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HDTV Breakthroughs

Gaze in wonder at the new TV technology that's just reaching store shelves, and peer into the future for a peek at the next big thing
| By Steve Morgenstern | From Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

With most technology purchases, you're entering into a relatively short-term relationship. Flirt with a new cell phone, go out on the town with it for a while and, if you really can't stand the thing, you can dump it and pick out another. It may cost you a few hundred dollars to get out of your commitment, but as relationships go, that's not too bad. • Think your digital camera just doesn't have the awesome firepower you need to fully realize your artistic vision (or just ticked off that your buddy bought a more impressive model)? Again, it will cost you to upgrade, but you can always find somebody who'll be more than happy to take the old one off your hands, whether it's your kid, some other relative or a friendly eBay stranger bearing cash. • But when it comes to big-screen, high-definition television, you're in for the long haul. The HDTV you buy today should still look good a decade or more from now—long past the point where you'd rather trade up to a newer, fancier set. When we were talking 32-inch tube sets, that wasn't much of a problem. You could move it to the den, or the kid's room, or the curb—the investment wasn't that enormous. But when you start gazing with digital lust at a replacement for a big-screen HDTV you already own, getting rid of the old one is a much tougher issue. Are you really going to move a 50-inch plasma into little Becky's room? Toss it out in the trash with the banana skins and coffee grounds? Not likely.

That's why future-proofing your big-screen TV purchase by investing in a cutting-edge set can make a lot of sense. That's especially true now, when HDTVs incorporating several significant new technologies have started arriving in dealer showrooms.

The "Why" of HDMI
When HDTV first arrived, it took a fat fistful of cables to make the required audio and video connections—at a minimum, three video connections plus between one and eight audio cables, depending on your surround-sound setup. In 2003, though, it all got a lot simpler with the introduction of HDMI, a single cable that can carry both high-definition video and full surround sound simultaneously. HDMI is used to connect HDTV sets to AV receivers and to audio-video sources—cable and satellite boxes, DVD, Blu-ray and HD DVD players and even an increasing number of computers. At this point, every HD set on the market has an HDMI plug, and usually several.

What they don't all have is the latest version of HDMI, dubbed HDMI 1.3. While cables and plugs supporting the new version of HDMI look identical to those that came before, there are big differences inside. Basically, we're talking about a cable that can carry more than twice as much data as its predecessor (which was called, naturally enough, HDMI 1.2). And why do you care? Because the ability to pass more data back and forth paves the way for three genuinely exciting new features that will noticeably improve your TV-watching experience.

Deep Color. A set featuring Deep Color has more individual shades of color available on-screen. Say you're looking at an image of a gorgeous sunrise, consisting of seamlessly gradated colors from light to dark, or at a closeup of a face with delicate flesh tones. Look closely at that image today and you'll sometimes see that the transitions aren't smooth. Instead of graceful transitions from color to color there are jumps, creating lines of color, or banding. With Deep Color sets, there are far more colors available to make smoothly gradated transitions.

xvYCC. Deep Color expands the number of shades available on the color chart between Point A and Point B, but there's more to the challenge of displaying a red ripe juicy strawberry so luscious-looking you just want to get up and bite the screen. Surprisingly, the current color TV standard, even for HDTV sets, only reproduces about 50 percent of the colors the human eye can see. To move beyond those limitations, leading TV manufacturers, including Sony and Toshiba, developed a new industry standard called xvYCC, which encompasses over 90 percent of visible colors. The difference can be striking, especially when it comes to reproducing vibrant reds and purples.

Enhanced Audio. DVD audio sounds pretty terrific, but there's always something even better in the drive to feed the needs of the golden-eared segment of the population. In this case it's two new audio standards, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master, which deliver the full studio-master quality of a movie soundtrack. To fit high-fidelity surround sound onto an optical disc (DVD, Blu-ray or HD DVD), the huge audio file has to be compressed to save space. Usually some audio fidelity is lost in the process. With Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master, though, less compression is used, and no audio information at all is lost. Less compression, though, results in too much information to send from the disc to the surround-sound receiver using previous versions of HDMI. That's where the increased capacity provided by HDMI 1.3 comes in—it can handle full-fidelity audio soundtracks without losing any of those delicious bits and bytes.

These three technologies all provide a significantly enhanced TV experience—but none of them is particularly useful right now, because no available video content can take advantage of them. To get a better picture via Deep Color and xvYCC, you need video programs encoded with that extra color information, and that hasn't arrived yet. And I use the word "programs" advisedly, because the first system to make use of these new standards will undoubtedly be games playable on the PlayStation 3, which was the first consumer device to ship with HDMI 1.3 built in. There's room on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs for enhanced picture and audio information, but there are no announced plans to ship the first disc to take advantage of them.

