Mark and Nina Lees found that more research got them only more confused while shopping for a new TV. Flat panel vs. CRT, plasma vs. LCD, digital vs. analog, or even digital vs. digital?
In their bewilderment, the couple made their decision on the one factor they understood: price. They just couldn't see spending four figures on a television set, so they settled on a flat-screen, 32-inch Sony for $450. "It was like we weren't just hamsters running on a wheel, but the wheel was on a track running backward," said Mark, a semiretired consultant in the Southern California desert community of Rancho Mirage.
Welcome to the brave new television market, in which the picture on the set is often the only thing that's clear. For decades, TV sales steadily evolved into a commodity business, with products in nearly every U.S. household but hardly any technical innovation.
Today, consumers must learn not only the new technologies in the box, but also whether their prospective purchases will work at all with a broad array of digital broadcast standards not yet decided. Federal regulators
are still considering deadlines for such features as CableCards and broadcast flags.
It's not all bad news, however. "For the first time in the television industry, there is a wider choice of sizes, technologies and products that consumers can pick from for their specific needs," said Riddhi Patel, an analyst at research firm iSuppli. "This is leading to a more competitive market."
That means cheaper prices. The most popular range of LCD television sizes, 30 inches to 34 inches, sold for an average of $2,600 at the end of 2004, down from nearly $3,700 in 2003. By 2007, prices are expected to be about $900. Similarly, 40-inch to 44-inch plasma sets will fall from about $3,000 in 2003 to about $800 by 2007.
Flat-panel TV prices are falling so fast that shipments are projected to surpass those of the familiar cathode ray tube, or CRT, television by 2007--even though the traditional sets reputedly are more reliable, last longer and offer better picture quality. Plasma and liquid crystal display, or LCD, sets offer roughly the same picture quality and screen life.
Both plasma and LCD screens light up and create images when an electrical charge is applied. While each flat-panel technology has advantages over the other--plasma sets tend to have better color, contrast and response times, while LCDs offer higher resolutions--advancements are being made to close those gaps. Plasma TVs currently have an advantage in price and size, but LCD manufacturers are getting better at making larger screens.
"This isn't a winner-takes-all sort of market," said Bob O'Donnell, a research vice president at research firm IDC. And that's good for price-conscious consumers.