HDTV Moves To The Next Level

1080p image quality is dazzling, but don't expect TV shows in the format


Judging by the questions I get from readers, the subject of digital and high-definition television is probably the most baffling issue in the world of consumer technology today. It's great that flat-panel displays are getting bigger, cheaper, and more mainstream. But confusion is actually mounting as consumers face yet another HD standard and a DVD format war.

The new kid on the HDTV block is something called 1080p. It combines the best features of the two earlier HD standards: 720p, which can handle rapid action on the screen, and 1080i, which boasts superior resolution. (For those who wish to understand the name: 1080 refers to the number of horizontal lines that make up the picture. The "p" stands for "progressive," the alternative being "i" for "interlaced." Both words are carryovers from picture-tube TVs. In practical terms, p means 60 frames per second, while i is a leisurely 30 frames.)

I've been enjoying a borrowed Sharp 65-inch Aquos LCD display, one of the first 1080p flat-screen models available. The images are stunning, which they should be, given the $20,999 price tag. I was also dazzled by a range of 1080p displays at January's Consumer Electronics Show, including LCDs, projection sets, and plasma screens, ranging in size up to an overwhelming 103-in. Panasonic (MC ) prototype.

On displays smaller than about 40 in., the difference between 720 lines and 1080 lines is all but invisible and not worth a premium of $500 or so. But on bigger screens, the higher resolution makes a real difference in how lifelike images look, especially when viewed from up close.

THERE IS A BIG DRAWBACK to 1080p, however. At the moment, there is zero commercial programming available in the format, a situation that is not about to change very quickly. Sharp had to send me a hard-drive video recorder loaded with promotional content just to convey the sorts of images the big Aquos can deliver. Without a breakthrough in compression, there won't be 1080p broadcasts. The format gobbles nearly 30 megabits of data per second, more bandwidth than any cable or satellite operator -- or broadcaster -- can provide.

The glory of 1080p will be in its ability to provide theater-quality images when showing movies on big screens. But that's where a nasty format war gets in the way. A conventional DVD doesn't have room for a whole HD movie, and the studios won't allow HD versions of movies to be released without much stronger antipiracy protection than the DVD's flimsy Content Scrambling System.

The answer is a blue-laser recording system, which can cram far more data onto a disc that's copy-protected with a powerful digital rights management system. Unfortunately, there are two competing solutions that don't work together: Blu-ray, backed by Sony (SNE ) and most other consumer electronics companies, and HD-DVD, supported by Toshiba, NEC (NIPNY ), Microsoft (MSFT ), and Intel (INTC ). You can't play a Blu-ray disc on an HD-DVD player, or vice versa, and neither will play on a conventional DVD machine. (The new players will, however, show standard DVDs.)

I suspect that very few consumers will be willing to plunk down $500 or more for a player that could well turn out to be the new Betamax. So far, the movie studios are hedging their format bets, so the market is likely to stay unsettled for some time.

The first real boost for 1080p displays should come this fall when Sony ships its PlayStation 3. I found that Xbox 360 games, which are limited to 720p, looked spectacular on the Aquos, and PS3's built-in 1080p output should be even better. The new game console will also include a Blu-ray DVD movie player, and by the time it ships, there should be at least a smattering of movie titles available.

If you want an HD display in the popular 30-in. to 42-in. range, 1080p isn't an essential feature. But if you are looking for something bigger, whether flat-panel or projection, the new format could be a good future-proofing investment.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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