Slowly, the picture changes for TV buyers

Those "next generation" televisions you've been reading about are showing up in Americans' homes – today.

Credit falling prices.

Sharp, for example, offered its 20-inch, liquid-crystal-display (LCD) TV for $5,000 last year. It has since cut the price of the small, wall-mounted unit in half. That's far from cheap, but it may be low enough to lure some "early adopter" consumers.

Sales of LCD TVs this year have begun to stir at Flanner's Audio and Video, for example, where even affluent videophiles had been holding off on buying the futuristic sets for the past few years.

"More people replacing their older TVs are buying up," says Lance Zabrowski, a salesman at the Brookfield, Wisc., electronics store. Mr. Zabrowski partly credits the surging interest to improved picture quality. "Every year we notice they've all gotten better," says Zabrowski.

Experts say prices will have to drop much further, however, before these new sets appear in most living rooms.

"[Americans] are less willing to pay a lot, even when the product is of a high quality," says Geoffrey Hughes, director of communications for Samsung Corp.

High-definition televisions (HDTV), which broadcast crystal-clear picture and sound, have long been touted as the most important TV innovation since color. Last year, however, Americans only bought 900,000 HDTV sets, compared with 21 million standard color sets.

HDTV models range in price from about $1,500 to $4,000, but experts predict that prices will drop below $1,000 within a few years as broadcasters offer more high-definition programming.

"Historically, prices drop rapidly," says Jenny Miller, a spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association. "It's all about economies of scale."

While HDTVs offer an upgrade in picture and sound, most new products address the TV's traditional clunky frame.

LCD screens are the marquee innovation. The transmission in LCD sets is not carried through a tube, but through a layer of liquid crystal. Because the material takes up very little space, the entire TV can be very thin – as little as 6 inches deep – so users usually mount them on a wall.

They also weigh much less. A traditional 45-inch set weighs about 500 pounds; an LCD set of a similar size weighs 30 pounds.

While the picture is not as sharp as that of a standard TV, experts say, the screen is brighter and uses less power. A battery connected to the back runs most LCD sets. Larger sets must be plugged in.

Sizes range from 5 inches to 30 inches with prices ranging from $280 to $8,000. Next year, Samsung plans to introduce a 40-inch model.

Projection TVs offer a mix between a standard TV and LCD, without the main drawbacks of each. The projection technology sends light through liquid crystal and then magnifies it with a lens. Thinner than a standard set, it also offers better picture resolution than an LCD. The spectrum of colors is more limited, however, and the picture blurs from side angles, according to Mr. Hughes. Prices are competitive with HDTV models. Toshiba, for example, offers a 50-inch model for $1,400.

Plasma sets have screens that look similar to LCD models, but represent a significant jump in quality and price. The plasma is an ionized gas contained in a chamber. Unlike other types of televisions, it lights each TV pixel instantaneously, eliminating even split-second flickering. Plasma sets are as thin and light as LCD units, but the picture quality is nearly equal to that of traditional sets. Because of the higher resolution, plasma screens can be much larger than LCDs.

For most consumers, the price is prohibitively high. Philips' 42-inch plasma set costs $7,000. But observers agree the plasma display will likely be standard in less than 10 years.

In a few years, consumers can also expect three-dimensional programming to be common on their TVs, experts say. Dynamic Digital Depth (DDD) in Santa Monica, Calif., is developing a technology that would allow viewers to switch from 2-D to 3-D with the click of the remote.

Americans' growing interest in video games (see story, below) is partly responsible for the 3-D push. Game players are increasingly demanding realism in characters and dimension. "They want real depth. They want to tell how far the characters are from each other," says Andrew Millin, a DDD engineer.

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