Posts Tagged ‘Plasma TV’

It’s “Fade To Black” for Plasma and Projectors in Japan

Are we seeing the end of a golden era for display manufacturing in Japan? It sure seems so.

Earlier this month, Reuters published a story quoting sources inside Panasonic that state they are finally pulling the plug on plasma TV production. The exit is to be complete by the end of March 2014, otherwise known as the end of the company’s current fiscal year.

According to the Reuters story, Panasonic has been unable to stem the tide of red ink resulting from its television operations. In the past two fiscal years, Panasonic has lost $15 billion, with TV operations accounting for a $913 million hit in fiscal 2012.

I can’t say this decision was all that surprising. Ever since plasma TV shipments hit their peak in the mid-2000s, market demand has shifted rapidly to LCD technology. In fact, during FY 2012, there were more CRT TVs shipped worldwide (6.9% market share) than plasma (5.7% market share), according to NPD DisplaySearch.

Of course, LCD technology remains king of the hill with an 87.3% market share – an increase from last year, even though overall TV shipments dropped by 6% worldwide. And LCD still has plenty of legs – witness the advancements in TFT design (IGZO), backlights (quantum dots), and resolution (4K) that are now breaking into the market.

Panasonic is a strong player in LCD, and operates a Gen 8 fab that cranks out IPS-Alpha glass in Himeji, Japan. In fact, they shipped more TVs last year than Sharp and weren’t that far behind Sony.  But Panasonic had already idled a good portion of its plasma TV fab capacity by the start of 2013, including a brand-new facility in Shanghai and about 50% of its Osaka operations.

The departure of Panasonic may also result in Samsung and LG dropping plasma from their TV portfolios. For each company, plasma TVs remain the “value” product offering, with 60-inch LG 1080p plasma sets going recently for about $800 while equivalent 60-inch LCD sets with some bells and whistles command about 10% – 30% higher prices.

Still, the market for TVs is expected to continue a slow decline, thanks to shifting interest in tablets and smartphones for media consumption. There just isn’t any more time (or money) left to indulge small niche display technologies. It’s enough of a challenge for Japanese TV makers to approach profitability.

And things will only get worse. Japan can’t compete with Korea, and now has to deal with Chinese LCD TV manufacturers. In Q1, China was the only country to show an increase in LCD TV shipments Y-Y, while in the rest of the world, TV shipments fell by 4%.  The Chinese have enthusiastically embraced LCD manufacturing and are now cranking out big 4K panels, with the current world’s largest model (110 inches) coming from the CSOT fab in Shenzen. And they’re enjoying the strongest profit margins in the industry, too.

One result of this trend is super-cheap LCD TVs, often selling for less than $40 per diagonal inch. And the commercial AV channel has taken notice: Instead of specifying front projectors and screens, they’re putting in 70-inch, 80-inch, and 90-inch 1080p LCD screens instead. No more lamp changes, no ambient light issues, and “set it and forget it” operation – these are all strong selling points that financial and higher education markets have now embraced.

It’s hard to make a buck selling projectors – margins are very slim, and a great deal of product moves through distribution channels these days. Combine those thin margins with a trend away from front projection, and you have the “beginning of the end” for more than a few notable projector brands.

Consequently, Mitsubishi Electric Visual Solutions announced on October 11 that they were pulling out of the projector market for good, and also ceasing sales of large LCD monitors. Previously, the company had enjoyed good market share across a number of projector categories and even announced a new line of hybrid and “cloud” projectors at ISE and InfoComm.

Now, that’s all history. Mitsubishi will instead concentrate on tiled displays and videowalls, categories where they’re still profitable.  But they won’t be the last company to bid adieu to projectors: Sharp’s InfoComm and ISE booths have focused almost exclusively on large LCD displays, but they still list projectors on their Web site despite dwindling market share and continued struggles with red ink and underutilization of their huge Gen 10 Sakai LCD fab. How long before Sharp throws in the towel on projection?

These are not happy times for Japan Incorporated’s once-dominant TV industry, which is undergoing the same sort of painful downsizing the U.S. TV industry endured in the 1980s and 1990s.

Back in the day, Ernest Hemingway wrote a famous novel titled, “The Sun Also Rises.” If and when some future author records the last days of Japanese display manufacturing, that account could well be called, “The Sun Also Sets”…

In The Wake of CES 2013: Thoughts and Afterthoughts

Haier'as 84-inch 4K LCD TV looked as good as anything in the LG and Sony booths.

It’s just over a month since the International CES, otherwise known as the world’s largest orgy of consumer electronics. Some folks are even jokingly calling it the “Chinese Electronics Show,” after the strong showing by mainland Chinese manufacturers.

I can tell you that, after sorting through over 1,200 photos and videos, I’m still discovering things I photographed in the Las Vegas Convention Center. And there have been plenty of product announcements since the show, not to mention some shifts in power among CE manufacturers.

Each year, I present on future trends in technology at InfoComm. I also travel around and offer a condensed version of this talk for dealer and distributor line shows, professional society meetings, and even for a local amateur radio club.

As you might imagine, the content of the talk is updated frequently. What I present in two weeks at the local chapter meeting of SCTE will look and sound quite a bit different by the time I get to Orlando in mid-June. But that’s the nature of the beast – there is nothing so constant in the world of electronics as change.

Even so, there are a few clear trends that aren’t likely to change in the near future. And the most important trend, one which underlies everything else, is this: Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

This ad (and the gentleman sitting below it) pretty much sum up where CES is headed: A plethora of super-cheap products from companies you never heard of.