That said, all these technologies are based on industry standards, so the programming is coming. And if you buy a set without HDMI 1.3, you won't be able to take advantage of it.

By sometime next year, virtually all the HD sets sold should come equipped with HDMI 1.3. Right now, though, it's a mixed bag. Some manufacturers are fully on board—Mitsubishi, for instance, provides HDMI 1.3 in its entire HD lineup. Others, including Sony and Samsung, offer sets both with and without the 1.3 connection. And to further muddy the waters, it's really not a label that says "HDMI 1.3" that you're looking for—it's the specific features outlined above. It's not enough to put the right jack on the set. You need the circuitry inside to make use of the increased bandwidth. If you want to future-proof your system, what you're looking for are HDTVs that boast Deep Color and xvYCC capability, and AV receivers capable of handling TrueHD and DTS-HD audio signals.

Pioneer Enhanced Plasma
I love the big-screen plasma TV in my living room, but like all sets using plasma technology, there's one area where it lags behind the 10-year-old picture-tube set that's been consigned to the den. A tube set can paint an image with colored dots on a jet-black background. Plasma sets, on the other hand, have a background that's more dark-gray than truly black. This cuts down on picture contrast, creating an image where the colors don't "pop" quite as much as we'd like.

Pioneer set out to improve this situation with its Project Kuro (kuro is the Japanese word for "black"), and after seeing the first sets using the new technologies the company's developed, I'm very impressed. The most important change goes right down to the electrical properties of each individual, phosphor-filled cell used to make up the plasma-screen picture. To get a fast enough response time to reproduce moving images accurately, the engineers who design them need to maintain a low-level electrical charge in these cells. That's why they look gray instead of black—they're not really "off," they're just on low. Pioneer has managed to cut that resting charge by 80 percent, and the results are dramatic. At the same time, the color filtering systems have been improved and there is even a new mode that automatically adjusts the picture based on the kind of content being watched (movies versus sports, fast action versus scenic panoramas) and the room lighting. Put it all together and you get the best-looking HDTV sets I've ever seen.

The first TVs using this new technology offered sub-HD-level resolution, but by the time you read this, four full 1080p plasmas should be available, in 50- and 60-inch sizes, with prices ranging from $5,000 to $7,500.

Hertz So Good
Meanwhile, on the flat-screen LCD and rear-projection side of the HDTV world, the phrase that pays today is 120Hz (hertz). Most TVs draw a new picture on the screen 60 times a second—that's 60Hz in geek-speak. This poses two problems. First, flat-panel LCD sets have trouble keeping up with fast-action scenes at 60Hz. It's most evident when watching auto racing or similar sports coverage—there's a noticeable blur behind the car as it moves across the screen.

The other challenge has to do with film-based material (including Blu-ray and HD DVD). Movies are shot at 24 frames per second, while video is shot at 30 frames per second (well, technically 29.7 frames, but why quibble). To show video on your 60-frame-per-second TV, each 30-frame-per-second image is shown twice, and that's that. To show a 24-frame-per-second movie on your 60-frame-per-second display is more challenging, requiring a little hocus-pocus called 3-2 pulldown. Without going into excruciating detail, some frames are repeated more often than others, making up the mathematical difference between the film and video standards. And while current DVD players and TVs are very good at this mathematical process, the results still aren't perfect. Move to a 120Hz display, though, and suddenly the math gets a lot simpler. Multiply your 24 frames by 5 and you have 120—and a rock-steady image as a result.

The first 120Hz LCD flat-panels started shipping last year, and today most manufacturers have several in their lineup (though these are still the premium-priced sets, and not yet the norm). On the DLP rear-projection side, 120Hz technology arrived this summer. I've been spending quality time lately with a new 56-inch Samsung HL-T5689S, feeding it high-def DirecTV satellite signals, Blu-ray and HD DVD discs and PlayStation 3 games, and the sharpness and clarity of the picture are terrific.

The Samsung actually landed at my doorstep, though, to enable me to fiddle with a technology that's more frivolous but still kind of fascinating—3D TV.

3D Comes Home
Forget about those dorky red-and-green glasses—3D is a serious entertainment contender today, buoyed by vastly improved technology and filmmakers who see the process as a way to get movie fans out of the house and into the theaters. This fall, though, high-quality 3D becomes available to home users, too, if they have the right TV set and accessories.

