Our high def focus this time zooms in on Panasonic panels, lower priced disc players and DirecTV’s growing programming array.
Panny’s New Plasmas: I’m a big fan of plasma screens – for their faster switching pixels, great color, blacker blacks and better defined grey scalings. So I’m pleased with the news out of the Panasonic camp regarding the brand’s next flat screens. While fielding new LCD-based panels in 26-32 inch screen sizes, Panasonic ‘s mission (and factories) will be pushing only plasma , as the better solution, in everything 42 -inches and above. More importantly, they’ll bring out several new and less expensive models that can do the full HD dance – displaying a resolution of 1080p (that’s 1080 lines counted vertically by 1920 pixels lined up horizontally on each line, with each set of lines progressively scanned 60 times a second.)
Truth is, a 720p resolution display (which Panny also makes) in the most popular 42-inch screen size is plenty good enough for most viewers of broadcast, cable and satellite HDTV. ‘Cause all three program sources deliver images formatted in either 720p or 1080i (which is to say, 1080 interlaced lines by 1920 pixels, half scanned in odd , then in even line fields. The entire frame is fully refreshed 30 times a second.)
There’s another, even more compelling reason to “settle” for a 720p display: if you’re more than seven feet away from a 42-inch screen, your eyes literally can’t discern any differences between a 720p and a 1080p model.
Still, when I am gawking at a bigger 720p display from a similar seven foot distance, I don’t feel like I’m getting all the love. That’s especially true when the source is a Blu-Ray and HD-DVD disc or content from a high res (Xbox360 and PS3) game player/media center. All those products can put out signals at 1080p. So it’s a shame not to enjoy the extra picture clarity and “pop” (sense of three dimensional depth) that’s there on the software, that you really can see and appreciate with the right display. And that buyers/ users have paid for, damn it.
Previously, Panasonic offered the more difficult to build 1080p displays only in humongous 103-inch ($70,000) and 65-inch ($10,000) screen sizes – both still available. But starting this month, the line expands with a 50-inch 1080 progressive plasma for $3,500 and a 58-inch version for $4,800. I suspect the latter will really shine, and justify any premium, when put up next to similarly sized 720p rivals in plasma and LCD.
Then come June, Panasonic will ship a second 1080p plasma pair with slightly nicer cosmetics and a few extras – including multiple (rather than one) HDMI inputs and a camera card reader. Available to a limited distribution network (like those Magnolia stores-within stores at some Best Buy locations) the upmarket 58-incher will list for $5,500 and the 50-inch at $4,000. And a smaller, 42-inch 1080p plasma – once declared “nearly impossible to build” due to the thickness of plasma cell walls – also will show up in June from the brand, price yet to be determined.
At the “bargain” end of the plasma market, Panasonic is abandoning the 37-inch screen size and will “open” with a 1080×768 resolution 42-inch model carrying a suggested list of $1,599. That’s sure to drop at least $200-$300 by year’s end.
Slipped Discs: $299. That was the “magic” price point which, when first achieved, ignited mass sales for color TV, the VCR and the DVD player. Will the same flash point also work for HD-DVD and Blu-Ray spinners?
With official price drops that went into effect on April 1 (no foolin’), Toshiba’s line of HD-DVD players now starts at $399 list (for the HD-A2, which maxes out at 1080i), then bumps up to $499 for the 1080p-capable HD-A20. If you factor-in the 5 “free” movie discs (from 15 choices) which Toshiba is throwing in with a player purchase until July 31, the basic HD-DVD machine is below $299 already.
By year’s end , $299 and under Blu-Ray players are likely to appear, too, said Thinh Tran, CEO of core parts supplier Sigma Designs. It will happen, he believes, as production starts “to ramp strongly“ and as “ a lot of other players that don’t have as good a name as Sony will counter with the lower prices.”
Good News/Bad News: Some pundits in the high def disc camps believe high res titles will outsell conventional DVDs in three years, Sony recently proclaimed a landmark event when 100,000 Blu-Ray copies of “Casino Royale” were snapped up on release.
But one studio exec argues that the standard definition disc is too well entrenched. “Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are a niche business,” said Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg at a recent Bank of America event covered by the entertainment industry publication Variety. “They’re not going to become the next platform. . . I think for the general consumer, there is not a big enough delta between the standard DVD in terms of where it is today and the next generation.” Oddly said, but I guess we know what he means. Not enough quality difference, right? Dreamworks titles are distributed through Paramount, which has put out a number of its own releases in both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats. But to date, Dreamworks has been sitting on the sidelines. So Jeffrey is essentially talking out of his butt, about the products’ market appeal. “Dreamgirls” will be the studio’s very first foray onto the high def field, when the movie musical becomes available May 1 in both HD formats in two disc “Showstopper” editions (with lots of high def extras) as well as conventional DVD.
The new upscale version of Xbox 360 seems to be sending a mixed message, regarding Microsoft’s on-going commitment to HD-DVD . The 360 Elite, hitting stores April 29 at $479, adds an HDMI port , for better picture resolution , and boasts a massive 120 gigabyte hard drive, which will give users a lot more storage space for downloading HD movies and TV shows directly from the Xbox Live Marketplace . What’s missing here is the built-in HD-DVD player that some 360 “insider” sites had been predicting would also be packed into the Elite. Yes, Microsoft’s bargain, external $199 HD-DVD drive accessory for Xbox 360 is still available, and should benefit just as much as games from the Elite’s pure digital HDMI connector. But reported comments made by Microsoft Europe’s senior regional director Neil Thompson suggest the company’s commitment to that disc format may be wavering. “I’m not sure the market has moved to high definition,” Thompson said. “And if and when it does, then the way we’ve constructed the offering we’ve made means we’ll be able to go whichever way we want. “ A little more positive in another interview, he re-phrased the modular add-on thought: “Whatever format wins it is highly likely we will offer a solution.”
How Do We Count The Ways?: While rivals in the cable industry have snipped that there “aren’t nearly enough high definition offerings ” to fill DirecTV’s promised 100 HD channel array, a DirecTV executive vows the number will be reached this year. (Assuming DirecTV’s next, HD-exclusive satellite is successfully launched on schedule, that is, early Summer.) Chief financial officer Michael Palkovic told Multichannel News that DirecTV already has 70 HD channels under contract from “mainstream” providers including USA Network, Sci-Fi Channel , CNN, Cartoon Network and The Weather Channel .
Also live, out of the gate, should be the likes of ESPN News in high def, four Disney HD offerings, MTVHD and National Geographic HD (recently “previewed” on DirecTV.) To hit the 100 count, though, DirecTV will need to include the 13 NFL Sunday Ticket high def channels which only challenge/choke the capacity once a week. And the lineup won’t include any Voom channels, which Palkovic whined are “not really quality channels.” We’re sure that put-down has nothing to do with the fact that rival Dish Network now carries 15 Voom HD channels and owns a hunk of the program supplier.