A look at great flat-panel TV's but will Apple reinvent the category?

On Tuesday, September 20, 2011 0 comments

I am perplexed by the television manufacturers and the overall television/movie industries in general. It seems like they are trying to squeeze more and more features into their TVs but I just don't know if consumers care. Sure this economy has you second guessing every major purchase but what do you expect from a TV on your wall anyway?

I'd assume you expect the content you care about will be viewable at the level of quality you are willing to pay for. But do you need 480Hz refresh rates? Do you even know what a Hz does? (Before you ask, it is the number of single frames on the screen per second. A movie is typically 24 frames per second, so the more Hz typically means smoother fast motion on the screen. But you'd be hard press to tell the difference between 120 or more).

What about 3D? Internet applications? I don't know if you have tried calling up an app on some of these TVs but it can be a huge test of patience. The processors inside these TVs are for the most part underwhelming/under-horsepowered. It can take a fair bit of time just to open and search for the feature you are looking for. And are you ready for your TV to crash and need to reboot?

While I don't have all the answers to the questions above, I will endeavor to address the current landscape of flat-panel TVs and my thoughts of where things are going.

So what type of product discussion would this be without noting the latest and most viable TV's in the market currently.

Now there are some wonderful LCD displays in the marketplace and a wide range in size and features. I am going to fixate on the "sweet-spot" size of 46-50" displays. This is really the smallest range to enjoy the benefits of a full-HD 1080p display.

Let's start at the bottom and work our way up to the top...

The clean lines of the Vizio E3D470VX
Best Value
I like Vizio as a brand and a good many of their products are very well reviewed. They are best know for getting you an exceptionally well featured LCD TV for your money. A standout product in their current line-up is the Vizio E3D470VX 47-Inch LCD TV. This TV was designed to address short-comings of the original expensive 3D TV's from last year. Priced at roughly $850 you get a 47" LCD that can display 1080p (high-resolution video) at 120Hz.

This TV is built on some older backlighting technologies. The current trend is to backlight the TV with an array of LEDs (very small bulbs of light stacked in hundreds of rows along the back of the display) compared to the old generic single light across the back. The LED solution allows you to adjust the darkness of an area of the screen to get a deeper black. As a result, this TV doesn't have the deep blacks I tend to prefer. Good just not great.

Don't let the backlighting issue overshadow the beautiful imagery this TV displays. It has a clean and natural color palette and its 3D picture quality is extremely competitive. There is really nothing down in this mid-$800s range that competes.

You get two passive 3D glasses similar to what you get when you go to a 3D movie at the theaters. The set also includes wi-fi connectivity to the internet and drives the included apps like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora and Facebook.

Pros: Good price vs features/size, clean lines, very good picture quality, newer trend of passive glasses versus the chunky and expensive active glasses from last year.

Cons: Blacks not as deep as I like. The built-in speakers are weak so hopefully you are hooking up to a stereo. Was not a fan of the remote which is needed to drive many of the included apps and access the keyboard.

Conclusion: Strong contender versus the competition. Most TVs that offer this level of picture quality have moved up scale with LED lighting and can cost almost double.

Panasonic Viera TC-P50ST30 is not the
prettiest packaging but it has it where it counts.
Great visuals but not the most visual appealing packaging
I need to come straight and admit I am bias to plasma technology over LCD. My experience has been that the plasma sets have more uniform colors, lighting and the best blacks in the business. Now LCD TVs can be incredibly bright and more resistent to bright rooms with lots of outdoor lighting filtering into the room and this is there best competitive advantage for those situations.

A great entry into the quality plasma realm is the Panasonic Viera TC-P50ST30 50" Plasma TV. This is a $900ish 3D TV but oddly does not come with any 3D glasses! You have to purchase them separately which moves the price up a bit. And these are the active variety which are not as inexpensive as the passive, movie theater style glasses but they do deliver a good 3D experience overall.

The picture quality is what you come to expect from Panasonic's plasma product line. Beautiful colors, great dynamic range, wonderful uniformity and deep blacks. This set is not a suped up version so it is not operating on the super high refresh levels of some models but watching some fast paced action in a series of movies leaves you scratching your head as to why you need more Hz? Panasonic has developed a new dejudder processor that in theory addresses the movement between the 24 frames a second of your typical Blu-ray movie.

The internet application suite includes the usual suspects; Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora, etc. You get a wi-fi adapter that plugs into one of the TVs USB ports to give it wireless access to our home network and internet. I definitely like the layout of the Viera Connect user interface. It is a very clean line of tiled apps.

Pros: Great video 2D and 3D imagery. Excellent black-levels. Wi-fi apps.

Cons: Unattractive packaging vs competitive set. Not the brightest set in the bunch and as such probably is not the best set for a brightly lit room. Like all "built-in" speakers...definitely need to hook up to a stereo system. No costly active 3D glasses included.

