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CES post-show wrap-up: HDTV

CNET editor David Katzmaier recaps the big announcements made at CES 2009 in the televisions category, and looks forward to the year ahead in HDTV hardware.

Is plasma dead yet? Not if Panasonic can help it. Panasonic

The television category is a perennial CES staple and this year was no different. For some reason nobody showed a TV bigger than Panasonic's 150-inch plasma from last year (have we maxed out in flat-panel screen size?), but most of the other trends I discussed in the preview were borne out in the show's extensive announcements. Here's my take on what CES 2009 bodes for HDTV this year.

Plasma ain't dead yet.
I get more than my share of e-mails, and have seen plenty of blog comments and forum posts that are quick to claim the demise of plasma at the hands of LCD. Judging from CES announcements by companies that comprise the "big three" of plasma--Panasonic, LG and Samsung--those big glass flat panels have a brighter future than Detroit, at least.

Panasonic, by far the biggest and most-committed of the group, bragged about its newest plasma factory (No. 5) coming online, and showed its largest plasma lineup ever, with five new series and a new 54-inch screen size. I'm really excited to review the company's new "NEO PDP" panels, the first of which, members of the S1 series, will ship in March. They boast significantly improved black-level performance and contrast ratios, according to the company, yet manage to cut power consumption in half. If the latter claim proves true, LCD will lose perhaps its biggest arrow in the antiplasma quiver (at least among consumers who care about the planet and are savvy enough to ignore the nonissues).

Absent any announcements by Pioneer (which will come in late spring, most likely), Panasonic's G10 series is probably the surest bet for Editors' Choice of any TV I saw at the show. That's why I awarded it Best of CES in the TV category. In case you're wondering, however, all of the Neo PDP panels, including the least-expensive S1, share the same basic picture-quality specs.

Samsung's LN-B8000 series doubles its fun with a 240Hz refresh rate.
Samsung's LN-B8000 series offers edge-lit LED, an ultrathin frame, and 240Hz.

LCD is still trying to catch up in picture quality.
Call me biased, but if you've seen as many TVs side-by-side as I have, you tend to develop preferences. And year-in and year-out, I have been rating plasmas higher than LCDs in the picture-quality department. The best plasmas match or beat the best LCDs in black-level performance, screen uniformity, motion resolution, and off-angle-viewing, and on the flipside, it's tough to think of an important picture quality area where any LCD surpasses the best plasma.

That said, LED backlighting and 240Hz refresh rate, the two big LCD buzzwords to come out of the show, demonstrate that LCD is trying its darnedest to further address two big shortcomings versus plasma: black levels and motion resolution.

LED-backlit LCDs we've reviewed in the past have scored the highest of any LCDs period, and all of the big players aside from Sony--Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Vizio--announced LED backlit displays at CES. Samsung's new LED sets are ultrathin but use an "edge-lit" LCD technology that the company all but admits won't deliver as much of a picture-quality improvement as LEDs evenly distributed across the whole screen. We'll reserve judgment until we can test one. Samsung also hinted at true, local-dimming-equipped models arriving later in the year to replace its A950 series. We expect Sony, for its part, to announce edge-lit LCDs at its line show in February.

LED has typically commanded a massive price increase over standard LCD backlighting technology, but with the announcement of Vizio's VF551XVT, a 55-inch LED-backlit set due in June for just $1,999, that hike has plenty of pressure to shrink. I nominated the Vizio for Best of CES.

240Hz refresh rate also comes in two varieties, known as MEMC (Sony and Samsung) and "scanning backlight" (Toshiba, LG, and Vizio). Each manufacturer is quick to claim the superiority of its methods, so again I'll wait to test competing review samples before I judge for myself. My initial impressions of the first 240Hz set, Sony's KDL-52XBR7, lead me to believe that the improvement of 240Hz over standard 120Hz will be minimal.

LG's upcoming plasmas and LCDs will be the first TVs to stream Netflix directly. LG

The Internet is coming to TV.
But not in full-fledged form--for that, your best bet is still to plug a laptop into the PC input port of your flat-panel TV and call it a day. The "Internet" on TVs shown at CES was generally restricted to a bunch of small walled gardens of content, some of which are nonetheless very compelling.

LG announced built-in Netflix streaming and YouTube support; Panasonic added Amazon Video-on-Demand to its VieraCast service, which also has YouTube; and Samsung, Sony, and Vizio announced support for Yahoo widgets.

For now, LG looks to hold the lead in this category thanks to Netflix, which is one reason (the other being THX) we chose the LG PS80 as a Best of CES nominee.

These services are just the beginning--we expect Internet content to be one of the big product differentiators among HDTVs going forward. Numerous TVs announced at the show were also DLNA-compatible, for streaming files over a network from a computer to the display directly. Now if only more of them had built-in wireless.

Green is good marketing.
Just about every manufacturer was touting environmental responsibility, from Panasonic's efficient plasmas to Sony's LCD that senses your presence (and turns off when you're away) to "Eco" lines from just about everybody. The energy-saving benefits of LED backlights were trotted out, and LG even went so far as to claim improved energy savings with its "scanning backlight" 240Hz system. I can't think of any major brands whose new TVs don't meet Energy Star 3.0, which incidentally waters down that little blue logo quite a bit.

Increases in efficiency among HDTVs across the board will make 2009 the "greenest" flat-panel TV model year yet, but I'll wait to test the individual technologies and their actual power savings before swallowing the marketing.

3D and OLED are just around the corner.
Panasonic and LG both demonstrated working 3D technology in their booths, and the former spent awhile at its press conference calling for a unified 3D standard to be completed sometime this year. Once the standard arrives it will open the door for 3D in the home, but it will still be a few years at least before 3D hits the mainstream. In the meantime, maybe they can find a way to ditch those funky glasses.

OLED is one of the coolest demos--great-looking image quality, depth so thin it can actually bend (check out the video to the right)--but in a tough economic climate it's hard to imagine asking anyone to pay, say, $10,000 for a 30-inch TV. That's a guesstimate based on the only OLED available now, Sony's XEL-1, which goes to show that again, "a few years off" describes this TV tech.

What was your favorite CES announcement? What TV tech are you most looking forward to seeing in the coming year? Sound off in the comments section below.