Posts Tagged ‘Streaming’

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Whether you like the man’s music or not, there can be no argument that it has had a profound impact on countless artists and bands ever since his first album was released 49 years ago.

 

One of my favorite Dylan tunes is the aforementioned “Times,” and it couldn’t be more appropriate in 2011. The world of media distribution is turning on its head, thanks to the Internet and digital technology.

 

Consider these recent stories. At a meeting of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) last week in Dallas, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski emphatically stated that there is no need for further debate on the topic of spectrum shortages. Quote: “Any objective observer would have to say that the spectrum crunch debate has been put to rest.”

 

Genachowski, of course, has been advocating that TV broadcasters give up yet another chunk of their spectrum that would be re-assigned for wireless broadband services (something TIA members like Verizon and AT&T are salivating over).

 

Obviously Genachowski feels that the importance of free, over-the-air television has greatly diminished, and that ‘broadband for everybody’ should be the modus operandi going forward, using ‘voluntary’ spectrum auctions to free up UHF TV channels for his pet project.

 

Aside from some technical reasons why using UHF TV channels for wireless broadband isn’t a good idea, Genachowski is clearly overlooking other spectrum that could just as easily be put to the same purpose, such as the 800 MHz analog cellular phone band. (Betcha didn’t know those channels were still in use!) Or, how about the hundreds of MHz reserved exclusively for government use? A 120-MHz bite out of that would hardly be noticed.

 

The point, however, is that Genachowski feels the availability of free digital TV (and free HDTV, I should add) isn’t nearly as important as having broadband access to Netflix streaming, or to eBay auctions, or to the Huffington Post, or to ESPN.com.

 

And that is a sea change in the thinking of the FCC from 1934, when it was created from the old Federal Radio Commission to ‘regulate the airwaves in the public interest,’ to 2009 when the digital TV transition was complete, and the FCC had largely devolved into a glorified spectrum auction house.

 

Wireless isn’t the only place where the old order of media distribution is under siege. Two recent reports from the Digital Entertainment Group and SNL Kagan clearly show that America’s love affair with the DVD is over, and that more and more households are embracing a ‘cloud’ model for accessing and watching movies and TV shows.

 

Kagan’s study revealed that wholesale revenue from DVDs (not Blu-ray discs) in 2010 dropped almost 44% from 2009, even though 2010 was a decent year at the box office. This decline in DVD sales has been evident for nearly six years now, and is picking up speed – Kagan calculates that the annual compound negative growth rate for DVD revenue is over 13% in the past five years.

 

Granted, DVD rental income from $1-per-night kiosks was up last year, and video-on-demand (including Netflix streaming) is in a strong growth mode. Even so, overall consumer spending on entertainment declined almost 11% in 2010, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

 

The important thing to note here is that streaming is growing by leaps and bounds. As you’ve probably read elsewhere, Netflix now has more subscribers than Comcast (over 23 million). And Netflix streaming is largely what’s driving sales of connected Blu-ray players, not sales and rentals of Blu-ray discs. There’s that ‘cloud’ thing, again!

 

The problem with Netflix streaming is that the revenue that goes back to Hollywood studios doesn’t even come close to replacing the cash cow that DVDs once represented. And that drop-off in revenue will definitely be a sticking point when each studio’s contracts with Netflix are renegotiated in t near future.

 

On the hardware side of things, we’re seeing an accelerating shift away from traditional notebook computers to touchscreen tablets and eBook readers. A recent news story stated that women, who generally read more books than men, are flocking to Barnes & Nobles’ color Nook reader and are also reading more magazines than ever before on said reader.

 

That fact, plus the embedded but largely hidden Android OS that has the potential to turn the Nook into a full-blown media tablet, may be the reason why John Malone’s Liberty Media is making a play for Barnes & Noble. Last Thursday, Malone’s company announced a $1B offer for 70% of the company. The bid price is about $17 per share, which represents a 20% premium over the current stock price.

 

Why would Malone, who made his fortune in the cable TV business, want to own the largest bookseller in the United States? Because he can deliver all sorts of content – print or otherwise – directly to Nooks through a ‘cloud’ structure. (And he might need some of those UHF TV frequencies to do it!)

 

There you have it. TV and movies everywhere, anytime (just not on optical discs). A media center in your coat pocket. Cloud servers set up by everyone from Amazon to Apple. Wireless broadband access to everything, even if it means you have to pay Verizon and AT&T to watch TV programs, over the air, with an antenna. And the increasing likeliness that you will have to pay to watch HDTV content, wherever it comes from.