The Samsung set mentioned above is one of several recently released 120Hz rear-projection DLP TVs that are 3D-ready (Mitsubishi is the other manufacturer on the 3D bandwagon). What's required to go from 3D-ready to actual 3D viewing? First, a pair of battery-powered 3D glasses—the electrical current cycles the left and right lenses, light and dark in sequence, letting you see different images in each eye to achieve the 3D effect. Second, you'll need an infrared emitter that plugs into a special port on the TV. The emitter sends a signal to keep the glasses synchronized with the alternating images as they're projected on the screen. Finally, you need a source of 3D programming, which at this point means software running on a computer attached to the TV (if the computer doesn't already have an HDMI connection, adapter cables are readily available). The glasses, emitter and software together should run about $100.

OK, we've got the TV, the glasses and emitter, and the PC chugging away. What kind of 3D experience awaits? For now, playing PC games in three dimensions is the main attraction. Playing games in 3D sounds like a great idea—wouldn't it be cool to run down a spooky hallway and actually seem to disappear in the distance, or have a high fly ball hit in your direction that seems to come out of the screen at your head? Previous attempts at 3D gaming, though, always came up short, largely because they produced a maddening flicker caused by trying to squeeze two images (one for the left eye, one for the right) into the fraction of a second when one clear image would ordinarily be displayed. Ah, but now we have 120Hz TVs, which can show twice as many images in the same slice of time. Alternate between a left-eye image and a right-eye image 120 times a second, with the glasses shutting the "wrong" eye in synch with the changing picture, and you have a solid, surprisingly convincing 3D effect.

Samsung worked with a company called Dynamic Digital Depth (DDD) in Santa Monica to develop its 3D software package, which includes a wide variety of goodies, some of which are more impressive than others. First and foremost, the company has figured out how to transform standard, off-the-shelf PC games into credible 3D experiences, without requiring game developers to create a special three-dimensional version. All that's required is a small "patch" file to add 3D capability to a game, and the company promises to make these patches for the most popular Windows games available for free download on the Samsung Web site. Working with a prototype system, I was able to play an old game (Quake) and a new one (Madden NFL 07), and found it a genuinely interesting experience. It didn't make the games any easier, but it didn't make them more difficult either, and the sensation of depth does add drama when chasing opponents through twisty passages or tossing yourself into a tackle. What you don't get is that "object floating in front of the screen" sensation you may have experienced in 3D movie theaters or amusement parks. Not that the system isn't capable of providing that effect (see below)—it just requires content specially programmed to achieve it, which these games weren't.

The 3D sample photos the company provided looked amazingly lifelike, and you will be able to turn your own personal photos 3D, using an optional software program. There's player software that adds a 3D effect to an ordinary DVD, but I didn't find it terribly effective. On the other hand, sample video clips of TV shows and movie trailers that were shot in 2D but preprocessed by DDD to simulate 3D looked much better. The best demo of all, though, was the trailer for a movie that was actually released in a 3D version that played in theaters. In this case, incorporating great 3D effects was part of the game plan from the start, so you get lots of those gee-whiz moments that make you want to reach out and touch the objects that seem to be hanging inches from your nose. If Hollywood comes through with more 3D movies, as promised, we'll be ready to enjoy them in all their artificially rendered splendor. In the meantime, for $100 you have a new and different gaming experience and a great "you gotta see this!" technology to share with friends and neighbors.

Has Sony Found the Missing Link?
With 80 percent of U.S. Internet users hooked up to a high-speed, always-on, all-you-can-download-for-one-price broadband connection, it's reasonable to assume that most people will want to point their remote control at the TV set and enjoy online entertainment at some point. How exactly they'll accomplish this feat, though, is still very much up in the air. You could hook a full-blown computer up to the TV (my choice, but I'm a self-confessed geek), download shows and movies via your Internet-connected game console, use a media bridge like AppleTV to present files from your computer on the TV, or rely on a turbo-charged set-top box, like the one you use now to get cable or satellite TV reception, to grab content from the Web as well. And this fall we have yet another option to consider, as Sony introduces its Bravia Internet Video Link.

While most Internet connectivity solutions add another freestanding box to your array of video gear, the Internet Video Link attaches to a Bravia TV (most models are compatible) like a digital backpack, conveniently out of sight. Sony recommends a wired Ethernet connection, though you can experiment with an Ethernet-to-wireless adapter and see if that delivers adequate download speeds. However, part of the charm of the product is the ability to watch high-definition along with standard-def content, and wirelessly streaming that off the Internet is inevitably going to be hit and miss.

