Good Looks Ahead: What’s Next for HDTV?

Thinner, more stylish, and better-connected sets are on the way–eventually. But don’t expect huge price cuts anytime soon.

Five years ago, just about any flat-panel television could induce oohs and aahs, and high-definition was a rarity. Today, although flat-panel HDTVs are in only 25 percent of American households, they’re common enough that the gee-whiz factor is gone. So where do HDTVs go from here?

Improvements in picture sharpness and advances in screen size are likely to be gradual. “It’s kind of like computers: If you wait around, there will always be something better around the corner,” says DisplaySearch HDTV analyst Paul Gagnon.

But the next step for HDTV isn’t about technology per se. It’s about the experience of watching, which brings previously peripheral considerations–such as design, ease of use, and integrated audio–to the fore. As a result, you’ll not only like what you see on your set, but you’ll also have a better time experiencing that content in your home. A Nod to Style

In this post-iPhone world, where industrial design is king, TV manufacturers are paying particular attention to the look and feel of their products and to integrating software with hardware. “Everyone is looking for a unique characteristic,” notes Gagnon. “You see it in laptops, you see it in cell phones–and now everybody wants a unique statement of design in a TV.”

Just as cell phones, digital cameras, and laptops now come in colored packages, TVs too are moving beyond basic black. Manufacturers are also taking a cue from the sleek details found on smaller products. LG Electronics, for example, recently introduced TV sets with color and style tweaks. The 32-inch LG40 features such accents as a curved pedestal and a red front-drop bezel; the back of the LG60 is red, too, and you can see a flash of color peeking through the side and front.

An even bigger emphasis this year is on thinness. Hitachi, JVC, and LG have all revealed thin sets, ranging from 1.5 inches to 1.7 inches thick. Crafting such a slim TV is a technological challenge. LG, for instance, achieved its products’ 1.7-inch depth by reengineering the circuitry around the LCD module–and reengineering the TV’s cabinet–to remove unused space. In the future, you’ll see even more slim sets on the market: Sharp’s newest manufacturing facility begins mass production next year, and it will be capable of producing ultrathin 60-inch panels.

Despite the slimmer profiles, television manufacturers are stuffing new features into this year’s cabinets, improved speakers being chief among them. A slew of companies, including Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, and Westinghouse, have added speakers that fire down instead of forward, which audio experts claim achieves more full-bodied sound. And in its latest models, LG has positioned hidden speakers–they’re located behind the cabinet, so that the front bezel looks smooth. JVC has even introduced multiple models that have an integrated “Made for iPod Dock,” which lets you play both audio and video from an iPod on your television.

Also taking flight this year: televisions that connect to your home network so you can tap into its content. Last year Hewlett-Packard and Sony were at the fore of this trend, and Pioneer offered some sets that comply with the Digital Living Network Alliance certification (an assurance that they’ll be able to interact with other DLNA devices such as PCs, gaming systems, and storage devices that are on your home network). HP is installing in all of its 2008 models a Windows Media Center Extender, which lets you access multimedia on your PC via a home network. Later this year Sony will add a DMeX (Digital Media Extender) option to its sets, allowing them to interact with DLNA-compliant networks.

Internet connectivity comes in for a boost, as well. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Sharp introduced models with its Aquos Net service (for receiving customized Web-based content); Panasonic unveiled its VieraCast service (for watching YouTube videos and accessing photos via Google’s Picasa photo-sharing site); and Samsung showed TVs that could receive an RSS newsfeed powered by USA Today. All are expected to be released sometime this year.

As with all new bells and whistles, some of these developments are likely to be here today and gone tomorrow. The challenge for manufacturers is to find the right balance between next-gen features and price in a competitive market.

“For now, they’re just testing the waters,” observes DisplaySearch’s Gagnon. “I think a lot of manufacturers are hesitant to build in features that they’re not sure will take off.” The downside of such a misstep is obvious: Increasing the prices of televisions to add a new feature that no one uses is a waste of money for both manufacturers and consumers.

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