 

The times, they are indeed a-changin’…

NAB 2011: It’s All About Streaming, Displays, and Connectivity

With each passing year, NAB looks less and less like a broadcaster’s show and more like a cross between CES and InfoComm. It’s a three-ring circus of product demos, panel discussions, conferences, and media events that all points to the future of ‘broadcasting’ as being very different than what it was at the end of the 20th century.

 

Officially, slightly less than 90,000 folks showed up to walk the floors of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and it was elbow-to-elbow in some exhibits. But there was another trend of smaller booths for the ‘big name’ exhibitors like Panasonic and JVC.

 

That reflects the reality of selling products that have mostly three and four zeros in their price tags. At my first NAB in 1995, it wasn’t unusual to see $50,000 cameras and $80,000 recorders. Now, you can buy some pretty impressive production cameras for about $5,000.

 

Streaming and over-the-top video was big this year. Ironically, NAB featured an enormous streaming media pavilion back in 1999, but it vanished the next year. The reason? A lack of broadband services across the country that could support streaming at reasonable bit rates.

 

Obviously, that’s all changed now, what with Netflix at 21 million subscribers and climbing, and MSOs deploying multi-platform delivery of video and audio to a plethora of handheld devices. Concurrently, the broadcast world is trying to roll out a new mobile handheld (MH) digital TV service to stand-along portable receivers and specially-equipped phones.

 

And behind all of this, the FCC continues to make noise that it wants to grab an additional 100 – 120 MHz of UHF TV spectrum to be repurposed for wireless broadband, a service you’ll have to pay for. Attendees had mixed thoughts on whether the Commission will actually be able to pull this off – there is some opposition in Congress – but there appeared to be a high level of opposition to the plan, considering there is plenty of other spectrum available for repurposing, much of it already used exclusively for government and military purposes.

 

Like last year, there were lots of 3D demos, but the buzz wasn’t really there. 3D still has a ways to go with its roll-out and it simply can’t compete with the interest in content delivery to smart phones, tablets, and other media players. Still, there were some cool 3D products to be found here and there.

 

Here are some of the highlights from the show.

Is that an MH receiver in your pocket, or are you just glad to watch DTV?

ATSC MH Pavilion – several companies exhibited a range of receivers for the MH services being transmitted during the show from Las Vegas TV stations and low-power rigs in the convention center. LG and RCA both showed some snazzy portable MH receivers, with LG’s exhibit putting the spotlight on autostereo 3D MH (as seen at CES) and a service call ‘Tweet TV’ which would allow viewers to comment on shows they’re watching and have those tweets appear on their MH receiver.

 

Another demo had CBS affiliate KLAS-DT transmitting electronic coupons for local retailers and restaurants during the show. These showed up on a prototype full-touch CDMA smart phone with a 3.2” HVGA screen.

 

In a nearby booth, RCA unveiled a lineup of hybrid portable DTV receivers. There are two 3.5” models (DMT335R, $119, and DMT336R, $159), a 7” version (DMT270R, $179), and a pocket car tuner/receiver that connects to an existing car entertainment center. It will sell for $129.

Believe it or not, this was a commercial for Coca-Cola.

Motorola had two intriguing demonstrations. The first showed full-bandwidth 3D content distribution, using the full 38.8 Mb/s bandwidth of a 256 QAM channel to transport frame-packed 1080p video with full 1920×1080 left eye and right eye images, encoded in the MPEG4 H.264 format and sequenced through active shutter glasses.

 

Nearby, an HD video stream was encoded for four different displays, with all four signals carried simultaneously in the same bit stream. First up was a 1080p/60 broadcast; next to that a 720p/60 version, followed by a standard definition version (480i) and a version sized for a laptop computer or tablet. Both MPEG2 and MPEG4 codecs were used.

 

Red Rover attracted quite a crowd with their 28″ 4K (3840×2160) 3D video monitor which uses two 4K LCD panels arranged at 90-degree angles to each other (one on top, facing down). A half-mirror with linear polarization is used to combine the left and right eye images for passive viewing. Both LCD panels are Samsung vertically-aligned models, and the whole works will sell for (ready for this?) $120,000.

Only $120K? That's a steal!

Volfoni showed dual-purpose 3D glasses at NAB. When powered on, they function as active shutter eyewear. Powered off, they are usable as passive 3D glasses. The whole shebang is controlled by an external power pack the size of an iPod nano that clips to your pocket or shirt, and this ‘pod’ can ‘learn’ any IR code from active shutter TVs.

 

The pod controller can step through several neutral density filters and there are several levels of color correction possible from the remote power pack. (Electronic sunglasses – imagine that!) The glasses use 2.4 GHz RF signaling technology to synchronize with any active shutter monitor or TV. And despite all of the bells and whistles, they weigh just over an ounce.

