International CES - HDTV's Slim New Look

A videophile's dream is realized at the Fujitsu booth, where a school of widescreen plasma TVs wows onlookers.
High-definition TV (HDTV) received some strong nudges in the right direction during the past year, so we expected to see plentiful signs of life on the show floor in Vegas. But while the signals here have been generally positive, manufacturers are beating a curious retreat from last year's war cry of "more high-def programming" to show on their large, boxy rear-projection HDTVs. Instead, they seem to be encouraging us not to sweat the programming problem as they seduce us with a bounty of slick sets that ooze form factor -- specifically thin, flat (and, yes, pricey) plasma and LCD models.

Slim Is in, Flat Is Phat Gargantuan widescreen plasma TVs measuring 60 inches (diagonal) and bigger were on display at the Fujitsu, Panasonic, Zenith, Samsung, and Runco booths. At $20,000 and up, the large flat-screen sets are mostly destined for the home theaters of the rich and famous.

Fortunately, other options abound, including a number of 42-inch widescreen plasma HDTV monitors in the $10,000 and under range from Philips, Hitachi, Samsung, Zenith, and Fujitsu. Past plasma TVs have been user-unfriendly items better suited to a corporate lobby than a plush living room, but to judge from many of the sets on display -- particularly the offerings from Pioneer, Hitachi, Philips, and Sharp -- the era of ugly, utilitarian plasma is over. Many of the new sets from these companies come with standard TV features like speakers (built-in or detachable), PIP, and a cable-ready NTSC tuner. The tuner, A/V inputs and outputs, and other electronics come in an external box that neatly connects to the panel via a single cable.

Hitachi's 42HDT20, for example, with detachable speaker panels and an outboard electronics box, will debut in May for $8,000. A similar 32-inch model, the $6,000 32HDT20 with side-panel speakers, will be available in April.