Blu-ray player penetration at nearly 20% of U.S. households, packaged media rental and sales continue to decline (they’re down about 7% Y-Y), and Blu-ray disc sales and rentals are not sufficient to make up the difference.

There’s no question that the format war with HD DVD was a major setback. (China is now using a version of HD DVD as its de facto blue laser DVD format.) But the biggest problem Blu-ray had was bad timing – the world is slowly moving away from packaged media to digital downloads and streaming.

The high cost of players and discs didn’t help, either, and in fact may have hastened the move towards digital file capture. In a conversation with a Disney executive a few years ago (right after Warner Brothers pulled the plug on HD DVD), he stated that the easiest way to make sure Blu-ray caught on was to stop pressing red laser DVDs and stop manufacturing red laser DVD players.

Time marches on. Blu-ray prices have plummeted for both the players and discs. In fact, you can buy the four-disc Toy Story 3 set from Amazon.com for $24.99 right now, and wind up with the main feature in the BD format, a BD extras disc, a red laser DVD, and a digital copy. That’s an amazingly low price on a supposedly ‘hot’ new BD release.

So, why did I decide to buy a new player? For starters, they are dirt cheap right now, and getting cheaper by the day. I paid $180 for my Panasonic DMP-DB85  through B&H Video, a price that was matched by Amazon.com. And that included free shipping via UPS Ground, which usually means overnight for me for anything coming from B&H.

Secondly, I wanted a player that would work with the CEC interface on my Panasonic TH-42PZ80U plasma. One-touch control of the player and TV is just easier for family members than fussing with a bunch of remotes.

Third, our family subscribes to Netflix, so I was interested in adding streaming to my bag of media tricks. Granted, my TiVo HD can also stream, but I don’t want to tie it up if I’m recording shows to one or both of the internal DVRs.

Fourth, Consumer Reports gave the DMP-BD85 its second-highest ranking in a recent review of Blu-ray players. Yes, I subscribe to CR, and they do a bang-up job of product testing – particularly TVs and accessories.

Finally, the image quality from the Panasonic DMP-BD65 is very good, rivaling the OPPO upscaling player it replaced. Plus, the Panasonic remote is a lot easier to use than the older-style OPPO remotes. Readers who have older OPPOs know exactly what I mean.

I don’t play that many DVDs any more, but this unit should suffice as my media hub for a while. The DMP-BD85 comes with a USB 2.0 plug-in 802.11n adapter and isn’t too difficult to configure, although the on-screen menu could use some massaging. I had everything up and running in 5 minutes, even on a secure network.

Are we getting closer to the day that conventional DVD players become extinct? Well, Wal-Mart announced they’ll have a $65 Magnavox Blu-ray player available on Black Friday. And you can buy Panasonic 65-series players for about $100 now at BJ’s Wholesale Club.

So, yes – we are getting closer to that day when Blu-ray is the only optical disc format for packaged media. Only question is, will it happen before the American consumer makes a wholesale move to digital streaming and downloads?