This ad (and the gentleman sitting below it) pretty much sum up the future of CES: Walking through endless aisles of generic, super-cheap products from companies you never heard of until your legs give out from exhaustion…

 

Think about it – you can buy a 60-inch plasma TV for less than $1,000, and that’s an everyday price. Want a nice Android tablet? You can pick them up for under $300. Blu-ray players with WiFi connectivity are now available for $70. And Roku’s XD Internet video set-top box (HD playback) is also ticketed at the same price.

Heck, you can buy an 80-inch LCD TV for less than $4,000. And that size and price combination has put a good portion of the front projector market in jeopardy. I won’t rehash previous columns here; suffice it to say that consultants, dealers, and systems integrators are putting these big screens in everywhere, and tearing out a lot of perfectly-good projector/screen combinations along the way.

But the low prices on the 80-inch Sharp TV are due to (a) excess fab capacity at Sharp’s Gen 10 Sakai LCD plant in Japan, and (b) the fact that Sharp is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Hence; the company is pushing the daylights out of large LCD TV and monitor sales at unbelievably low prices (less than $50 per diagonal inch).

Sharp also has a 90-inch product in their line, and anecdotal evidence shows that dealers are buying them for about $8,000 a pop. The 80-inch and 90-inch products are quite popular in two-up, side-by-side installations for videoconferencing and graphics display. And now China is getting into the game, showing 110-inch glass cuts made in Shenzen and resold by (among other brands) Samsung and Westinghouse. No one could have forseen nor desired this rapid drop in prices for LCD displays, particularly when the worldwide market for TVs is in decline.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Even at $269 (16 GB version), Barnes & Noble isn't selling anywhere near as many of these as they expected.

Even at $269 (16 GB version), Barnes & Noble isn’t selling anywhere near as many of these as they expected.

 

The other day, I was shopping in Best Buy and came across a special on USB flash drives (also known as “thumb” drives). SanDisk, celebrating its 25th year in business, was offering 8 gigabyte (GB) flash drives for $6 a pop – no coupons or rebates necessary. 16 GB models had a price tag of $10, and 32 GB drives could be scooped up for $20 apiece.

Believe it or now, flash drive capacity has blown past actual demand. With more and more people storing photos and documents “in the cloud,” there’s less of a need for portable flash memory.

Even so, it will take a long time to fill up a 32 GB flash drive. My 1,200+ photos and videos from CES needed about 3 GB of space on the 32 GB SD card installed in my Nikon CoolPix 8200 camera.

I bought a Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ tablet in December, and fitted it with a 32 GB Micro SD card.  That is a LONG way from filling up – the only files that take up any sizable room are HD movies I download for rentals (about 6 – 7 GB per movie).

You can buy 64 GB and even 128 GB flash drives now at reasonable prices. For those crazy enough to want one, you can pick up a 500 GB thumb drive for about $300 now. Of course, you can also purchase a 1 TB Western Digital MyBook for backups at a cost of just $129.95, or a Toshiba 2 TB portable HDD for less than $200.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Dock an Asus smart phone in the back of this tablet, and you have an 8-inch phone/tablet, or "phablet" - a great example of a market-disrupting, multifunction CE product.

Plug an Asus smart phone in the back of this tablet, and you have an 8-inch HD phone/tablet, or “phablet” – a great example of a market-disrupting, multifunction CE product.

 

The trend towards multifunction CE devices has also put a few product categories on the endangered species list. Shipments of point-and-shoot and DSLR camera declined markedly in 2011 when compared to 2010, a trend that is expected to repeat when 2012’s numbers are tallied.

The culprit? Mobile phones and tablets. Sure, they don’t have optical zoom lenses. And their image resolution still isn’t on a par with the best DSLRs and point-and-shoots. But that makes no difference to the average consumer, who is often pleasantly surprised to see just how well his or her smart phone takes HD-resolution pictures.

Last year, Canon and Nikon even introduced several models of DSLRs and pocket cameras with built-in WiFi and the Android operating system, just so people could take photos and instantly share them with friends. As far as I can tell, these products aren’t doing much to stem the decline in camera sales. After all, you can’t make phone calls or send texts with these cameras.

Nonetheless, prices for cameras have dropped to all-time lows. A nice compact point-and-shoot can be yours for less than $100, while a 16 megapixel model with 14x optical zoom and the ability to shoot 1080p/30 videos will run about $200. (As a point of reference, Canon’s first 5D-series DSLRs could shoot 3 frames per second in 2005 and cost $3,300.)

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Who needs a dedicated game controller? Just use your smart phone, through its MHL connector, to do the job.

Who needs a dedicated game controller? Just use your smart phone, through its MHL connector, to do the job.

 

Even though consumers haven’t swarmed to “smart” TV functions, they do like their streaming – and Netflix is now the largest pay TV system operator in the United States, with over 25 million subscribers (yes, more than Comcast). With an ever-increasing number of viewers watching video on tablets, notebooks, and through Internet connectivity boxes like Apple TV, Boxee, and Roku, we’re seeing the leading edge of a shift in how TV shows and movies are accessed.

The phenomenon of “cord-cutting” is not new – mainstream publications have been following it for some time. But there’s evidence that the trend is accelerating, driven by ever-higher costs for pay TV subscriptions that are running above the annual rate of inflation.

And it’s Generation Y that is taking the lead here, preferring to watch episodes of popular TV shows after they become available for download or streaming at Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Netflix, and on network Web sites. That is carrying time-shifting to an extreme, but it’s all in the name of economy.

