CES04 Live: Off-the-hook TV

Will your next TV be wire-free? To judge from the sets on display at this year's CES, models that wirelessly pull in programs using the Wi-Fi standard are the next hot thing in TV tech. Most of the Wi-Fi-enabled sets here, including models from Sony, Sharp, and Philips, are LCD TVs in the 12- to 23-inch size range. Some can even be toted from room to room as you walk around your home, and their built-in rechargeable batteries mean you don't have to worry about sitting near an AC outlet.

Sony's new Location-Free TV has a touch-sensitive LCD screen and onscreen keyboard that lets you browse the Web and send e-mail in addition to watching video. Its tri-mode Wi-Fi capability - it's compatible with all three standards now in use (802.11a, b, and g) - ensures interference-free performance at distances up to 100 feet from the set's base station. Like many Sony products, it includes a Memory Stick slot that can be used to load digital photos for viewing on the set's 12-inch screen. Pricing hasn't been announced, but Sony plans to release its Location-Free TV later this year.

Sharp first whet my appetite for wireless TVs when it previewed a portable Wi-Fi LCD, the LC-15L1U-S, at the CEDIA show back in September 2003. That model is now scheduled to ship to dealers in February at a suggested retail price of $1,800. The company's Wi-Fi lineup has also expanded to include two new LCD sets: the LC-20PX1U ($1,900) and LC-15PX1U ($1,400). Both TVs are part of the company's Open Aquos line, which means they sport dual PC Card slots that can be outfitted with an optional 802.11g Wi-Fi card or a 5-gigabyte video hard-drive recorder card to record and play back programs. Both Sharp sets should be available by May.

Following on the heels of last year's Streamium mini audio system, Philips unveiled its new 23PF9976i Streamium LCD TV ($2,699). The widescreen 23-inch set offers high-def resolution and has a built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi card to wirelessly view video and digital photos. Philips expects to have the 23PF9976i in stores sometime in the fall.

Wireless portable TVs may be a great for catching CNN in the bathroom, but the home theater is another place where some of us are looking to cut cords. Samsung's HPP5091 plasma HDTV may be just the solution. The 50-inch widescreen set wirelessly links to an outboard media box using the 802.11a Wi-Fi standard. The box has built-in digital high-def and analog TV tuners, component-video, DVI, and HDMI connectors, and a transmission range of 30 feet, which gives you plenty of placement flexibility. The HPP5091 will cost $13,000 when it arrives in stores this summer, so start saving money for it now.

Samsung's booth was plastered with countless eye-popping flat-panel TVs, including gargantuan 80-inch plasma and 57-inch LCD models. Both sets are prototypes, so don't expect to see them in stores anytime soon. DLP (Digital Light Processing) chip maker Texas Instruments' booth also featured a prototype Samsung set featuring the company's new 1080p-resolution XHD3 DMD (Digital Micro-mirror Device). According to Samsung, rear-projection TVs incorporating the XHD3 chip are slated to appear in late 2004.

Flat-panel sets may be the big TV story at this CES, but new models on display from technology partners Thomson and InFocus prove that even rear-projection models can comfortably hug the wall. Thomson previewed 50- and 61-inch RCA Scenium Profiles DLP TVs ($9,000 and $10,000, respectively) with a cabinet depth of less than 7 inches. Both of these slim sets feature built-in digital high-def and analog tuners and a CableCARD slot to receive digital cable TV programming without an outboard cable box. Connections include HDMI and FireWire jacks. Both models should arrive in late 2004 and will be followed by a 70-inch version in 2005.

Front-projector company InFocus, maker of the light engine used in RCA's TVs, also showed its own version of a 7-inch-slim DLP set with a 61-inch screen size. Pricing wasn't available, but the InFocus set will appear sometime this fall.

With almost no traditional tube sets in sight at CES, 2004 is shaping up to be the year of the flat TV. And with Wi-Fi capability added to the mix, there's now even more reason to get excited about flat-panel sets. With wires out of the way, plasma and LCD TVs can finally become what we expect them to be - a thin, almost invisible frame for moving pictures.

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