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Digital Dominates CES

Consumer electronics is hot again! The industry had undergone quite a few peaks and valleys in recent years. It was hot in the early Eighties with the advent of the VCR and the CD player. But soon after those items made inroads into the majority of homes, customers became disenchanted with gadgets and went for clothes and shoes. Well, gadgets are back, and with a vengeance. Last January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas boasted a record attendance, as well as a record number of product introductions. Most auspicious was digital television, displayed by virtually every TV manufacturer and then some.

DTV Update

There is still a lot to be worked out with digital television: Topping the list is the timeline for digital cable and whether stations will broadcast in high definition, standard definition, or a combination thereof. Presently, no DTV is configured to receive cable broadcasts, which is a problem since almost 70% of Americans use cable. The issue is that there is still no universal digital standard for cable operators to broadcast their signal. This is primarily because there are so many different cable companies across the U.S. that to try to get them to agree on a single standard is extraordinarily difficult. There is, however, a new universal interface that seems like it will be adopted as the standard to transmit a digital signal between components such as a cable box and a TV set, or a computer and a DVD player, etc.

This interface is called IEEE-1394 or as it’s more commonly known,iLINK or Firewire.Even though Firewire isn’t yet the official standard, some manufacturers have already added Firewire ports to their digital components. But the industry is still waiting for a uniform copy protection scheme so that customers will be prohibited from making perfect digital copies, something that the music and film people are quite concerned about.

The other issue is whether consumers are more particular about picture quality or number of channels. High definition television (HDTV) is defined as a picture that is either 720p or 1080i. The number designation refers to the number of pixels (picture elements) per square inch. The letter designation refers to the scanning technique employed to produce the picture. Standard TV sets utilize an Interlace scanning method which means that half of the picture is produced first, then the other half immediately afterwards. This happens 15 times per second-so fast that your eye can’t detect it. The “p” stands for the progressive scanning method. Currently employed by computer monitors, Progressive scanning produces 100% of the picture at once which works better for text and graphics.

HDTV is defined by a picture with 720 pixels per square inch or above. Therefore both 720p and 1080I are considered High Def. This status is irrespective of whether the scanning method is I or p (all digital TV sets will be able to receive all 18 official formats). Standard definition television (SDTV) is defined as anything below 720, which currently is 480. 480 can be broadcast in either I or p – 480p looks better.

Since it takes as much bandwidth to broadcast four or five channels of 480p as it does to broadcast one channel of 1080I, it comes down to the age-old question, do people want quality or quantity? Forrester Research concluded that customers are more interested in receiving more channels of SDTV. Then immediately afterwards, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturer’s Association did their own study that concluded that viewers want HDTV. As Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

A couple of notable sets shown at the CES show were the Samsung 40″ SDTV rear-projection LCD TV set. This digital set will not display broadcasts in HDTV, but instead will “down-convert” 720 or 1080 broadcasts to 480p. However, Samsung claims that with the three TFT LCD panels, the set will look far better than conventional analog TV.

Also shown by Samsung were a couple of prototype sets including a 65″ 16:9 set from their upscale division, Tantus (the Lexus of Samsung). This set, the HCJ651W, will utilize 9″ CRT optics instead of the standard 7″ elements for a sharper and brighter picture. This set will “up-convert” all formats to 1080.

No prices have been announced on either model.

Another key player in the digital TV arena is Sharp. Sharp is widely regarded for its expertise in LCD technology, which some argue produces a clearer, brighter picture than traditional tube or CRT-based projection technology.

At CES, Sharp demonstrated a 60″ prototype, the XV-60HDU, which is targeted to hit the U.S. market toward the end of the year. The model, which employs Sharp’s proprietary Continuous Grain Silicon technology, is said to produce some of the brightest, high-contrast images ever. Sharp also showed other working prototypes, including a Plasma Display Liquid Crystal flat panel display, as well as a 32-inch 16:9 tube-type flat-screen TV that will display 1080 when connected to an external DTV tuner.

DVD and Beyond

Another hot new product, much further along with consumers than DTV, is DVD. DVD was once referred to as digital video disc, then as digital versatile disc, and now just as plain old DVD. DVD uses MPEG2 compression technology to store massive amounts of data, allowing for both video and computer uses. So far manufacturers have sold 1.4MM units, which is tantamount to about four times as many CD players as were sold in its first year.

DVD delivers a picture that is about equivalent to 420 pixels per square inch, slightly less than the 480 in SDTV. Of course DVD delivers an interlaced picture. One of the great things about a DVD player for A/V use is the fact that you have instant access to any part of the movie, and you don’t have to worry about fast forwarding or rewinding again. It also allows for more information than previously stored on a VHS tape. This translates into very cool stuff for movie enthusiasts such as multiple choices of endings, bios on the cast, as well as a director’s cut and outtakes.

Hitachi Home Electronics introduced its first DVD player at CES, the DVP-250U, which will sell for around $450. It offers component video output for the best possible picture, as well as built-in Dolby Digital processing for the superior sound. A Hitachi exclusive feature is called Disc Navigation, which captures thumbnail pictures of frames to bookmark segments of the disc. Hitachi also claims that they will be releasing recordable DVD within 18-24 months (no DVDs record as of yet). This component will utilize the DVD-RAM system employed by both Hitachi and Panasonic.


The leader in satellite TV is undoubtedly Hughes subsidiary DirecTV, who has already garnered over 4 million subscribers over the past couple of years. The DirecTV system employs a very small 18-inch dish, which is ideal for urban and suburban users. DirecTV began broadcasting in Dolby Digital surround sound last year, and has recently announced that they will begin broadcasting in HDTV within the next few months.

At CES, Hughes unveiled its next generation of DirecTV receivers including one with built-in Dolby Digital surround sound output. Both receivers boast 128-bit graphics and a backlit RF remote control for easy use in the dark. The remote works via radio frequency, which means that you can have multiple viewing setups that employ the same receiver that can be set up in another room. There are two models-one will sell for around $200. The one with Dolby Digital will sell for around $350.

Hughes also touted its D-VHS video recorder, which can record off the air digitally. The HDR-205 has Dolby Digital surround sound capability and carries a suggested retail price of $599.

Another satellite provider that’s new on the scene is Unity Motion, which is currently broadcasting in 1080i. At CES, Unity Motion announced that they would add two additional channels of High Def.-HD-2 and HD-3, to join HD-1 already in existence. The two new channels will broadcast movies and sports. By June, Unity claims to add up to eight more basic channels, two premium channels, and up to four pay-per-view channels. It will also add 720p broadcasts in addition to its current 1080i offerings.

Originally Published