Crystal Ball

Here's a question from Kirk Spencer in Bartlesville, OK, about the future of television technology:

Where is flat-screen technology headed?

I have a first-generation Pioneer Kuro in my bedroom and a Sony SXRD rear-pro in my den. Sony has discontinued SXRD technology, and I can't tell where Pioneer is headed with the Kuro now that it has outsourced production. I would like to replace the Sony with a flat panel—it's picture quality is actually pretty good, but having such a bulky item between my speakers degrades the sound of my stereo. But lately, I'm feeling a little snake-bit from spending good money on televisions only to wonder a year or two after the purchase whether I'll still be able to buy parts in five years.

So for now, I'm on the sidelines, wondering when the next big jump in picture quality will occur, what it will be, and just as importantly, what the length of its product life cycle will be. What do you foresee?

Ah, the perennial question—buy now or wait for the Next Big Thing? I'm with you in my curiosity about Pioneer's Kuro sets now that Panasonic is going to be making the glass. What I saw of Panasonic's new "Neo PDP" plasma panel at CES was quite impressive, and I'm guessing it will be the technology used in the next-gen Kuros. If so, they should look great, but it's all conjecture at this point. I'll have to wait to see an actual set before I can say for sure. I suspect that will be sometime next year.

Another observation from CES is that flat-panel picture quality saw incremental improvement—and reduced thickness—but nothing truly revolutionary. Sure, there were OLED TVs at the Sony and Samsung booths, but those are years away from being viable large-screen TVs, and even more years before they are anything approaching affordable.

Meanwhile, Pioneer Kuros get very close to true black—that is, 0 foot-lamberts—and local-dimming LCD sets actually achieve it, so how much better than they get? The color gamuts of these TVs are very close to correct, and most other measures of their picture quality are equally good, so any improvement in the near term is going to be marginal.

The only area I see any possibility for dramatic improvement is resolution. People are starting to talk about 4K displays—that is, roughly 4096x2301—but such displays are bound to be ultra-expensive. Also, there is no commercially available content at that resolution, and there isn't likely to be for several years at least. Thus, I don't think it's something to wait for at this point.

As for product life cycles, they've been getting shorter and shorter over time. That's just the nature of the industry, so my best advice is to get the best display you can afford now and enjoy it as long as you can. It's not going to change just because something better comes along—it will still perform just as well as the day you bought it for years to come. The only thing that will change is your attitude toward it, and that's something over which you have complete control.

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