Well, I've just returned from Las Vegas and the Consumer Electronics Show. It was a tough show this year with two large convention centers to cover plus all of the manufacturer's suites in hotels. I'm sitting here to gather my thoughts regarding the themes and highlights of CES. Clearly, the two over-riding themes of the show was displays with 1080p resolution especially plasma, and the impeding optical disk format wars. Before I discuss each at some length, we need to get the "Wow" product out of the way. Every year, people ask about the "Wow" product. Sadly, to say that there were no truly "Wow" products this year. That's not to say that there weren't gadgets like Sony's new eBook-type product called the 'Sony Reader' that held appeal, which is the size of a paperback book. Or, Intel's newly proposed Viiv system to help bring the television and PC closer together that is found in ED Digital's new Digitrex TV with server product. While these and other products were interesting, they did not have the "Wow" factor as some products have had in past years.
In terms of displays, I saw many splendid examples all over CES. While most were 1080p models, some others offered innovative designs. First of all, Texas Instruments (TI) showed me privately their new flat DLP design that offers an entirely new light engine design in a greatly reduced cabinet depth so that it can easily compete with other flat-panel displays. TI also showed a Samsung prototype DLP set that features LED lighting instead of the current high-powered lamp, and doesn’t need a color wheel! It was truly amazing! While slightly less bright than current models, I expect that it will be as bright or brighter by the time it reaches market. HP also showed a prototype of an LED light sourced DLP for delivery later this year. Amazing! Hopefully, someone will combine "flat" and LED light-sourced DLP into one cabinet for one exceptional Micro-Display. Sony also showed the press a reduced depth 55-in. 1080p SXRD, which was under 12-in. in deep. Cool! Contrary to popular belief by many manufacturers, TI and Sony still firmly believe in Micro-Displays. As a side note, some manufacturers are starting to leave out CableCARD on their HDTV models. Once two-way CableCARDs are approved, they will again start including them on their higher-end sets.
Turning to plasma displays, all of the major plasma manufacturers had 1080p models on view. Panasonic had the largest with a 103-in. model outdoing Samsung by one inch. to their great dismay. These 100-in.+ displays are showpieces only. Mainstream 1080p plasmas will be in the 50-in. and 55-in. categories this year. Companies such as LG, Panasonic, Pioneer, and Hitachi showed models that offered exceptional clarity for a plasma display. Hitachi showed the largest 1080p plasma model in a 55-in. size, and offering 3 HDMI inputs for delivery later this year. I can't wait to review it! In other plasma news, prices continue to fall dramatically. V, Inc.'s Vizio line will be selling 720p tunerless plasma monitor models for $2,499 (50-in.) and $2,999 (55-in.) during the first half of 2006. Surprisingly, the image quality looks quite good for 720p, and certainly a terrific value for the consumer. V, Inc. originally supplied Gateway several years ago when they broke the $3,000 price barrier.
In terms of LCD displays, most manufacturers are now carrying models up to 47-in. in size with 42-in. and 47-in. now becoming the new popular larger screen sizes. And, these larger screen sizes are all 1080p models. Of course, there are companies like LG and Sharp that also offer 55-in. and 65-in. HDTV models, but they are somewhat pricey. Speaking about price for a moment, prices continue to fall on all flat-panel displays. There could easily be price parity this year on some screen sizes. We'll just have to wait and see.
A word about SED. Both Toshiba and Canon showed publicly for the first time SED. When launched this coming Fall (September-November), it will be a 1080p 55-in. model. Pricing is unavailable, but I expect to get more details in May at Toshiba's line show. What I can say is the image quality is truly exceptional! As one TV engineer confided in me said, "It made the hairs on my neck stand on end, the picture was so stunning!" While some journalists think that the window is closing for SED -- if it doesn’t launch., others feel that the picture quality is so good that people will certainly buy it. So, we will just have to wait and see.
Clearly, CES proved to be the initial battleground for Blu-ray vs. HD DVD. The Blu-ray camp was well represented by all of its members showing off their player-only models with exceptional industrial design. It has to be noted here that the initial offerings will be player-only modes and NOT recorders as originally announced last year. Virtually, the entire Blu-ray camp will start shipping players in the 2nd quarter of 2006 (around the June - August) timeframe. Samsung will be the first company to sell a Blu-ray player in the U.S. starting in April, and be priced at $1,000. It is expected that the majority of BD players will be in the $1,000 range. The exception is Pioneer Elite, who will have a reference player priced at $1,800. I expect that they will offer a less expensive model in their regular Pioneer line later in the year. So, to sum up, stand-alone Blu-ray players will cost between $1,000 and $1,800.
However, the monkey-wrench in this scenario is Sony's PlayStation3 (PS3). I overhead several Sony executives talking about a $600 price point for a machine that plays next-generation games and BD movies outputting 1080p signals. PS3 will be launched -- most likely -- in the May timeframe to coincide with E3, which will be held in LA. If true, a $600 PS3 will make an especially compelling purchase, and may force other members if the BD consortium to re-think their price points. It also begs the question as to what Sony will charge for its BD player-only version, which is scheduled to come out in the June/July timeframe. Interesting. For gamers, PS3 makes for a very compelling gaming solution as the BD drive is internalized instead of being outboarded such as is being done by Microsoft with its xBox360 HD DVD drive. Sometime during the April timeframe, there will be movie titles from Sony Pictures, MGM, Paramount, Buena Vista (Disney) among others.
On the other hand, HD DVD will launch in March 2006 with $499 players from Toshiba and RCA (these are OEMed from Toshiba) with approx. 20 titles from Warner Bros., Universal and Paramount to start. The movie studios, who support HD DVD, have noted that they will have 200 titles out by Christmas 2006 including the Harry Potter movies and Mission Impossible 3. And, it's quite possible that its price could drop to $399 by the Christmas selling season making it a bargain. Presumably, Microsoft, who is now a staunch backer of HD DVD, is helping Toshiba offset its cost. Surprisingly, at the show, Sanyo -- an original backer -- will not be selling a player at this time. Hmm. And, Microsoft will be offering external HD DVD drives that can be attached to their xBox360 in a less than elegant solution.
With the backing of Microsoft, it certainly makes this looming optical disk format war a horse race. HD DVD will be out of the gate quickly in March with players at a very lucrative price point, and some software (with more on the way). While Samsung launches their Blu-ray player in April, will BD movies be there yet? We aren't sure. And, will Samsung be overshadowed by PS3 as it arrives in May at a price point around $600? Will PS3 be compelling enough for non-gamers to buy this futuristic machine in lieu of a stand-alone player by other members of the consortium? Or, will consumers see the value in a next-generation optical disk player for under $499? Clearly, the next several months will be quite interesting for HD DVD vs. Blu-ray. It's unclear what the
'early adopter' will do. And, history could repeat itself. While apparently Blu-ray may be the superior format in terms of data storage capability and outputting 1080p vs. 1080i, it could lose the race just as Betamax did years ago to VHS. Or, with the backing of 85-percent of the Consumer Electronics industry along with Dell, Blu-ray could easily squash HD DVD. But, right now, it's anyone's horse race.
In the coming weeks, I will probably touch on other aspects of CES, but for the time being, displays and optical disks are the two key themes of CES 2006. So, stayed tuned to Digital TV for the latest developments.