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Consumer Electronics Show, 2006


Well. CES 2006 has come and gone in Las Vegas, and we can breathe a sigh of relief. I don't know if it was just my imagination, but this show seemed more swamped than ever, with chronic traffic jams around the convention center and human gridlock in the aisles of the exhibit halls. But in the end it was worth it. As we bumped and jostled our way from booth to booth, we discovered numerous new projector products being unveiled for the first time. Some of them will be ready to ship this quarter, and others will appear later this year. Some were prototypes with no specific dates of introduction.

I will summarize most of the new projectors below, but first I want to tell you about a product that falls into the "you ain't gonna believe this" category. Now, this is just between us-don't go telling everyone about it, or the waiting list will be months long. It is an HD video camera from Sanyo-the Xacti HD1. It is a bit bigger than a pack of cigarettes, it weighs 8 ounces, and it takes both still pictures and video. It has a 10x zoom lens with image stabilization. Resolution for photographic still images is 5 megapixels, and video resolution is widescreen 1280x720. It is capable of recording up to 42 minutes of 1280x720 video on a 2GB SD memory card. So you can make and display your own high definition home movies. Oh ... did I mention the price? A mere $799. The Xacti HD1 will ship in April. Now remember-keep this under your hat. I want one, and I don't want to be waiting till Christmas to get it.

Projector News

As far as home theater projectors go, the "big news" story is that 2006 is the year that 1080p resolution DLP projectors will begin to hit the market. Vendors unveiling pre-production samples included Optoma, SharpVision, projectiondesign, Marantz, and Sim2. Prices and delivery dates were fluid and not set in stone, but they range from a low of about $10,000 for the Optoma HD81 up to over $20,000 for some of the boutique brands. Most vendors expect delivery timeframes in the second and third quarters, but the introduction of these products is dependent upon TI's delivery of the parts.

There is no question that the new 1080p projectors will produce dazzling images with very high resolution, high quality 1080p video sources. However, potential buyers should keep in mind that 1080p projectors do not look their best with anything less than an original 1080p source. When you start with an inferior signal, adding more pixels to the display does not solve the problem. You are already familiar with the phenomenon if you have watched HDTV, DVD, and standard definition television all on a 1280x720 projector; HDTV always looks the best, followed by DVD, and lastly, poor ole regular broadcast television. The differences in image quality are obvious, and the pixel array has little to do with it. Similarly, if you play a standard DVD in a DVD player that upscales to native 1280x720 and feed that into your 720p projector, you do not end up with an HD quality image. We will see the same phenomenon with the 1080p projectors, because the vast majority of commercially available video material will come in formats less than 1080p.

Sharp gave a great demonstration of their new Z20000 1080p model. They showed it with three different sources--a pristine 1080p source, Blu-ray 1080i DVD, and conventional 480i component video. Three distinct levels of image quality were obvious. The 1080p source was exquisite, and showed the true potential of the projector. Blu-ray DVD looked very good, but it was clearly a step down. It is definitely better than standard DVD, but it falls short of the best possible high resolution sources. The image quality with Blu-ray on this particular 1080p projector was not much different than that which is available on the better 720p projectors on the market today.

It will be interesting to see how consumers respond to what is shaping up to be an enormous price gap between 720p and 1080p. For example, the newly announced Optoma HD72 (1280x768), is a DLP projector rated a 1300 ANSI lumens and 5000:1 contrast. It features the new BrilliantColor technology from TI, and it will sell at street prices of just $2,000 this spring. Will typical broadcast HDTV look noticeably more "high-def" on a $20,000 1080p projector than it will on this $2,000 unit? Probably not. In fact it is possible that the HDTV 720p broadcasts from ABC, Fox, and ESPN (which constitute the vast majority of HD sports programming) will look a bit clearer and sharper on the HD72 due to display of the signal in native format. Certainly standard television and current DVD formats will not look much better on 1080p displays than they already do on 720p.

The bottom line is that the gigantic price gap between 720p and 1080p products cannot sustain itself over the long term in the marketplace, simply because the picture quality differential is not there to justify it. The reason is that the vast majority of video content that will be available is incapable of driving 1080p displays to their full potential. Early adopters with money to burn will go for the new 1080p products for the same reason that people buy Ferraris to drive around on city streets. But the astute consumer looking for the best value will buy the 720p models today and wait for prices on 1080p models to drop like a rock in the coming years. After all, broadcast HDTV and the new high definition DVD formats already look beautiful on today's 720p models, and there is nothing about the new 1080p format that will make this material look much better.

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