RIP, rear-projection TV

With the exit of Mitsubishi from the TV market earlier this week, the RPTV is dead. Here's a look back at the last TV that isn't flat.

CNET Senior Editor Scott Stein poses in front of a 92-inch Mitsubishi TV. It's one of the last of its kind. Sarah Tew/CNET

Rear-projection TV is dead, and there's little reason to think the technology will pull a Lazarus anytime soon.

On Monday Mitsubishi confirmed it has already ceased production of its last RPTVs, and told Twice.com that inventory is almost gone.

"The decision to exit the category was based on lack of profitability in the big-screen TV business," according to Max Wasinger, executive VP at Mitsubishi Electric Video Sales America. "MEVSA will honor all product warranties. Consumer relations will continue to support consumers and dealers' product service related needs." He added that there are no plans for special closeout pricing to sell off remaining inventory.

Mitsubishi and Samsung were the last manufacturers of the big, usually boxy televisions, and Samsung exited the market in 2008. As the only manufacturer of RPTVs left, Mitsubishi seems to have held on as long it could , but eventually the popularity -- and profit margins, slim as they might be -- of flat-panel LCD and plasma TVs won the day.

A typical DLP seen from the side.

A look back at the big black box
Rear-projection has been around for decades. RCA made one in 1947, but the 1970s saw the first mass-market examples. Up until the early 2000s, the predominant RPTV technology was cathode-ray tube (CRT), where a mini projector housed in the bottom of the box lit up the screen from behind via a mirror. They offered large screens but fuzzy video quality compared with traditional tube TVs.

Over the years they got a lot better. The best CRT-based models from the likes of Pioneer Elite and Hitachi Ultravision were the darlings of videophiles and calibrators, and often required special attention because the three tubes had to be manually converged. They had video quality that could rival and in many ways surpass today's best flat panels.

Hubris? Epson builds a printer into an RPTV. Epson

Ten years ago, around the time I first started reviewing TVs myself, those tubes began to give way to light engines based on bulbs and fixed-pixel chips utilizing DLP, LCD, and LCoS technology. The chips improved light output and resolution and, more importantly, allowed the cabinets of large-screen rear-projectors to get slimmer and lighter; some could even hang on the wall.

Since plasma and LCD TVs remained relatively expensive, the mid-2000s were the heyday of rear-projection, with numerous manufacturers competing for share and innovations in design, technology, and reliability happening yearly. RPTVs were the first with 1080p resolution and 3D, and were available in sizes from 40 up to more than 90 inches.

Here are a few of the products and trends I most remember from that period.

Memorable trends and products from RPTV's heyday

Growing bigger and less popular
Since the late 2000s RPTVs have faded into obscurity. As flat-panel TVs have gotten larger and cheaper, RPTVs have grown to be almost comically large, yet still remain less expensive for the most part than similarly sized LCDs and plasmas.

Competition is fierce among TV makers, and RPTV has been on life support for a while. Last year Mitsubishi had about a 1 percent share in the North American TV market, and relied on size rather than volume in its bid to remain on sales floors. It abandoned LCD in 2010.

The smallest TV in Mitsubishi's 2012 lineup measured 73 inches diagonal. The company's cheapest 2012 RPTV, the 73-inch WD-73C12, costs around $1,100. The cheapest comparable flat-panel I've seen is Vizio's 70-inch E701i-A3 at $1,700. A $600 difference isn't chump change, but many TV buyers are probably willing to pay it to avoid getting a rear-projector.

The bulkiness of RPTVs also makes them more difficult for manufacturers and retailers to ship, inventory, and/or display. I remember walking into my local Best Buy a couple of years ago and realizing that the wall of Mitsubishis at the back of the store was gone, replaced by LCDs and plasmas.

A user-replaceable lamp for a DLP TV.

Then there's the specter of bulb replacement. Most DLPs run on user-replaceable lamps (about $40 and up) that fade and eventually fail after a few thousand hours of TV watching. The time-frame varies quite a bit, however. My father-in-law, who still loves the Samsung DLP I told him to buy in 2007, has never had to replace his bulb after more than five years of heavy use. Others report the bulb going in a year or less.

In terms of picture quality, a modern DLP-based RPTV can actually hold up pretty well against the cheap big-screen flat panels in its class, with good light output, decent viewing angles (at least compared to LCD) and acceptable screen uniformity. Black levels are relatively light, but all told my father-in-law's DLP still looks pretty good.

Check out Geoff Morrison's excellent "Rear projection vs. LCD vs. plasma" for more on how the TV technologies stack up.

What's next? Plasma?
The moment a technology category goes extinct ( HD DVD, anyone? ) seems like a good time to wonder which dinosaur is next take a meteorite of progress to the dome. I hate to say it, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's plasma TV.

When Panasonic, Samsung, and/or LG stop making plasma TVs, I'll be a lot more miffed than I am today at the passing of RPTV. But the writing is on the wall. Global plasma TV sales were down 20 percent year over year in the third quarter this year. Meanwhile Panasonic, which unlike the other two has bet big on plasma, experienced a 30 percent decline during the same period, and along with other Japanese companies is facing serious financial problems .

I wouldn't be surprised if CES next month saw significantly fewer plasma TV introductions from all three makers than 2012 did. If I had to put money down, I wouldn't bet on plasma surviving another three years. RPTV is just the latest TV technology to go; it certainly won't be the last.

 

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