High-def TV gets higher-def

High-definition television is still in its infancy, but already a new crop of sets is upping the ante on screen resolution. At the 2005 International Consumer Electronics Show held last week, almost all major vendors showed high-end sets with native 1080p screen formats--a big step up from the 720p format of today's HDTVs.

What this means is that these newer sets will have 1080 rows of pixels, compared to the 720 rows of most currently shipping HD sets. On bigger sets especially, the higher pixel count should produce images that are visibly smoother than those of previous-generation sets.

The 1080p sets on display were either LCD TVs or rear-projection sets based on Texas Instruments DLP (Digital Light Processing) technology. Samsung, for example, expects to bring the first 1080p DLP set to market next month--the 56-inch HLR5688W pedestal model, with a suggested retail price of US$4999. It will be followed in June by an even larger 1080p DLP set, the top-of-the-line 67-inch HLR6768W, with a suggested retail price of US$6999.

Also in June, Samsung plans to ship a 57-inch 1080p LCD-TV, the LNR570D--but at that screen size (which would make the set the biggest LCD on the market), only the wealthy need apply: The suggested retail price is US$15,999.

LG Electronics, meanwhile, says it will ship a 62-inch 1080p DLP rear-projection set, the 62SY2D, in June for a suggested retail price of US$4499. Also due from LG in the fall time frame is a 55-inch 1080p LCD-TV, the 55LP1D, but pricing has yet to be determined.

Sharp is already shipping several 45-inch 1080p Aquos LCD TVs; at CES, it showed off a 65-inch 1080p Aquos LCD TV, but price and availability were yet to be determined.

Even budget vendors are getting into the act. Syntax Groups says it plans to introduce 37- and 42-inch 1080p LCD TVs sometime this year (pricing wasn't announced), as well as a 61-inch LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) rear-projection 1080p set for US$7000 to US$8000.

The Many Flavors of HD

Those who've already invested in 720p sets shouldn't fret excessively: Both 1080p and 720p are HD formats. They are among the 18 formats specified by the American TV Standards Committee, the industry group that developed the standard for the digital broadcast system North American broadcasters are in the process of transitioning to.

Each format has a unique combination of the horizontal screen resolution (480, 720, or 1080), the aspect ratio (4:3 or 16:9), the way images are scanned (p for progressive, i for interlaced), and the number of frames transmitted per second.

Of the 18 formats, six are considered high-definition--three of them 720p (at either 24, 30, or 60 frames per second), one 1080i (at 30 frames per second), and two 1080p (at either 24 or 30 frames per second). (All HD formats are in the wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio.)

At the same screen resolution, progressive-scan images--in which each line of the scan is transmitted in succession--are superior in quality to interlaced images, in which the odd-numbered lines of the scan are transmitted in sequence from top to bottom, after which the even-numbered lines are transmitted. The interlaced scan happens so quickly that the eye can't perceive the process, and can allow for a greater perceived screen resolution at a lower bandwidth. But if there's a lot of motion in the subject matter, the image might appear to flicker.

Waiting for Hollywood

One reason we haven't seen many 1080p sets before now is that no one is broadcasting TV programs in 1080p: The bandwidth requirements would simply be too excessive. The HD shows we see today are transmitted in either 720p or 1080i, so 1080p sets will have to convert those signals.

Movies on DVD are even lower resolution--the standard format is 480p. But that is likely to change once Hollywood settles on a successor to DVD that will have the larger capacity required to hold a high-definition movie. Bandwidth won't be an issue, so the studios could well choose to go with 1080p.

But that's still a few years off, which is one reason why some vendors are not jumping immediately onto the 1080p bandwagon. TTE (TCL-Thomson Electronics, the joint venture between China's TCL and Thomson that now produces RCA TVs), for example, had a 1080p DLP set on display, but only as a technology preview. TTE product marketing manager Kenny Abell said the company was holding off on 1080p sets until next year because it felt there was no immediate benefit to customers.

ViewSonic also had a 1080p technology display (a 46-inch LCD), but officials there say they look at 1080p as a high-end technology that doesn't make sense for ViewSonic's value-oriented strategy.

But Samsung senior television marketing manager John Lavoie doesn't agree that lack of Hollywood entertainment in 1080p means customers won't see a benefit from the technology. "It should reduce flicker," he said. "The goal is to take 1080i [content] and de-interlace it."

Also, he said, the microdisplays on the 1080p DLP sets are larger than the ones used for 720p DLPs, so the sets can reflect more light. The result is that the newer sets can achieve contrast ratios of 5000:1 compared to the 2000:1 for previous DLP rear-projection TVs.

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