 

Sony’s 17″ and 25″ BVM-series OLED monitors that were first shown at the 2011 HPA Technology Retreat now have siblings. The PVM-E250 Trimaster OLED display is structurally the same as its more-costly BVM cousin, but has fewer adjustments and operating features. And it’s going to sell for quite a discount over the BVM version – just $6,100. There’s also a 17-inch version which wasn’t operating at the show, and it is expected to retail for $4,100.

 

Up at the front of the Central Hall, Panasonic was showing the TH-42BT300U, their first plasma reference-grade monitor. It’s not all that different from the exiting 20-series industrial plasma monitors in appearance, but there’s a big difference in operating features. Black levels have dropped and low-level noise has been minimized with a half-luminance PWM step. This results in more shades of gray and a smoother transition out of black.

 

In addition, the TH-42BT300U supports 3D playback for side-by-side and top + bottom color and exposure correction. Panasonic has also added automatic ’snap-to’ color space menu options, along with a user-definable color gamut option. When calibrated, it was an eye-catcher. There’s a 50-inch version also in the works, and both monitors will go on sale this fall.

Sony knows OLEDs. Make. Believe. (Nah, it was real...)

Panasonic's TH-42BT300U (left) maps color accurately to the BT.709 color space, unlike its sibling the TH-42PF20U (right).

Hyundai unveiled the B240X, a new 24″ passive stereo LCD monitor. It sports a 1920×1200 display with circularly-polarized film-patterned retarders and supports 3D side-by-side and top + bottom viewing formats. The pixel pitch is about .27 mm and brightness is rated at 300 nits. Hyundai also created an eye-catching 138″ (diagonal) 3×3 3D video wall for NAB, using its flagship S465D 46″ LCD monitor.

 

Sisivel has come up with a unique way to deliver higher-resolution 3D TV in the frame-compatible format. Instead of throwing away half the horizontal resolution for 1080i side-by-side 3D transmissions, Sisivel breaks the left eye and right eye images into two 1280×720 frames. The left eye frame is carried intact in a 1920×1080 transmission, while the right eye is broken up into three pieces – the top 50% of the frame, and two half-frames that make up the bottom.

 

All of this gets packed in a rather unusual manner (see photo), but some simple video processing and tiling software re-assembles the right eye fragments into one image after decoding. Then, it’s a simple matter to sequence the lefty eye, right eye images as is normally done. The advantage of this format is that it has higher resolution than ESPN’s top+bottom 3D standard (two 1280×360 frames).

So THAT's how you pack two 1280x720 3D frames into a 1920x1080 broadcast. Clever, eh?

 

JVC announced two LCD production monitors at NAB. The DT-V24G11Z is a 24-inch broadcast and production LCD monitor that uses 10-bit processing and has a native resolution of 920×1200 pixels. The extra resolution provides area above and below a 1080p image for metering, embedded captions, and signal status. The incoming signal can also be enlarged slightly to fill the entire screen.

 

The DT-3D24G1Z is a 24-inch passive 3D monitor with circular polarization patterned films. It has 1920×1080 pixel resolution, 3G HD-SDI and dual-link inputs, a built-in dual waveform monitor and vectorscope, left eye and right eye measurement markers, and side-by-side split-screen display for post production work including gamma, exposure, and color/white balance correction.

 

Nearby, crowds gathered to see two new 4K cameras that use a custom LSI for high bitrate HD signal processing. The demo used a Sharp 4K LCD monitor, and the cameras were running at 3840×2160 resolution. They have no model numbers or price tags yet.

 

Ikegami’s field emission display (FED) monitor that attracted so much attention a few NABs ago, but was written off when Sony pulled out its investment from the manufacturer, is now back. Its image quality compared favorably with Sony’s E-series BVM OLED monitors, and the images displayed with a wide H&V viewing angle and plenty of contrast pop. It was being used to show images from a Vinten robotic camera mount at NAB, and no pricing has been announced.

Forget the Canon SED, Ikegami's got an FED! (A 'what?')

Dolby showed their PRM-4200 42-inch HDR LCD reference monitor at NAB. While this product is not new, there was a substantial price cut announced at the show to $39,000.  Initial comments from the post production community have indicated the price is too high for today’s economic environment. As a result, Dolby has apparently sold a few to video equipment rental houses for location and studio production work.

 

Digital SLRs are being used to shoot TV productions such as “House” and independent films, and they could use a couple of good monitors with hot shoe mounts. Nebtek had a 5.6” model at the show, as did TV Logic. Both models sport 1280×800 (WXGA) resolution, compatibility with HD-SDI and HDMI inputs, and have on-screen display of waveform/vectorscope details, focus assist, and chroma/luma signal warnings. Embedded audio from the cameras’ HDMI output can be displayed on screen, and there are several scan and pixel mapping modes.