Now, the traditional pay TV systems will tell you that cord-cutting is an aberration; a short-lived phenomenon that will run its course once younger people get married, form households, have children, and change to more traditional cable or satellite service.

Except that doesn’t appear to be happening. Just as Generation X and Y have all but pushed traditional landline telephone service into oblivion in favor of 24/7 mobile phone use, so too will they force the Comcasts, Time Warners, and DirecTVs of the world to finally offer some type of a la carte programming at lower prices.

And Gen X and Y will succeed because they’re already watching a la carte, streaming or downloading selected shows and movies at $2 – $5 a pop when it suits them. Many are supplementing Internet TV viewing with free, over-the-air broadcast HDTV services to hold the line on their entertainment budgets.

Many people buy WiFi-enabled Blu-ray players solely for the purpose of streaming. Yes, they can pop in a BD or DVD now and then, but the majority of their viewing is through that streaming port. And that is one reason why Blu-ray player prices have dropped so far and so fast.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Panasonic's NEO plasma TVs make drop-dead beautiful pictures. So how come most people still buy LCD TVs?

Panasonic’s NEO plasma TVs make drop-dead beautiful pictures at reasonable prices. So how come nearly 9 out of 10 people still buy LCD TVs?

 

When you stop and think about it, the cost of consumer electronic devices compared to the power and functionality they offer is simply mind-boggling. With a $40 Bluetooth keyboard and $60 micro mouse, my Nook HD+ is transformed into a super-compact notebook computer. I can surf the Web, watch movies and TV shows, send and receive emails, and even make a PowerPoint presentation. And all of that cost me less than $400.

Televisions with screens smaller than 50 inches can often be purchased for less than $10 per diagonal inch. For that matter, I’ve seen 26-inch and 32-inch LCD TVs for about $8 per diagonal inch, a price point at which virtually no one is making any money. This means your next TV purchase is basically amortized in less than a year, and if it breaks, you simply recycle it and buy a new one.

The glut of LCD TVs in all sizes and the resulting TV price wars are claiming one casualty – plasma. Plasma TVs were once the Rolls-Royce of TVs and commanded comparable pricing. They still have the advantage in image quality all over LCDs, particularly at wide viewing angles. Maybe they aren’t quite as bright, but they do have excellent dynamic range and deep blacks.

So what? In the third quarter of 2012, 88% of all TV shipments worldwide were LCDs. 5.5% were plasma. In fact, more CRT TVs were shipped worldwide in Q3 2012 than plasma TVs! (You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say.)

Clearly, price and convenience are trumping quality, adding plasma to the endangered species list. Samsung, Panasonic, and LG will continue to manufacture plasma TVs as long as there is reasonable demand, but have been shuttering factories and fabs along the way as demand drops.

More importantly, they’re not investing any more capital in upgrading or enhancing plasma technology – not while TV prices are hovering in the range of $8 – $12 per diagonal inches, LCDs account for nearly 9 out of every 10 TVs sold currently, and the Chinese are breathing down the necks of Korean and Japanese TV brands with even lower-priced models.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it.

 

Haier'as 84-inch 4K LCD TV looked as good as anything in the LG and Sony booths.

Haier’s 84-inch 4K LCD TV looked as good as anything I saw in the LG and Sony booths.

 

I’ll close this essay with a look to the future of TV – specifically, 4K TV. You can shrug your shoulders, smirk, or make fun of 4K. But there’s no denying that it’s coming whether or not there is enough 4K content to watch.

4K went from being highly-anticipated at CES to “ho hum” in a single day. That’s because so many companies had 4K TVs on display, and many of those were located in China. Brands like Hisense, TCL, Skyworth, and Haier showed fully-loaded 4K TV products that were every bit as impressive as the latest “smart” TV offerings from Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp.

Not only that, the Chinese brands had multiple models of 4K TVs. While Sony and LG got some “oohs!” and “aahs!” for their 84-inch LCD offerings, Hisense had 50-inch, 55-inch, 65-inch, 84-inch, and 100-inch models flickering away in the aisles. Westinghouse Digital showed a similar portfolio in their LVH suite. Skyworth’s small booth was dominated by an 84-inch 4K set, while TCL pulled off a sensational marketing and PR coup; getting the producers of the upcoming Iron Man 3 release (May) to showcase their 110-inch 4K set in the movie. (Guess Samsung and Sharp were asleep when that happened?)

The fact is, most TV manufacturing is inexorably moving to China. Some will remain in Korea, but it’s hard to see how the Japanese can hang on, seeing as they are getting clobbered by an unfavorable exchange rate on the yen and the emergence of large LCD fabs in Taiwan and China that can make big sheets of inexpensive, good-quality LCD glass – glass that can be used in everything from tablets and phones to televisions. It’s just not a fair fight.

Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it…

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

I haven’t run a Letters column on HDTVexpert.com in several years. And there’s a good reason for that: With everything else on my plate these days, I keep forgetting to do it. (That was Steve Martin’s favorite excuse, as I recall: “I forgot!”)

Even so, I find that there are certain questions that keep popping up after my classes and presentations, not to mention after some of my more controversial articles. And there’s no better time to address some of them with the holiday shopping season now upon us.

So let’s get started!

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Q. What (kind of) (brand) (size) TV should I buy?

