Internet TV gets an upgrade


Published: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 11:47 p.m.
  • THE GIZMO: High-tech products from the Consumer Electronics Show.
    More than 20,000 high-tech products were introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show, which took place last week in Las Vegas.
    Coming off a record year (sales up 13 percent, revenues of $145 billion), consumer-electronics makers are betting that America's love affair with electronics will continue unabated. This report looks at the product category that still grabs the most attention and dollars: television.
  • INTERNET TV EVERYWHERE: As millions of visitors stream short videos from Web sites like YouTube.com, it's clear that Internet TV is luring eyeballs from old-line broadcast, cable and satellite TV sources.
    But there's also a growing recognition that most people don't like to watch long-form movies and TV shows on a handheld device or a computer monitor. So at this year's CES, many companies offered ways to move Internet-acquired content onto bigger screens.
    Imagine Internet video so good you'll buy a new TV to watch it. That's the promise of Sony's Bravia Internet Video System, coming mid-year (price TBA).
    A new series of high-definition, flat-panel TVs will connect directly to the Internet via Ethernet to access and stream free high-def and standard-def video content supplied by partner channels AOL, Yahoo! and Grouper (a Sony-owned YouTube wannabe).
    Apple announced a variation on the theme, Apple TV, at the MacWorld Expo last week. (The competing show took place in San Francisco.) The device would be usable on any TV.
    Another Apple product, the iPod Video, inspired interesting enhancement products that were on display at CES. Slip your iPod Video portable into Viewsonic's new ViewDoc ($495), and programs downloaded from the iTunes store will play on an integrated, 22-inch, high-def wide screen.
    Or pop that iPod into Ion Audio's iProjector ($499, available this spring). The small portable can throw a 90-inch image onto a wall or screen and it connects to other content sources such as DVD players.
    Hard-drive-based media servers that store video and music and move it to gear throughout the house are getting cheaper and easier to set up, too. A few examples:
  • Hewlett Packard is leading the pack with its Media Vault ($350 to $500), which resembles a mini-PC tower and connects to a home network. Tap into the Vault elsewhere in your home with HP's Media Smart TV, a 37-inch LCD model selling for around $2,000.
  • Microsoft's Xbox 360 already downloads video content, CEO Bill Gates bragged when he spoke at CES. Microsoft's new Vista operating system - launching Jan. 31 - will enhance Internet Protocol TV (also known as IPTV) delivery in Windows Media Center PCs, likewise connectable to big-screen TVs.
  • Even the guys in the skies, satellite TV giants EchoStar (Dish Network) and DirecTV, are getting Internet download-conscious. As a response to cable's popular video-on-demand service, both companies will offer receiver boxes this year that also make hardwired Internet connections to download and serve up movies, TV series and specials on command.
  • VIDEO TO GO: TV images on your cell phone will get a little bigger and a lot clearer with Verizon's V Cast Mobile TV service, launching by March.
    About a dozen live channels from the likes of CBS, Comedy Central, Fox, MTV, NBC News, NBC Entertainment and Nickelodeon will beam digitally to a new generation of ''T-Bar''-design phones, so named because the devices have a rotating, widescreen CD display.
    Qualcomm's MediaFlo software and technical backbone run the show for Mobile TV, which does not interfere with normal phone reception, offers broadcast-quality pictures and synchronized sound, and doesn't drain any more power than a normal phone call.
  • HIGH-DEF PEACE ACCORD: Are you a high-definition TV lover who's been waiting for a winner to emerge in the fracas between two competing HD videodisc formats?
    A peace flag was being waved at CES by two major concerns, software giant Warner Home Video and the major Korean company LG Electronics.
    Warner has been selling titles in both HD-DVD and Blu-ray formats, a shelf-space nightmare for retailers. Come fall, the studio (and subsidiaries New Line and HBD Video) will introduce the ''Total HD Disc'' - or THD - an in-house invention that carries both HD varieties on opposite sides of a single disc.
    The compromise recognizes that ''the two formats are going to co-exist,'' said Warner's Steve Nickerson.
    Likewise easing consumer concerns about backing the wrong horse, LG Electronics is readying the first universal HD player featuring a single-drive mechanism and complex laser pickup to play both Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs - and conventional DVDs, too.
    Early adopters will pay $1,199 for this LG Super Multi Blue Player, available in March. The first-gen device shortchanges the HD-DVD format a little, since it won't access the interactive features encoded on the discs. A dual-format PC drive that doesn't have this problem will also appear, for roughly the same price.
  • BIGGER, BRIGHTER, BETTER: Aiming to stay competitive with flat-panel TVs, makers of rear-projection televisions are shrinking the cabinet depth and improving the technology of their sets.
    Sporting today's top HD picture specification - a 1,080-line, progressively scanned (also known as 1080p) widescreen image - JVC's wall-hanging Slim HD-ILA models measure just 10.7 inches deep for the 58-inch-wide model ($3,299) and 11.6 inches deep for the 65-inch-wide version ($4,199).
    Rear-projection sets using Texas Instruments' rival digital light processing technology also are shrinking.
    Samsung's soon-coming 1080p ''Slim LED DLP'' series in 50-, 56- and 61-inch screen sizes ($2,399 to $3,199) do the deed in part by replacing the clunky color wheel of the light engine with a tiny array of energy-efficient LEDs that also create better color.
    Later this year, Mitsubishi aims to introduce thin-line 1080p sets that use laser beams to create a super-sharp image. Just watch out for the light sabers in the ''Star Wars'' movies.
    Still, any rear-projection set is going to have a tough time competing against flat-panels, already the TV purchase of choice for more than half the populace.
    Bread-and-butter 42-inch (720p) HD plasma models are expected to drop in price to a grand. Upstart cost-cutting brand Vizio was at CES and introduced a ''Full HD'' (1080p), 47-inch LCD set for $1,900 and the ''Maximvs,'' a 60-inch, 720p plasma screen at a relatively bargain $2,999.
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