 

One of the more significant announcements at the show – at least, at first reading – was Verizon’s Digital Media Services. The idea is to serve as an electronic warehouse for everyone from content producers to digital media retailers – in effect, an Amazon e-commerce model, except that Verizon wouldn’t sell anything; merely ‘warehouse’ the assets and distribute them as need to whomever needs them.

 

Numerous companies showed real-time MPEG encoders, among them Z3 Technology, Visionary Systems, Haivision, Vbrick, Adtec, Black Magic Designs, and (of all people) Rovi, otherwise known for their electronic program guide software. Many of these encoder boxes can accept analog video (composite and component) as well as HDMI and DVI inputs. The general idea appears to be ‘plug-and-play’ encoding for IPTV streaming across a broad range of markets. The Black Magic encoder was the cheapest I’ve seen to date at $500, while price ranges on other models ranged as high as $9,000.

A Tektronix monitor for color anaglyph 3D? REALLY?

Do NOT let your children get any ideas from this photo...

Tektronix had one of the funnier (unintentionally) demonstrations of test and monitoring gear. A new combination monitor, the WFM300, has a color anaglyph mode where you can see the interocular distance for red and cyan color anaglyph program material. Never mind the fact that color anaglyph isn’t being used for much of anything except printed 3D these days, so what were the folks at ‘Tek’ thinking?

 

Finally, Sony showed they can be all wet but still on top of things with their demonstration of an HXR-NX70U 1080p camcorder operating normally while getting a pretty good hosing. The camera is completely water-sealed and dust-sealed for use in hostile environments, and records to internal hard disc drives and memory cards. The shower ran continuously during the show and the camera never even hiccupped. Fun stuff!

This TV business is a killer!

In a recent Wall Street Journal story, Blockbuster announced it will let leases on 186 stores expire at the end of this month as it struggles to climb back out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Double-digit store closings were predicted for California and Texas.

 

By the time this latest round of closings takes place, Blockbuster will have shuttered 1,145 ‘brick and mortar’ DVD/Blu-ray rental and sales outlets, or more than a third of the stores it had when bankruptcy proceedings started last fall.

Blockbuster is struggling with a prolonged decline in DVD rentals, caused primarily by the popularity of Netflix’ Watch It Now streaming service. DVD and Blu-ray sales have also slipped in the past two years as more consumers have decided they don’t need to own physical copies of movies, but are content to watch them through video-on-demand (VOD), digital downloads, or streaming.

 

Believe it or not, New York-based hedge fund Monarch Alternative Capital has bid $290 million for Blockbuster, and there are likely to be alternate bidders next month at auction. What these companies would be bidding for isn’t exactly clear; no one in their right mind would want to keep Blockbuster’s old business model going when it’s clear that streaming and downloads are the wave of the future.

 

Nevertheless, Hollywood continues to ship DVDs and Blu-ray discs to Blockbuster, and the auction should generate enough proceeds to pay off numerous creditors including the studios.

 

Across the pond, the news is just as bad for Royal Philips Electronics NV, a consumer electronics giant that sells everything from TVs and Blu-ray players to refrigerators and toasters. (I’m still waiting for them to combine a toaster with a TV.)

According to Bloomberg News, Philips expects to lose as much money in Q1 ’11 in the television business as it did in all of last year! The predicted loss is at least $155 million and maybe more. The culprit? Continued downward pricing pressure on all types of TVs as manufacturers and retailers attempt to stimulate sales.

 

This means Philips will suffer its fifth consecutive annual loss in the TV biz, which makes you wonder why they don’t just get out of it altogether as Hitachi has already done in the United States (and may soon be followed by Mitsubishi and JVC, if present economic trends continue).

 

To show you what impact this pile of red ink has, TV sales amounted to almost one-third of all the revenue earned by Philips’ consumer lifestyle division. If one-third of your business activity is losing money, you’d be reorganizing fast. Indeed, the company will get a new CEO this week, but it’s not clear how he can stem the tide.

 

My guess is that Philips will pull the plug on TVs in 2012 if they don’t see a substantial turnaround in profitability through Q4 of 2011. In 2008, they sold the Philips name to Funai for TVs retailed in the United States, a move that is paying off nicely for the Japanese manufacturer. It also generates some royalties for Philips, which is perhaps the best approach to take with what’s left of their European and other remaining markets: Cut bait, and stay with lighting and health care products, two businesses that actually make money.

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.