A. Not surprisingly, I get this question a lot. But you may be surprised at my answer: Whatever you like.

The fact is; TV prices have never been lower. I spotted numerous Black Friday specials where TVs were selling for less than $10 per diagonal inch. Imagine that! You can pick up major brand 42-inch LCD TVs for less than $400 now. $900 will buy you a major brand 60-inch plasma TV (that price was $1000 a year ago). Heck, you can score a 70-inch LCD TV for $2,000!

Frankly, it’s hard to go wrong these days. Prices are so low that even if you grow disenchanted with your purchase after a year or two, you can just recycle it and buy a new one. To put things into perspective, add up what you pay for mobile phone service annually, plus the cost of a smart phone that you’ll get rid of in two years.

Is that number on the high side of $1,200? For about the same amount of money, you could buy a pair of 47-inch LED-backlit LCD TVs. Or a fully-loaded “smart” 3D LED LCD TV with Web browser. For what my 42-inch Panasonic TH-42PZ80U cost me in September 2008 ($1,099), I can now buy two 42-inch 1080p plasma TVs and get more HDMI inputs with reduced power consumption. Amazing!

Here’s a tip: No need to rush out and grab a TV before Christmas. The best deals are typically in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, so if you can wait that long, you’ll see some huge savings. But even if you just gotta watch your favorite college or pro team on a new TV, you’ll still find some great prices through the next four weeks.

 

Q. You’ve always been a big advocate for plasma. Now you’re telling me that plasma is going away. How can that happen? Don’t people care about picture quality?

A. It’s simply a matter of economics. The TV-buying public has voted and voted overwhelmingly for LCD technology. One of the major consumer preference studies commissioned earlier in 2012 revealed that residents of the United States generally prefer big, cheap TVs, and don’t care much about the display technology, or Web browsers and 3D. They just want more screen for the buck – and they’re getting it, judging by current retail prices.

Does plasma still have an edge over LCD in terms of picture quality? Well, if you prefer deeper blacks, wider viewing angles without color shifts, and colors similar to what the best CRT TVs and projectors could produce back in the day, then plasma is the way to go.

But LCD TVs are often sold on form factors – how thin they are, how light they are, and how cool they look when turned off and sitting in your living room or family room. Some folks like ‘em because they’re so bright and are largely unaffected by high ambient light levels. And you can’t buy smaller plasma TVs (<40 inches) these days. Last time I looked, the 2nd-largest screen size category in terms of TV sales was 30 to 39 inches. That’s 100% LCD territory.

Plasma TVs are only made by a handful of companies (Panasonic, Samsung, and LG). Plasma TV shipments have been steadily declining over the past five years, aside from a little bump a couple of years ago. Plasma’s share of all TV shipments in Q2 2012 was about 5.5%, which means that more CRT TVs were shipped worldwide than plasma models. (You could look it up.) Simply put; people just aren’t buying it.

Pioneer got out of the plasma TV business almost 5 years ago because they could not compete on price and volume. Panasonic once predicted it would be shipping 11 million plasma TVs a year – that number is now less than half, and Panasonic has been forced to idle a good portion of its plasma fabs as a result of declining demand. (That’s also why Panasonic is now pushing 42-inch, 47-inch, 55-inch, and eventually 60-inch LCD TV screen sizes.)

It’s hard to argue with the numbers.

 

Q. Now that TV prices are so low, should I still have my TV calibrated?

A. Not really. Just about every TV I’ve tested has at least one preset picture mode called “cinema” or “movie” or something like that. If you switch your TV into that mode (or one of the ISF Day or Night modes if present), your TV will be “close enough for government work” when all done.

To be sure, go into your picture menu and check to see that (a) brightness is around 45-50, (b) contrast is about 75-80, (c) sharpness is set to zero, (d) color temperature is set to “mid” or “warm,” (d) and any “auto” gamma, black level, contrast, or brightness modes are disabled or also set to zero.

I’ll wager that you’d be quite happy with your TV’s picture quality after all that. And you will have saved yourself quite a few dollars that can be put to better use, like your monthly pay TV subscription. Or a sound bar to overcome the acoustical limitations of super-thin TVs.

I should add that I still see some value in calibrating home theater projectors, even though some of them also come with “cinema” and “movie” picture presets. Getting the best projected image quality in a darkened room is a very different and more complex process than getting acceptable TV image quality in a fully-lit room.

 

Q. You seem to have it in for Blu-ray and 3D sometimes. Why?

A. I don’t have any particular bias against the Blu-ray format. I own five Blu-ray players and have a sizable stack of movies (as well as a Toshiba HD-DVD player and a stack of HD-DVD discs. Any takers?). And there’s really nothing else out there that compares in image quality to movies on Blu-ray.

What I have taken other analysts, reporters, and public relations companies to task for is ignoring the shifting sands of public opinion, which now clearly favor electronic delivery of movies and TV shows via streaming (Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, and Hulu) over physical discs; the sales and rentals of which are in a steady decline.

I have long maintained that the average consumer doesn’t really care if they own a physical copy of a movie – they just want to be able to watch on their schedule. And for better or worse, streaming services satisfy that desire. Never mind that the picture quality isn’t always that great, or that the stream locks up from time to time. People value convenience and price over quality most every time (it’s an old axiom of economics), and Netflix and Amazon give it to them.

If and when Internet speeds get fast enough on a consistent basis, I’d bet that most consumers would be happy to stream HD movies from a ‘cloud’ server and drop the discs altogether. Or load them onto flash memory for viewing on multiple platforms, like tablets. Why do you think so many WiFi-enabled Blu-ray players have been sold in the past couple of years? It’s for the access to Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu.