So what wonders of the Web will the new device present to your waiting clicker? Not free-roaming browsing of the Internet, but specially prepared content dished up by Sony, free of additional charge (good thing, since the adapter itself sells for a hefty $300). The company has already announced deals with AOL, Yahoo and Grouper to deliver Internet video programming, music videos, movie trailers, user-generated videos and RSS feeds. Potentially the best source of content for the Internet Video Link, though, is Sony itself—the company does own a few movie studios and record labels, after all, and it's certainly within its corporate capabilities to give this thing a boost by providing A-list content. Filling the online pipe with tempting goodies, though, is still a work in progress at this point.

Tune in Tomorrow
Happily for tech writers like myself, "good enough" is never good enough when it comes to digital products—there's always a "new and improved!" lurking in a lab somewhere. That's not to say all of the purported advancements make it to market. Two years ago, I was treated to a demonstration of SED TV, a flat-panel technology that offered superior black levels and brighter colors than either LCD or plasma screens. Unfortunately, the need to build new factories to produce SED screens, the challenges involved in making the technology economically viable, and a pack of ravening patent lawyers seem to have sunk SED for good. On the other hand, laser TV technology, which I first encountered about a year ago, should finally reach stores in early 2008, and I expect it will be a contender.

We're talking rear-projection TVs here, a category that admittedly lacks some of the sizzle factor of flat-screen displays, but continues to offer the best dollars-per-screen-inch value on the market. The knocks on rear-projection sets when compared to plasma and LCD displays have been that they take up too much space, they don't deliver a bright enough picture and they look bad when viewed at an angle. The current generation of rear-projection sets has minimized all three of these problems. Laser TV could obliterate them.

Fundamentally, rear-projection TVs use a series of lenses to bounce a bright light source off a small chip with a tiny video image on it. Then you need a color wheel to add the red, green and blue that make up the finished picture, and finally, additional lenses to project that image onto a front screen. Most current sets use powerful fluorescent bulbs as a light source; a few use LEDs. Lasers, on the other hand, can hit the microdisplay with a much brighter light, and since laser light follows a straight path without scattering, you don't need lenses to focus it. The result: fewer lenses, and less cabinet depth, complexity and expense. And by using three separate lasers (one red, one green, one blue), you don't need a color wheel either—another significant win. Given the extra brightness, it's possible to design a front screen that provides a wider viewing angle—no need to focus the image straight ahead when you have enough illumination to handle a broader space. Unlike traditional rear-projection bulbs, which last for years but eventually need pricey replacements, lasers will last as long as any sane person wants to keep the set. And finally, lasers are more energy-efficient than the competition.

For all this unabashed wonderfulness, there is one hang-up—I have yet to see a real production sample of a laser TV. Hand-built prototypes have been displayed at trade shows, but that's a long way from a real product. While several companies are flirting with laser TV, it's clear that the first one off the block will be Mitsubishi, which says it will demo actual sets and announce ship dates and pricing at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in January. It promises to be a highlight of a show never short of highlights.

Speaking of the Consumer Electronics Show, even seasoned tech journalists stopped to gaze in wonder at one particular display at the 2007 show last January—a lineup of amazing OLED TV displays at the Sony booth. OLED stands for Organic Light-Emitting Diode—basically it's a variation of the familiar LED technology used in millions of blinking lights and appliance displays, but substantially brighter and even more energy-efficient. Turns out, if you create a display with enough tiny OLEDs, you get a stunning picture. The technology is already used in some high-end cell phone displays, where it effectively battles the bright-sunlight-on-your-screen problem and produces unusually legible text. In theory, an OLED high-definition TV should look far superior to current LCD and plasma sets, with superior brightness and better color reproduction. What's more, with no need for backlighting, OLED panels can be incredibly thin. Think about a flat-screen set as deep as a stack of two or three pennies.

The leap between theory and reality could be a long way, though. First off, manufacturing OLED screens in large sizes is still extremely difficult. The screens that brought me up short at Sony's booth last year maxed out at 27 inches, hardly a threat to the existing big-screen champs. Second, there are questions about the longevity of OLED screens versus LCD and plasma. And third, pricing for large screen sizes is still anybody's guess at this stage of development.

That said, Sony has announced its intention to sell an OLED model in Japan this year (though the announcement was devoid of details), and Toshiba, Panasonic, Samsung and others are all investing significantly in the technology. More power to them! We're reaching the point where most improvements in LCD and plasma technologies are barely visible, so there's no fun in writing about that. Pour a few billion into a radically different display technology, though, the kind of improvement that makes you hope your current TV dies so you can replace it with the new kid in town, and you've ensured that I have something slick to write about for at least the next few years. Thank you, Japan.

Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.