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CES 2005 Oddz 'n' Endz

For me (and, I'm sure, for many others), CES 2005 marked the year that 1080p took off. I'm not talking about 1080p broadcasts or pre-recorded content; it will be a few more years before we see that, and even when we do, it will likely be 1080p/24, not 1080p/60. But 1920x1080 fixed-pixel displays—plasma, LCD (panels and projectors), DLP, and LCoS—were suddenly everywhere, unlike last year, when they were as rare as than hens' teeth.

Of course, to display 1920x1080, the input signal—be it 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i— must be scaled up to 1080p, which requires some serious video-processing power, especially if the processor also has to do 3:2 pulldown, noise reduction, etc. Among those supplying that power to the display industry is Silicon Optix with their Realta HQV, the "Teranex-on-a-chip" they first introduced at CEDIA last September.

At CES, I was blown away by the Silicon Optix demos, including a side-by-side comparison of content displayed on two Samsung 61-inch DLP RPTVs. One was fed 1080i from D-VHS that was scaled to 720p by the set's internal processor, while the other was fed 720p from a Realta chip that was scaling a 480i signal from a DVD player. I was asked to identify which was which—and I was wrong! The Realta looked that good, sharper and clearer than the D-VHS scaled by the internal processor.

In another demo, a Denon 5910the world's first DVD player to incorporate the Realta chip—was scaling 480i to 1080p and sending the signal to a JVC HD2K 1920x1080 HD-ILA front projector firing onto an 8-foot Stewart GrayHawk RS screen. (The 5910 was modified to do 1080p; a stock unit upconverts to 720p or 1080i.) I saw a clip from Shakespeare in Love, which looked absolutely amazing, with oh-so-deep blacks, vibrant colors, and super-clean detail. HD material from a QuVis QuBit hard-disk server deinterlaced from 1080i to 1080p by the Realta also looked astounding. It was the best video image I saw at the show—including the CrystalView 9-inch CRT projector in the DTS room, which also looked incredible. Silicon Optix came up again during the Runco press conference, when Sam Runco announced that he has reached an agreement with SO to include the Realta in future Runco products.

In a meeting with Texas Instruments, I learned that they are dropping the "HD" nomenclature for their DMD chips altogether; from now on, new versions of the chips will be known simply as 720p and 1080p. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of these new chips is their micromirror arrays. Most of the DMDs in current DLP designs use one mirror for each pixel on the screen; for example, the HD2 and HD2+ chips each have a complete 1280x720 array of mirrors. But the new 720p and 1080p chips use micromirrors that swivel twice as fast as the previous generation, allowing each mirror to address two pixels on the screen instead of one. This cuts the number of mirrors in half, resulting in lower-cost chips. In addition, the mirrors are rotated 45 degrees from their previous orientation, which is one factor in TI's SmoothPicture technology that effectively eliminates any visible pixel structure from a normal viewing distance.

There was a lot of action in DVD recording at the show. Panasonic announced an agreement with Hewlett Packard in which Panasonic will add DVD+R recording and DVD+RW playback to their standalone units and HP will add DVD-RAM capabilities to their computer drives. LG talked about their Super Multi drives that read and write all DVD recordable formats, rendering this format war all but moot. Dual-layer DVD+R and DVD-R blanks with a total capacity of 8.5GB are now available, and recorders that can take advantage of them are starting to appear. Write speeds for all formats continue to increase, up to 8x and 16x in some cases, though for real-time broadcast recording, you don't want to use high-speed blanks, which are too sensitive to work well at slower write speeds.

I found it interesting that both Pioneer and DirecTV are dropping the TiVo service from their DVRs; Pioneer is going with TV Guide because it's less expensive (i.e., free), and it offers more flexibility. Humax announced four new TiVo-based DVRs, two with DVD recording.

There was lots of networking news, including tons of media servers and media-center PCs. Among the most important introductions was a new wireless network protocol called ultra wideband (UWB). Unlike 802.11 (WiFi), which uses a high-amplitude, narrow-band RF carrier, UWB spreads its energy over a wide band of frequencies at low amplitude, which greatly reduces any chance of interference from other RF devices such as cordless phones and microwave ovens. Other advantages of UWB over WiFi include prioritization of A/V content (WiFi has no prioritization) and more robust operation, especially if a device on the network fails.

But perhaps the biggest advantage of UWB is its data rate, which depends on the distance between two nodes. At 3 meters, the data rate can be as high as 880Mbps; at 30 meters (which encompasses the distance across a typical home), it can reach 110Mbps, which is enough for four simultaneous HDTV streams of 20Mbps each, plus some network overhead. At 110Mbps, UWB exhibits twice the maximum data rate of 802.11a or 802.11g (54Mbps) and 10 times the maximum rate of 802.11b (11Mbps). And keep in mind that the effective data rates of all flavors of 802.11 are generally half of their maximum rates, especially if the signal has to flow through a wireless access point (which it typically does). This technology is so impressive, Runco announced they were collaborating with a company called Focus Enhancements, one of the primary developers of UWB, to implement it in Runco products.

In other news, THX launched its new Certified Home Theater Program, which guarantees excellent A/V performance in every seat, not just the "money seat." To participate, installers must undergo a special training program and work with THX on each project to be certified. One of the primary criteria is a high degree of sound isolation between the theater and the rest of the house, which costs a lot to do properly. Other factors include the HVAC system, acoustic treatment, lighting, and, of course, the equipment itself. As a result, the program is typically restricted to new construction or structural renovations, with theaters in the $250,000 range and up.

Finally, in these days of heavy rain, snow, and thunder storms, power surges and outages are becoming all too common, so it's important to protect sensitive A/V equipment from damage during such events. American Power Conversion (APC), long known for their computer-oriented uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), now has four models designed for home theaters. New at CES, the H10 ($299) and H15 ($399) are aimed more at the mass market than the S10 ($1299) and S15 ($1499), which were first introduced at CEDIA last September. All four offer voltage regulation, power conditioning, and surge protection, and all but the H10 include UPS battery backup. The S-series can accommodate as many daisy-chained battery packs as you want, and each pack ($499) provides 45 minutes to an hour of power. All four models should be shipping by March of this year.

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