Be honest now. How many movies do you have sitting unwatched on shelves in your house, still in their original shrink wrap? Birthday presents? Holiday gifts? Impulse purchases? Who knows from where they came. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get rid of used DVDs these days – even the local libraries don’t want them. Times are changing.

As for 3D, which seems to come along every other sunspot cycle, it was just too expensive and too confusing to the average consumer, who (as I stated earlier) just wants a big, cheap television. The early lack of 3D movie content (caused by exclusive Blu-ray “bundles”), competing presentation formats (active vs. passive vs. autostereo), and scarcity of 3D TV channels (DirecTV’s 3D channel has all but been shut down) just added to the problem.

3D has its place, and right now it’s better suited to larger screens in controlled viewing environments, such as movie theaters and theme parks. TV manufacturers don’t spend much time promoting 3D anymore – they’re just trying to figure out how to get you to buy a new TV these days; any TV.

So 3D will just become a another bell and whistle that you can embrace or ignore on your $800, 55-inch super-thin LED “smart TV” next January.

 

Q. Is there really that much difference between indoor TV antennas? You’ve tested a bunch of them – isn’t it more about marketing hype than anything else?

A. There are many folks out there that are trying to “huckster” people out of their hard-earned cash with “enhanced” or “high-performance” indoor antennas that are little more than a variation on the 60+-year-old bow tie design.

A good example would be the Clear Cast X1, which is little more than a bow tie in a solid plastic housing, connected through a l-o-n-g piece of small diameter, lossy coaxial cable.  This antenna doesn’t work substantially different than a $5 bow tie that Radio Shack used to sell.

Yet, Clear Cast got quite a few people to shell out $70 for it (including me, but that was for testing purposes, not because of a condition of temporary insanity in my part!).

I’ve seen expensive antennas made out of old satellite dishes and UHF yagis. I’ve seen loop antennas, “placemat” antennas, and cylindrical antennas. (Remember the $400 Terk “tanning lamp” HDTV antenna from the late 1990s?)

The physics of TV antennas haven’t changed much since the 1940s and 1950s. Most antenna designs you see now are similar to patented designs from back then, only with some tweaks or enhancements. That said; there are some clever “placemat” antennas available for sale now, and the best models I’ve tested so far are made by Mohu. (The Walltenna isn’t too shabby, either, and Winegard’s FlatWave is a decent performer.)

I’ve gotten a few more models in recently for reviews and will probably just re-test the entire batch soon to establish a new baseline. From experience, I’d say that you don’t need to spend much more than $50 for a good performer, unless you want an amplified version. That will run you another $20 – $30.

But you should be cautious about indoor antennas that sell for three figures – you may be buying more marketing hype than anything else. Caveat emptor!

 

Q. You’ve been predicting recently that projectors are on the way out, and that large LCD screens are going to replace them. Yet, I continue to see market forecasts that projector sales will increase substantially each year. How do you explain that discrepancy?

A. What I’ve stated on more than one occasion is that the availability of large and inexpensive LCD screens (TVs and monitors) will have an impact on projector sales for small to mid-size rooms. That would be conference rooms, meeting rooms, boardrooms, and classrooms that seat anywhere from half a dozen to 50 people.

And I am not making this up. As I travel across the country teaching classes for clients, presenting at major trade shows, and just informally talking to AV consultants, designers, dealers, and systems integrators; I hear again and again that this is actually happening, and not on a small scale.

Apparently, the major push for dumping projectors and moving to a one-piece high-resolution display that doesn’t care about ambient lighting is coming from clients, who see Sharp’s 80-inch LCD TV for $3,999 at Costco and Best Buy and wonder why they can’t put one (or two) in their company offices.

From what I’ve heard, this is a strong trend at financial institutions. Based on early responses to threads I’m running on several LinkedIn groups, it’s also happening in classrooms. Shipments of large LCD and plasma monitor supports are running far ahead of rear-projection frame and supports.

The math behind it is easy to figure out. A two-piece projection screen (usually motorized) and ceiling-mounted projector wind up costing far more than the 80-inch TV (yes, dealers are installing those and getting a multi-year warranty on them). And there are no lights to dim, and no lamps to replace. I don’t have any empirical data on mean time between failures (MTBF) for these large TVs. But so far, people seem very happy with them.

Keep in mind this old saw: A one-piece display solution is always preferable to a two-piece display solution. That’s what’s driving this trend.

 

Enough! Time to close up the mail bag and enjoy the rest of the month before CES hits. Happy holidays!

Panasonic’s 2012 Home Entertainment Media Briefing – Pete Putman

Senior product manager Jason Gastman walks us through the 2012 TV lineup.

Panasonic’s 2012 TV and home entertainment line show took on extra importance this year, what with the company closing in on a $9.7 B (as in “billion”) loss for the fiscal year that will end on Friday, March 30. To be accurate, a substantial portion of that red ink is due to a goodwill accounting write-down on the 2009 acquisition of Sanyo, which will cease to exist as a corporate entity after Friday.

 

But the remainder is largely attributable to consumer electronics operations; specifically, the television business. Think about it: Just five years ago, a 42-inch plasma TV with 1080p resolution retailed for over $2,000. Now, the price is about 1/3 of that, meaning the cost per diagonal inch for that TV has dropped from about $47 to $15. (Real-world example: I paid $1,100 for a TH-42PX80U 42-inch 1080p Panasonic plasma in September of 2008.)