Conclusion: For the price you have an excellent 50" 2D television if you are not a tech fashion snob.

Samsung PN51D8000 is very skinny 
One to rule them all...for right now
My home is dominated by Panasonic plasmas and that is usually a very safe bet. I typically tell people to buy the best Panasonic plasma they can afford! But this year, I would have to say that the best set on the market is the Samsung PN51D8000 51" Plasma TV. This is a stunning next-generation looking package. Sleek, slim and vibrant. But we are moving up the price scale and this set typically goes for $1,700-2,000.

Samsung provides you with a 1080p plasma with an amazing screen refresh. This TV is wonderfully flawless at watching sports, fast-paced movies and videogames.

Panasonic does offer the similarly priced Panasonic VIERA TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma which is a clear competitor. Both are very comparable but I would give the Samsung a slight edge due to its overall design and category leading feature set.

Here is another 3D TV without any 3D glasses in the box and they are also the more expensive active type. The 3D glasses introduced by Samsung this year are substantially different from last year and rely on a much better/reliable solution built on Bluetooth technology. Samsung did run a promotion during the summer that included the glasses...so perhaps they will do it again for the holidays?

The wi-fi internet suite of applications and great remote with QWERTY keyboard work wonderfully. The interface is not as streamlined as the Panasonic Viera Connect but it is much more ambitious. Very nice set of apps with the one notable omission of Amazon Instant Video but it does include a more than capable built-in web-browser. Another cool feature is the ability to interface a web-camera to the TV to enable Skype video-conferencing.

Pros: Stunning plasma with amazing refresh rate. Deep blacks and very bright for a plasma. Industry leading suite of internet functionality and definitely more snappier interface than last year's models.

Cons: Expensive. Smart Hud internet application interface is busy and somewhat difficult to navigate. No included 3D glasses and they are the expensive, active type. No Amazon Instant Video.

Conclusion: You want the best, go get a Samsung 8000 series plasma. It is available in 51", 59" and 64" versions.

The Elite Comes Back
There was an era in the mid-2000's where Pioneer manufactured the finest flat-panel displays in the world. These featured industry leading plasmas with outstanding color, brightness and uncontested black-levels. But these sets were expensive. Double...triple the price of nearly comparable plasmas from the likes of Panasonic. But they were great products in their own right. A great benchmark that others pursued.

We'll the Elite is coming back. This time as a premium LCD line from Sharp. While the jury is out on the overall quality vs price debate, this is a great move that will give Sharp access to the high-end AV industry alongside Pioneer's Elite audio products.

The 60 and 70 inch displays will be launched later this year and it will be exciting to see how they match up to the top of the line Samsung and Panasonic offerings like those I mentioned above.

Another entrant...a game changer?
Rumors abound that Apple will get into the TV manufacturing business. Not the AppleTV accessory they sell today to provide iTunes content to a TV in the house. They may bring a "real TV" to market.

Initially it seems a bit out of place for them. TVs are not updated at the pace that Apple likes to reinvent their products. But Steve Jobs did mention at the All Things Digital conference last year, the obsolete industry practices that TV manufactures and cable/satellite operators function under today.

Apple is probably asking themselves questions like: Why do I have to get the "O Network" when I never watch it? Nothing against Oprah mind you...it is just an example. Why do I have to watch the shows when the network wants to air them? Obviously TIVO and DVRs in general somewhat address this but there should be more "on demand" solutions.

Why do my internet applications run so slowly on smart TVs like those I mention above and not as smooth as my computer or game console? Why can't I have access to millions of apps like those at the Apple store? Or access to my music and video library directly on all the TVs in the house?

I'd like my content and applications to flow from computer, tablet/smart-device and TV as I move from room to room.

Look at what Apple has done. Truth be told, Apple invented the iPad first but they decided the best, most cost-effective and broadest offering would be to miniaturize it and make a phone...thus the iPhone was launched. Once the iPhone was well underway, they moved back up the scale to the iPad. So if you wanted to move up the scale again, why not a big iPad you mount on the wall? It would share all the content, applications and services of its smaller siblings.

It makes some sense.

Now a nice practical offering would be to have a "computing module" that could be swapped out in the monitor as people are not going to unseat their mounted TV on the wall and display technology doesn't necessarily move at the pace that it needs replacing every year or so. But Apple is not about practical offerings so I am not holding my breath on that feature like I am not holding my breath for a SD memory slot on an iPhone 5 or iPad 3!

A new TV standard could really shake up the old-school industry which is in a slump. 3D did not make everyone run out and trash their flat-panel TV they bought 2-years ago. The apps are nice but kinda uninspired...no innovation. Content is so scattered across the web...a new standard is needed and Apple may have the horsepower and consumer awareness to make it happen.

Just my 2-cents,



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