Growing Pains A skinny TV with a fat price tag. A new VCR that plays only heavy metal. And a gorgeous wide-screen television with Technicolor zits. Welcome to the adolescence of digital TV.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Watching TV used to be simple. Scamper out of bed, run downstairs, twist the dial to one of the three channels that got clear reception through the rabbit-ears antenna, and settle in for a glorious Saturday morning of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Today, turning on the TV in my house is only slightly less complicated than the launch sequence for the space shuttle. The TV set is now called a monitor, and from its rear comes a Medusa-like snaking of wires that lead to cable and satellite converter boxes, a personal video recorder, a DVD player, a VCR, a surround-sound stereo receiver, and six speakers. Spending time with Bugs and Daffy now requires juggling several remote control devices and scrolling through a database of hundreds of channels.
Of course, watching TV also used to be cheap. I have no idea what my parents paid for their first color TV, but even adjusted for inflation it had to be less than the $8,000 Sony wants for its Grand Wega wide-screen 60-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) projection television monitor. The Grand Wega was one of three wildly expensive new digital TV products I put to the test recently--the others were a 20-inch Sharp Aquos LCD television ($2,500, above) and a JVC high-definition digital videocassette recorder ($2,000)--in an attempt to determine whether watching the boob tube in the Digital Age is going to be as much fun as it was when color TV sets were brand new. The verdict? Digital TV is clearly better, as long as you don't have to think about how much it costs.
Product names are getting more complex too. The Grand Wega (pronounced vay-ga), technically known as the KF-60DX100, is definitely impressive. There are plenty of other 60-inch wide-screen projection TVs on the market, but this one is special because Sony built it around a trio of LCD panels instead of cathode-ray tubes, and as a result the Grand Wega is not quite so bulky as other sets in its class.
In an effort to justify spending $8,000 on a TV set, I tried to think like an Enron accountant. It's actually quite cheap, I figured, given that the average American watches more than seven hours of television a day. Amortized over the expected life of the set, even factoring in the cost of cable subscriptions and DVD rentals, the Grand Wega is cheaper on an hourly cost basis than going out to the movies every day. Of course, by that logic, I shouldn't hesitate to spend $10,000 on a mattress.
Try as I might, I cannot recommend the Grand Wega. The $8,000 price does not include the base or the special receiver needed to display HDTV signals, which would push the cost close to $10,000. While superb, the picture without HDTV is not appreciably better than other Sony sets costing thousands less. And despite the thinner body of the TV cabinet itself, less than a foot and a half, the base unit takes almost as much floor space as a typical 60-inch projection TV.
Most vexing, however, was the bugaboo of bad pixels on the screen. Laptop computer LCD screens tend to come with a bad pixel or two, which present themselves annoyingly as either hot (always on) or cold (always off) spots on the display. The Sony's trio of LCD panels throw more than three million pixels onto a five-foot screen, and some two dozen of them were delinquent if not downright bad. Some were stuck, glowing bright red. It's hard to justify spending $8,000 for a TV that has zits.
Despite the Grand Wega's blemishes, LCD-based TVs clearly are destined to be mainstays of the digital TV future. They don't flicker, which makes them easier on the eyes. They use less electricity than tube sets. LCDs are not as susceptible to phosphor burn-in as the plasma displays we all covet, and they are slimmer and lighter than conventional TVs. Smaller LCD sets can even be mounted on a wall or placed on a bookshelf. No wonder Sharp plans to replace the majority of its tube-based TVs with flat-panel displays in coming years.
The 20-inch Sharp Aquos LC-20B2UA ($2,500) uses second-generation LCD technologies to increase its brightness, contrast ratio, viewing angles, and lamp life over previous LCD models. (Sharp's naming scheme is tricky; the "B2UA" signifies the newest models.) Although it isn't a wide-screen set, and thus is less appealing for watching DVD movies, the LC-20B2UA is still nearly picture-perfect. The screen is just two inches deep and the base is eight inches deep, which makes it especially attractive for placement on counters and desks. (Just don't plan to use it as a computer monitor; it won't work.)
The Aquos LCD set includes a built-in cable TV tuner and a set of speakers, along with a useful array of connectors including component video. I inspected several Aquos sets for bad pixels and found none. Some LCD displays suffer from poor response times and jagged images during sports or action sequences, but these new Sharp models more than lived up to their name. A 13-inch B2UA model is $1,200, and a 15-inch model is $1,500. For those with especially large budgets, Sharp also makes a pair of thin, wide-screen, HD-capable LCD televisions that can double as computer displays, including a 30-inch beauty that costs a breathtaking $8,000.
If you're beginning to think that green, as in money, is the predominant color of digital TV, the new JVC HMDH30000U D-VHS videocassette recorder with D-Theater copyright protection is not going to dissuade you. It's "only" $2,000.
DVD players are great, but they can't record programs off the television as videocassette recorders can. Today's VCRs, meanwhile, can't capture the photo-realistic images and multichannel sound promised by HDTV. For owners of HD-ready digital TV sets, the JVC D-VHS deck can record up to four hours of full HDTV (1080i) programming using a special 50-gigabyte tape. It can also play back prerecorded, high-definition entertainment, including movies, which is swell except that movie studios haven't released any movies in D-VHS because of fears of piracy. Emboldened by JVC's D-Theater copy-protection scheme, a few studios plan to release a handful of new titles in the D-VHS format soon, including Die Hard and X-Men. The D-VHS tapes are expected to cost $30 to $40 each when they arrive in stores. Okay for videophiles, perhaps, but not for mainstream consumers. The only HD tape I could find was a heavy-metal concert video. After a few minutes, even with the dazzling picture and sound, the idea of watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon on a black-and-white Philco set suddenly seemed appealing.