 

Frankly, Japanese TV manufacturers can’t be profitable at that price point, which is why Panasonic (along with Sony, Sharp, and other TV brands) are having such a miserable year financially.

 

But Panasonic was ‘different’ from the other guys in that it promoted plasma display technology as a differentiator. And Panasonic did (and still does) plasma better than anyone else, now that the late, lamented Pioneer plasma lineup has faded into history.

 

The focus on plasma meant that for years, there was a ‘green line’ between plasma screen sizes and LCD TV sizes that Panasonic simply would not cross. That line – 42 inches – was breached slightly in 2011 with the introduction of a couple of LCD TVs that used the company’s IPS-Alpha LCD alignment layer. (IPS stands for ‘in-plane switching’ and was originally developed by Hitachi. LG also uses a variant of IPS extensively in their LCD TV product line.)

The VIERA CONNECT menu is different for 2012, and adds some exclusive content partnerships.

 

This year, all bets were off as Panasonic blew by the ‘green line’ with 42-inch, 47-inch, and even 55-inch LCD TVs. And except for a couple of bargain-basement 42-inch 720p models and one 3D iteration, smaller Panasonic plasma TVs are now becoming history. The TC-P42X5 (720p) is tagged at $429.99 (meaning it will be the first 42-inch plasma to sell for less than $400 at an everyday price), while the TC-P42XT50 will retail at $650. The 50-inch XT50 also supports 3D playback.

 

The LCD usurpers all fall into the VIERA E50 series, which includes the TC-L42E50 ($900), TC-L47E50 ($1,100), and TC-L55E50 (price TBA). All three models use LED backlights and have 1080p resolution; VIERA Connect; social networking TV function; DLNA; a PC input; four HDMI terminals and two USB ports. And all models are ‘WiFi-ready’ (you have to buy a separate USB dongle and plug it in).

 

Back to plasma: The ‘top of the line’ models for 2012 are in the ST50 series, and include (quoting from the press release) “…Infinite Black Pro Panel; Full HD 3D; VIERA Connect™ with a web browser and built-in WiFi; 1080p Full HD resolution; 2500 FFD (Focused Field Drive); fast switching phosphors; 2D ? 3D conversion; Social Networking TV which allows the user to simultaneously view a program on the TV and connect with their Twitter and/or Facebook account on the same screen ; 3D Real Sound with 8-train speakers –eight dome type micro speakers with reflectors that deliver wide ranging, high quality sound; a new louver filter; Media Player;  Bluetooth; DLNA; VIERA Link™; three HDMI connections and two USB ports.” (Wow, let me catch my breath for a moment…)

The TC-P50ST50 plasma line is loaded for bear. So why does it offer only three HDMI inputs?

 

Does that sound like the feature set of a TV, or of a computer? The ST50 plasma sets actually have a dual-core processor, and with all of the listed input and output ports – plus all of the apps, streaming capabilities, WiFi, and other features – they basically ARE computers, albeit fitted with very large plasma monitors. You can get ‘em in sizes ranging from 50 inches (TC-P50ST50, $1,400) to 65 inches (TC-P65ST50, price TBA).

 

For ‘Full HD 3D’ plasma viewing (their wording), Panasonic offers the UT50 series, which starts at 42 inches (TC-P42UT50, $800) and goes all the way to 60 inches (TC-P60UT50, ($1800 – and no, I don’t know why there isn’t a 65-inch SKU in this lineup.) UT50 plasma TVs are all 1080p resolution, with VIERA Connect (you need to buy the WiFi dongle separately), media player, faster switching phosphors, Bluetooth connectivity, DLNA operation, two HDMI connections (Why only two? There are three on the ST50 series!), and dual USB ports.

 

Now, here’s the weird part. Panasonic, along with Samsung and Sony, launched the Full HD 3D initiative (read the press release here) in 2011, and at CES 2012, demonstrated interoperability between different models of active shutter 3D glasses. The goal was to educate and inform consumers that active shutter 3D TV is a very different (and better) animal than the passive 3D TVs that employ circularly-polarized eyewear and deliver half the vertical picture resolution. (LG is the biggest proponent of passive 3D, which is similar to the process used in 3D movie theaters.)

 

So – you’d think Panasonic would be firmly behind active shutter? Guess again. The new line of ET5-series LCD TVs uses film-patterned retarder (FPR) LCD panels and have most of the bells and whistles of the VIERA line, including built-in Wifi, 2D to 3D conversion, the internal media player, DLNA compatibility, and the social networking TV functions.

Full HD 3D is the only way to go! (Except when it isn't.)

 

Oddly enough, the ET5 TVs come with four HDMI inputs, which is more than any other model range. And of course, you get four pairs of passive 3D glasses with each TV, starting with the TC-L42ET5 ($$1,100) and continuing with the TC-L47ET5 ($1,300) and TC-L55ET5 ($1,900).

 

When I asked Panasonic representatives why they continue to support both plasma and LCD in the same screen size, even though plasma TV sales accounted for only 13.5% of the worldwide market last year, they replied that there was still enough demand for the product through ‘niche’ dealers, especially in the larger sizes. That’s probably true for the high-end VXT products, but I don’t see how any 42-inch plasma will be in the line next year – and 50-inch sizes may also be heading towards the endangered species list if those market share numbers keep dropping.

 

I got a similar answer when I asked Panasonic to reconcile its emphatic support for active shutter 3D with the launch of several passive 3D TV models. The reply was something to the extent that these models didn’t have all of the goodies of the UT50 series (but they do have more HDMI inputs!) and that the company was simply responding to consumer demand.

