Century Technology Reigns at CES
By Jim Bray
1999 should go down as the
year that digital high definition TV (HDTV) finally made a splash.
That s if you can believe the
cornucopia of delightful products displayed at the annual Winter Consumer
Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where they showed everything from conventionally
sized, direct view TV s to ultra expensive front projectors that would
do a cineplex proud.
HDTV products were shown by
practically everyone from AmPro to Zenith, and included such mainstream
brands as RCA/ProScan, Panasonic, Daewoo, Pioneer, Sony, and Philips.
Most of the sets were rear projection types with screens of around 60-64
inches; several higher end (even for HDTV!) front projection systems
from Runco, Vidikron, and Faroudja to name a few upped the size ante
considerably, and a few "conventional" direct view sets of around 32
34 inches were thrown in for good measure.
But while the U.S. may be the
land of the free, HDTV is anything but: as mouth-watering as these products
are, prices range from $2800 to $70,000 US, putting them out of the range
of mere mortals.
Virtually all of these sets,
which feature 16:9 aspect ratio wide screens, are either available now
in the U.S. or will be later this year. None of the makers to whom I spoke
know when they ll come to Canada because the wonderful people who decide
what Canadians are allowed to see have yet to okay the stuff.
Besides HDTV sets, there was
also a plethora of DTV (or "HDTV-ready") sets designed to work on today s
"NTSC" system but upgradeable to HDTV later on by adding some sort of
So if you re thinking of buying
a TV within the next five to ten years, it s worth knowing that there s
a quantum leap called DTV and/or HDTV in the not-too-distant future.
HDTV truly looks like film
quality, with no scan lines and a picture so sharp you d be tempted to
reach right into the set if, of course, the signal source is up to snuff.
One of the sources displayed came from ABC TV, which had problems with
its equipment, and the picture was softer than it should have been. On
the other hand, a live NFL game looked spectacular.
If you d like an insight into
what HDTV will look like, you can check out Sony s XBR KP-53XBR200 53"
and KP-61XBR200 61" projection TV s, available in stores now. They aren t
HDTV, but they re about as good as you can get from today s TV and offer
a marvelously smooth, scan line-free picture.
Most of the major players also
showed flat, "plasma" displays, usually around 42 inches diagonally, in
both conventional and HDTV configurations. These sets, which are offshoots
of LCD technology, are getting darn good, and the price is plummeting
down to about $10000 US for "entry level" units. These are the "wall
hanging" screens of science fiction.
Sharp continued its path down
the LCD projection TV market with a whole line of products. These are
also getting pretty good, though they still tend to make it seem as if
you re watching TV through a screen door and are really more suitable
for boardrooms than home theatres.
While we wait for HDTV to come
down from Mount Olympus, there's one nifty digital format that's quickly
becoming mainstream. Nearly everyone had a full range of DVD movie players
(including - "drool" - HDTV ones) and a few companies, including Pioneer
and Panasonic are also bringing to market "DVD-RAM" (recordable DVD) machines.
Panasonic even had a DVD camcorder that records onto a disc instead of
And now there's DVD Audio.
This isn't just audio CD's on a DVD, it's a new audio format, and at the
highest sonic "resolutions" you only get about the same recording time
as a conventional audio CD. Proponents say the DVD Audio sounds far more
realistic than CD's, and can record more than two channels of sound and
toys like interactive lyrics and full motion video.
If you go to lower sampling
rates and frequencies you can get more time on a disc, but the Panasonic
booth gave the impression that they re going more for quality and razzle
dazzle than recording time.
The demo I heard sounded terrific.
Unfortunately, however, there was no "A/B comparison" of audio CD s with
DVD Audio, and even if we were I wouldn t trust it, trade show demos being
what they are.
Also unfortunately, I got the
impression that today's DVD players won't handle the discs. Panasonic
touted new "Universal" players that would, so the consumers who've "Pioneered"
(no pun intended) the DVD format by buying the early players may be hung
out to dry here.
Not only that, but competing
systems were being touted as well: Super Audio CD (SACD) and Advanced
Audio Disc (AAD) were featured.
I wonder, though, if these
are worthwhile advances or if they re products in search of a market.
Only time will tell.
Back on the video side of things,
two companies introduced systems that could make your VCR obsolete and
give you a lot more control over the idiot box.
Replay Networks won the Best
of Show award for its ReplayTV, a set-top box that uses a hard drive/MPEG
2 encoder combination to record your favourite TV programs without using
videotape. It also allows you to pause live TV programs (it keeps recording
while you pause what's on the TV screen), and even fast forward through
A program guide, included in
the price, lets you tailor your viewing to your tastes.
And TiVo is a competing system
that, for a monthly charge, will let you take control of your TV much
the same way. TiVo is also getting the marketing muscle of Philips behind
it, so this may give it a boost.
One system you can
get in Canada is with a built in TV guide from RCA and ProScan. This isn t
new, but a new and upgraded version, Guide + Gold, features easier to
scroll menus, program information, one touch VCR recording for your favourite
shows. Best of all, the system s built into specific RCA and ProScan TV s
and the service is free.
CES - from
the Sublime to the ridiculous
High end audio manufactures
are jumping on the Home Theatre bandwagon (though it seems more like they re
being pushed!). A new company, Sherbourn, showed a lovely 250 watt x 5
power amplifier it claims will sell for about $1750US, while McIntosh
powered some $80,000US California Audio Technology speakers. Other companies
of "various-fi" (including Denon, NAD, Marantz, Pioneer, Technics, etc.)
unleashed a plethora of Dolby Digital and DTS-compatible systems suitable
for home theatres of all sizes.
audio and video, CES visitors were treated to the latest in Global Positioning
Satellite car navigation systems, like the $300US Door-to-Door CoPilot
1999 that combines real-time dynamic routing via intricate maps with voice
instructions that let you keep your eyes on the road.
Axlon's Digital Wireless
Key Telephone System (DWKTS) combines a 900MHz three-line telephone with
a home automation gateway that provides up to 16 wireless extensions (with
individual voice mail boxes, Caller ID, and PBX features). It also lets
you control your home s security, lighting, HVAC, and more.
Then there s the more
silly technology that makes life interesting. For instance, if you have
the urge, you can populate your rock garden with StereoStones outdoor
speakers, which are designed to fit right into your yard s décor disappearing
from sight but not from earshot.
Or how about 360 degree
TV, from ESP Electronics? It was a prototype consisting of a clear plastic
tube in which a TV picture appears and you can actually walk completely
around it and the picture appears to follow you. Unfortunately, the picture
was lousy and the thing hummed like the devil, and I d had my fill after
about 30 seconds.
Or how about Exeter
Technology s "Park-Zone?" This product is supposed to be a boon for those
who, for some reason, keep ramming their cars into the rear of their garages.
This $80US gadget hangs on the wall into which you re prone to smash and
looks like a little traffic light. As you drive in, the motion sensor
turns the light from green to yellow and then to red as the moment of
Do we really need
This is just
a quick look at some of the stuff we can expect to see in an electronics
store in the near future. Stay tuned to TechnoFILE for some more in depth
looks at a lot of this stuff - and lots more - as it becomes available.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think