- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. - At the Good Guys store, a wall gleams with more than two dozen flat-panel televisions, hanging like video canvases at a museum. Gary Dixon ogles them then walks out with a sigh. He has been admiring the sleek TV displays for years, watching as prices decline from jaw-dropping levels. But they are still too high for his sheet-metal-worker’s salary.

Down the street at Best Buy, Lynn Ooi is vexed: HDTV or not? Wide screen or not? All she knows is that she had $1,000 to spend on a television for a 32-inch-wide cabinet space in her new town house.

At least she is ahead on the consumer curve. Nearby, Paulo Puga plays with a flat-screen set.

“HDTV? What’s that?” asks the father of four, his back turned from a row of high-definition televisions and flashy plasma monitors.

Watch out, consumers — it’s a TV jungle out there.

Not since the first commercial cathode-ray-tube television was developed seven decades ago has there been so much choice in televisions.

Size is no longer the key feature. Display types include projection and direct-view. There are flat-screen and flat-panel models, square-ish or rectangular screens, high-definition or standard-definition, digital or analog.

A consumer could spend $80 on Casio’s 2.3-inch handheld liquid crystal display (LCD) television, or $21,000 for Mitsubishi’s state-of-the-art 82-inch wide screen, liquid-crystal-on-silicon model.

One thing is undisputed. Though only a smattering of digital programming is currently available, digital televisions eventually will become the norm, as surely as color replaced black-and-white.

Big-name manufacturers such as Sony, Samsung and Sharp have scaled back production of analog sets. Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America Inc. stopped making the nondigital variety three years ago.

That is primarily because analog commercial television broadcasts are scheduled to stop as of January 2007 under a federal mandate, though the deadline could be delayed as it has been several times already.

Prices for digital TV sets are dropping dramatically, and the list of programs broadcast digitally in high-definition continues to grow. It includes prime-time shows from the major networks, ESPN sports and, soon, “Monday Night Football.”

When the changeover occurs, all programs will be transmitted digitally, with greater clarity. Conventional analog sets will still work but won’t give viewers true digital pictures and audio.

Digital televisions still make up less than 10 percent of the roughly 30 million sets sold each year in the United States. But they shame the analog set by removing ghosts, snow and static. They also appeal to fans of digital video discs (DVDs), who are drawn by the cinema-quality, letterbox format.

Of digital televisions, high-definition ones are the most common and offer the sharpest picture, allowing viewers to see, for instance, individual beads of sweat on an actor’s face.

An HDTV image can have more than 1 million pixels — a degree of resolution about 10 times greater than that of analog television and standard-definition digital.

Digital televisions come in various sizes and shapes: boxy like the traditional cathode-ray tube, bulky projection models, or flat panels using plasma or LCDs that can hang on a wall.

While plasma TVs have the trendy buzz, the less-costly LCD displays will satisfy plenty who seek HDTV quality, said Michael Heiss, an industry consultant in Los Angeles.

For the budget-conscious, big-screen rear-projection models currently deliver the best value if a consumer enjoys watching DVD movies and can afford the floor space, he said.

The average suggested retail price of digital sets dropped to $1,688 in 2002 from $3,147 in 1998, the year they debuted, according to the Consumer Electronics Association trade group.

Not exactly mass-market prices, but getting there.

“Before, if you put a plasma TV in your store, people would go, ‘Wow! How much?’ [Theyd] hear it’s $25,000, and then it’s ‘Wow! Goodbye,’” said association spokesman Jim Barry. “Now it’s ‘How much? $5,000?’ It’s something they can get their arms around; if not today, soon.”

Plasma monitors, filled with tiny pixels of charged gas, are expensive because they are difficult to make and require special glass. Early on, sometimes one of every two coming off the assembly line was defective.

Through better technology, a 42-inch plasma set can now be found for as low as $3,000, and plasma prices should drop 15 percent to 20 percent per year, said Michael Fremer, a spokesman for the recent consumer electronics show in San Francisco.

LCD technology, in which a thin film of transistors controls the amount of light passing through liquid crystals, is commonly found in watches and calculators but has improved so that its screen sizes now can run up to 32 inches. LCD televisions, less expensive than plasma, are expected to come in even bigger sizes this year, nearing or matching the smallest available plasma model of 40 inches.

Digital versions of the traditional CRT, meanwhile, can be found at prices below $1,000, nearing the levels of better analog sets.

Of all digital TV formats, projection, or so-called big-screen televisions, are the most popular sellers. Last year, projection sets accounted for almost three-quarters of all digital models shipped.

In otherwise slow-growth days for the tech industry, sales of flat-panel televisions are providing some revenue boost.

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