Jonesing for connected Blu-ray players? Panasonic's got six of 'em.

 

OK, let’s take a closer look at what’s really happening. First, Panasonic sells a lot of LCD TVs. (In fact, they sold more of them back in 2010 than Sharp did!) But for all of 2011, the market leader in combined LCD and plasma TV sales was Samsung, capturing 26% of the business in the fourth quarter. Panasonic was way back in fourth place with 6.9% of the market. According to NPD DisplaySearch, this was the first time that someone other than Panasonic led in worldwide plasma TV shipments.

 

Remember about six years ago when Panasonic announced it was building new plasma fabs that would ultimately give it the capacity to roll out 11 million plasma TVs a year? The ENTIRE plasma TV market for 2011 was 5.2 million units, a decline year-to-year of 8%. Overall, plasma TV shipments accounted for just 13.5% of the worldwide total.

 

As a result, Panasonic has idled a good portion of its plasma manufacturing capacity, along with a lot of its LCD capacity. Across the board, Panasonic’s TV revenue share declined 19% from 2010, which is a big contributor to all the red ink I mentioned at the start of this article. So the company’s 2012 TV marketing strategy may be more along the lines of “Let’s throw everything at the wall and see if anything sticks!”

 

Truth be told, we are probably looking at the demise of plasma as a consumer TV display technology in the not-too-distant future. Panasonic will eventually run into the same buzz saw that sliced up Pioneer – too much fab capacity and not enough market demand. It’s a great idea on paper to say you’ll continue to support plasma in the high-end and niche markets, but there comes a point where it just doesn’t make sense economically to stay in the business – and Panasonic is already staring at unprecedented losses for the year.

 

As for 3D, the DisplaySearch numbers show that TV purchases that were specifically tied to 3D capability amounted to about 7% of all TVs sold in North America in the third quarter of 2011 (the latest quarter for which I could find numbers). Active shutter or not, 3D TV just isn’t selling well on this part of the planet, but Panasonic’s support for passive 3D makes no sense at all – it’s not like the numbers are going to change as a result.

Now, there's a remote control you don't see every day. (Notice the button dedicated to Netflix streaming?)

 

In another portion of the demo room, Panasonic showed just how good its black levels are on 2012 plasma TV models, compared to 2011. Excuse me, but I recall seeing this same demo for the past six years, and the black levels on my 2008 model are already excellent – measuring below .1 nits on average. The 2011 VIERA ‘before’ plasma I observed had black levels resembling a 2006-vintage LCD TV, and didn’t look right to me. It’s time to retire this demonstration!

 

Oh, I almost forgot: There will be six new Blu-ray players in the line this year, three more than are really necessary. Four of them fall into the Smart Network 3D Blu-ray category, starting with the top-line DMP-BDT500 ($350) and stepping down through the DMP-BDT320 ($200) to the DMP-BDT220 ($150). There’s also the very compact and stylish DMP-BBT01 ($270), which can operate horizontally and vertically.

 

All four models offer (and I quote from the press release again) “…an improved UniPhier chip processor, 24p output for VOD, an expanded VIERA Connect functionality, and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec),192Hz/32bit Audio DAC (not available on the DMP-BBT01), Smartphone remote control capability, a new touchpad remote control (available on DMP-BBT01, DMP-BDT500, DMP-BDT320),  2D-to-3D up-conversion2, which can convert 2D images from VIERA Connect1,  DVDs and Blu-ray discs into 3D with natural depth perception, a new slim design and a unique slot-in drive that is found in two of the models (the DMP-BBT01 and DMP-BDT320).”

 

Two non-3D players also make their debut. The DMP-BD87 will retail for $120, while the DMP-BD77 is the entry-level model, priced at $90. The difference? Built-in WiFi on the DMP-BD87, while you’ll need the accessory USB dongle for the DMP-BD77. Both models (and the four 3D versions) are also ‘Smart VIERA’ enabled and support the most popular Internet TV sources, including Netflix, YouTube, CinemaNow, Vudu, and Hulu Plus.

 

The reality of most Blu-ray player purchases is that people are buying them primarily to get inexpensive access to Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu. These three services account for something like 80% of all video streaming these days, and a connected Blu-ray player is a great way to add streaming to an older (but not THAT old) LCD or plasma TV – like mine.

 

Panasonic also has some new, more ergonomic remote controls for its TVs and Blu-ray players. One of them has just a few buttons and a touch pad, similar to those found on notebook computers. (Oh wait, I forgot – TVs are basically computers nowadays…)

 

So there you have it – plasma TVs to 65 inches, LCD TVs with LED backlights to 55 inches (and very likely to 60 inches in short order), and both active and passive 3D TVs. Something for everybody in 2012!

 

Come to think about it, this roster reads a lot like the LG TV lineup from 2009, and we all know what eventually happened to their active 3D TV line…

 

The Rout Is On – by Pete Putman

As things go, the flat screen TV business is relatively young. Until ten years ago, large LCD TVs weren’t even viable products. And plasma dominated the large screen (42” and up) flat screen TV business.

 

But neither technology held any substantial market share. Instead, CRT televisions (and rear-projection CRT sets) were ‘kings of the hill.’

 

Going back through some of my archives, I found that in the fourth quarter of 2005, CRT TVs held a 78.9% worldwide market share. That represented a decline of 15% from Q4 of 2004, no doubt due to the 137% increase in LCD TV market share in the same time period (yes, you read that right, 137%!).

