2005 CES: Day One

CES doesn't officially open until Thursday, January 6, but for the horde of assembled press, it begins on January 5. While workers swarm over the Las Vegas Nevada convention center in what appears to be a hopeless attempt to have everything ready by Thursday's official opening, wall-to-wall press conferences are being held. Tolerated as a necessary chore by the scribes, the press conferences nevertheless serve a useful purpose for manufacturers, giving them a captive audience to do with as they will. This year the festivities were more efficiently organized than usual, the only shortcoming being the lack of sufficient pauses between events.

LG Electronics kicked things off bright and early. Officially launched as an independent brand name in the U.S. market just last year, LG has managed to double its dealer lineup since then. It was probably helped in this by a reported eightfold increase in the demand for flat panel displays from all suppliers during the fall selling season.

Pride of place for new LG products went to the new 71-inch plasma (all dimensions specified here are diagonal) . First announced at last September's CEDIA, it's now shipping at the staggering price of $75,000. The only figure more astonishing than this one is LG's assertion that several hundred customers are already on the waiting list!

LG also emphasized its claimed 60,000 hour plasma panel life. While this extends across the line, it is especially welcome in that big plasma, keeping the cost of operation down to $1.25/hour—sales tax and installation not included.

Fortunately, LG has additional new plasma panels for the rest of us, including 50-inch and 60-inch models with both a built-in CableCARD-capable DTV tuner and a 160GB hard drive DVR. The latter can record up to 14 hours of high definition programming or 62 hours of standard definition DTV. Additional products announced for shipment soon include 22 flat panel LCD displays (up to a 1080p 55-inch model), 12 new plasmas, and 11 micro displays (rear projection sets) using both LCD and DLP, the latter with either HD2+, HD3, or xHD3 chips.

LG also expects CRTs to continue to be a market force, at lease in smaller displays. Another company that expressed confidence in CRTs was RCA (Thomson). CRTs will be used for a new line of standard definition DTVs the company plans for the coming year, providing DTV (but not high definition) for a price point as low as $300. Also expect to see 10 brand-new CRT rear projection models from RCA with on-board ATSC (HDTV) decoders at prices starting under $1100. It was only a few short years ago that a set top HD decoder alone could cost that much.

RCA also announced 10 new DLP models starting below $2000. It will also ship a new 50-inch Profile this month ($5000), a thin, wall-hangable DLP rear-projection set similar to its existing 61-inch model

Thomson also spent considerable time discussing their work in IP (Internet Protocol) technologies for reducing bandwidth requirements for HDTV transmission over the Internet. They company called Cinema Now to provide such program material, using a new device called the AR Digital Bridge (Thomson now owns rights to the AR brand name) which is expected to sell for $299 this spring. A very brief movie clip shown using this technology looked quite watchable, but did not have anywhere near that look-through-a-window appearance you expect from the best HDTV. We'll have to wait until we can get our hands on a production sample of the Digital Bridge (which has other intriguing features, including wired and wireless connectivity) to see if the world is ready for streaming high definition over the internet.

What the world is ready for is some sort of high definition on packaged media. Thomson is aiming to have an HD-DVD player on the market in time for Christmas 2005. So does Toshiba-one of the chief sponsors of the format. A price of $1000 was being tossed around for the first player-only models, with more expensive record-capable models to come later. HD playback, as I guessed in print months ago, will be available only from HDMI digital video outputs of such players and recorder.

Toshiba also announced a whole lineup of products designed around its new catchphrase, Gigastyle. Expect a boat load of Giga-whatever designs in the coming year, some of them designed around a new 0.85-inch hard drive designed specifically for small portable devices, particularly camcorders.

One of Toshiba's hottest announcements included further details on the flat panel display technology it has developed along with Canon. SED was discussed in UAV some months back following my first viewing of an early prototype in Japan. It is expected to be demonstrated during close sessions here at CES. Initial test production runs will begin in mid 2005, with actual product available by the end of 2005. Initially these models, which promise CRT-like performance in a flat-panel display, will be expensive, but Toshiba expects the prices to come down in the future.

Audio-only press events were very thin on the ground on press day this year, but both Thiel Audio and Monitor Audio were on-hand. Thiel hinted at a new flagship CS 3.7 speaker sometime in 2005, though the focus today was on the company's redesigned Powerpoint on-wall model (in a somewhat larger, heavier, cast aluminum cabinet), and in-wall and in-ceiling designs (at $1000 per speaker for both). Also shown was the new SS1 subwoofer ($2900), the baby in the now-complete, four-model Thiel subwoofer line. Monitor Audio was also on hand, with the redesigned Silver RG line. I hope to get the chance to hear them later during the show.

Pioneer spend an inordinate part of its press conference on its in-car audio and navigation systems, a matter of interest to large segments of the press but less often covered by us. Still, there were announcements of four new plasma displays (50- and 43-inches), four new low-priced AV receivers, and four new DVD recorders. Pioneer is also firmly in the Blu-ray high definition optical disc format camp, and is demonstrating 2 prototypes during the show. The company also plans to release a Blu-ray computer drive in mid 2005. No specific date for a stand-alone Blu-ray recorder was mentioned, however.

Philips' new corporate motto is Sense and Simplicity. They introduced a few new products and technologies we might discuss further in the future, including flat panel televisions with wireless connections to a PC or network, the RC 9800i remote control, and Pixel Plus II video scaling technology. Most interesting, however, was a technology designed to reduce the nagging problem of image lag in LCD displays. Called Aptura, it uses 10 horizontal full-screen width fluorescent backlights with an induced 60Hz rolling flicker. Philips referred to this as scanning, though that characterization may convey the wrong impression. In a short demonstration, it did indeed appear to work as advertised—lessening motion smear.

Sony kicked off its press event crowing about its claimed 50% micro display technology market share for late 2004. But they also talked-up Blu-ray, and the leverage Sony will enjoy with its ownership of Sony Pictures and pending ownership of the huge MGM film library. They also unveiled a new catch-phrase now used by several manufacturers to describe LCD technology. 3LCD is descriptive of the three separate panels that are typically used in LCD front and rear projection designs. This isn't anything new, but merely a way to play up a perceived advantage of LCD over single-chip DLP designs.

While Sony had few new product announcements, they did formally launch the 46-inch "Triluminous" Qualia 005, a flat-panel LCD design with LED backlighting I described in UAV when it first appeared in Japan last fall. The company also demonstrated its new Chromaview 80-inch front projection screen. This (literally) black screen, first seen at CEDIA, is designed to reflect only red, green, and blue light, rejecting other wavelengths and thereby making it more usable in high ambient lighting. A demonstration using a Sony LCD projector was watchable, but dramatically inferior to the best you can get from the same projector (the new Cineza model with a variable iris, the latter turned off for this demo to maximize light output) on a standard screen in a darkened room. Still, this $2000 product will definitely find customers who simply must have a big screen with high ambient lighting.

As I write this I have yet to see the video displays that will flood the convention center's floor beginning Thursday. But I did get a sneak preview of the DTS room, where the superb sound (courtesy of Halcro electronics and JBL speakers) was complemented by a Crystal View 9-inch CRT projector fitted with mods designed by CRT-guru Chris Stevens. The display is being driven by either a high definition server or a Teranex video scaler fed from an Ayre DVD player. I will be astonished if I see a better picture (or hear more dynamic movie sound, for that matter) anywhere else at this show than the one provided by this vintage CRT technology. Brighter, very possibly. Bigger, for sure. But not better. I'll report to you if I do, but as of now, this CRT setup is the one to beat. And as good as it looks with DVD, it's drop-dead gorgeous on the HD material.