 

While LCD TVs held a 14.7% market share, plasma TV share grew from 1.8% of all TVs sold to 3.9%, a growth rate of 109%. CRT rear-projection TVs held .9% of the market, a drop of 60% from Q4 ’04, while microdisplay RPTVs grew to 1.6% of the pie, an increase of 52% over the same time period. (All numbers compiled from DisplaySearch reports.)

 

How about the major TV brands? From Q3 ’05 to Q4 ’05, it might surprise you to learn that Sony had the top TV brand revenue share and growth, with 14% of all TV sales revenue (a quarterly growth rate of 130%)! Samsung was right behind with 11% revenue share and 36% Q-Q growth, followed by Philips (9.1% revenue share, 31% Q-Q growth), Panasonic (8.3% revenue share, 13% Q-Q growth), and LG (7.8% revenue share, 28% Q-Q growth).

 

These five companies accounted for 50% of all TV revenue in Q4 of 2005. And there was only about a 6-point spread between #1 and #5, so the pie was being divvied up pretty equally.

 

In terms of TV brand unit share, the order was changed somewhat. LG captured the number one spot with 9.8% unit share in Q4 ‘05, followed by Samsung (9.2%), TTE (7.5%), Philips (7.1%), and Sony (6.9%). The remaining 60% was chopped up among a host of brands.

 

The eye-opener here was when I went back to the beginning of 2005. For the first quarter of the year, Sharp topped the branded TV market share with an amazing 21% (a year-to-year growth of 82%). Philips was number 2 with 14.7% share, followed by Samsung (10.8%), Sony (10%), and LG (7.3%). The five brands accounted for 60% of all TV sales back then.

 

So – in a little less than a year, Sony added 7% to its brand share, while Samsung marched in place, LG picked up about 2 points, Sharp fell off the map completely, and Philips lost half its brand share. (TTE didn’t show up in the 2005 listings at all.)

 

Now, let’s jump ahead to Q4 2011. NPD DisplaySearch’s latest numbers show that LCD flatscreen TVs now account for 86.5% of all TVs sold worldwide. Plasma continues to decline as it pushes into a larger screen ‘niche,’ grabbing a miniscule 6.9% market share. Amazingly, CRT TVs still held a 6.4% share, while RPTVs managed to eke out a .0004% market share – look for this category to be killed off completely in 2012.

 

And the tables have turned completely from 2005 in terms of worldwide market share. Samsung managed the amazing feat of increasing its market share to 26.3% from Q4 ’10 to Q4 ’11, an all-time record and an amazing growth rate of 18% in an otherwise-flat (no pun intended) industry. LG was far behind Samsung with a 13.4% market share, essentially unchanged since Q4 ’10.

 

As for Sony, they also held steady at 9.8%, basically the same as a year before, while Panasonic saw a decline of 2% to 6.9%. Sharp – who continues to sell fewer LCD TVs than Panasonic, incredibly – experienced a decline of 7% from Q4 ’10 to a 5.9% market share in Q4 ’11. These five brands accounted for 62.3% of the 74,236,000 TVs sold.

 

So what does this all mean? First, Samsung has clearly blown away everyone else in the TV industry, opening up a double-digit lead over their nearest competitor (LG) in market share. And those two guys waste time arguing about whether passive or active is better for 3D viewing?

 

Second, we’re seeing the slow, inexorable end of the Japanese television industry, just as we saw it happen in the United States in the late 1970s to the late 1980s. Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic are all hemorrhaging money for the current fiscal year that ends on March 31, and the consumer TV business is the primary reason.

 

When TVs sold for $50 per diagonal inch and up, there was plenty of money on the table for everyone. But now that mainstream TVs screen sizes (up to 55 inches) are selling for $10 – $15 per diagonal inch, the Japanese simply can’t compete anymore. And it will only get worse with Chinese TV brands Haier, Hisense, TCL, and others establishing beachheads on all continents.

 

Third, it’s over. The fat lady has sung. Samsung has won. They set out in the mid-1990s to beat Sony at their own game, and by any reasonable account, have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Samsung will make a nice profit on 2011 TV sales, and LG will at least get their LCD TV business back into the black.

 

But the story isn’t so pretty for Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic. Sharp still has no explanation for their continual slide in market share, which apparently began in 2005 and continued uninterrupted, and which has now idled (by some accounts) 50% of their LCD fab capacity. As for Panasonic, they’d already shut down one LCD and one plasma factory in 2011, because demand just isn’t there. And no one in Osaka knows how to fix the problem.

 

Sony is being pressured by financial analysts in Japan to get out of the TV business altogether, a decision which, as painful as it might be to management given Sony’s long and rich history with TV manufacturing, is probably the most sensible thing to do. The company’s TV business has lost money for eight straight years – never mind the strong market share numbers that popped up early on.

 

And it’s not going to get better any time soon, as DisplaySearch stated that 2011 worldwide TV shipments actually declined .3% in 2011, reversing six consecutive years of growth. Only the LCD TV category showed any increase with a bare-bones 1% uptick. Everything else was on a downhill slide, with plasma declining 7%, CRTs falling 43%, and RPTVs in a 51% tailspin.

 

Hitachi has already pulled the plug on their TV business. Toshiba and Mitsubishi will no doubt follow suit in the next 12-24 months. And that will leave us with the Hatfields & McCoys in Korea, plus a host of Chinese brands you may want to get familiar with. (The running joke at CES 2012 is that it was the “Chinese” Electronics Show, and that’s not far from the truth!)

 

The rout is on…