Sony joins digital TV fray

Sony says it will offer the industry's first high definition TV with a flat screen that's based on mainstream picture tube technology.

3 min read
Sony Electronics has jumped into the digital TV fray, saying it will offer the industry's first high definition TV with a flat screen that's based on mainstream picture tube technology.

The Trinitron Wega high-definition (HDTV) set is a 34-inch "direct view"

Sony Wega HDTV
Sony Trinitron Wega HDTV
television, which means that it uses a CRT (cathode ray tube) to display programming, and resembles a traditional TV set--except for its price. The set will be priced at $8,999 when available in November.

HDTVs will be capable of displaying pictures with roughly twice (or more in some cases) the picture clarity than current TVs. Sony's TV will also display images in the widescreen format, also referred to as 16-by-9.

HDTV's are based on digital television technology--as opposed to standard TVs today which use analog technology. Digital programming is set to air for the first time this fall, when the top 10 markets begin broadcasting.

In contrast to Sony's picture tube HDTV, most other TV manufacturers are initially rolling out HDTV sets that use easier to manufacture rear projection technology for their displays, resulting in larger units.

Panasonic was the first to sell an HDTV rear projection HDTV in the U.S. market when it launched its systems in August. (See related story).

How to get those HDTV signals to new, expensive digital TV sets is a matter of considerable and ongoing debate. While many consumers get their TV signals from a cable set-top box, first generation HDTV sets don't yet have a way to receive a pristine digital signal from those boxes.

Sony said it will offer an intermediate solution in the absence of an agreement to use IEEE 1394 interconnect technology, also referred to as FireWire.

The Wega HDTV set will allow users to connect to a cable box via a component video interconnect. A component video connection passes through signals on four separate wires, which allows for higher quality than the connectors typically found on TVs. However, quality is still degraded because inexpensive chips are often being used to translate the digital signal into an analog format and back.

"The downside is that [component video connectors] are not currently standard on anything except in the professional broadcast world," said Gerry Kaufhold, principal digital TV analyst with Cahners In-Stat research group.

"Sony's HD component input may serve the cable industry and consumers by allowing cable subscribers access to broadcast HD programming if local cable operators elect to provide set-top boxes with HD component outputs," said Jim Palumbo, vice president of Sony's Display Marketing division, in a prepared statement.

Whether or not a cable programming provider offers set-top boxes with such a connector is dependent on each company's plans for passing through HDTV signals to the televisions, and those plans are not definitive in many cases.

Other features of the set include technology for improving the resolution of lower quality analog signals and technology for viewing two signal sources at the same time, according to Sony. The company said a viewer could watch both digital television and a WebTV or an analog video source on the same screen by converting the analog signal into a digital one.

These features alone are already generating sales. "We have found that the demand for [digital TVs] is incredible," said Tom Campbell, corporate director of DOW Stereo/Video Incorporated. DOW is a retailer based in San Diego specializing in cutting edge technologies that operates nine stores in Southern California.

"People are buying this right now because it looks so good with regular cable," due to technology in most new digital TVs that converts analog TV signals into a higher resolution format, he said.

People are also hooking up DVD players to the televisions because DVD players are capable of displaying higher resolution pictures than current TVs can display, he said. And upcoming DVD players will soon be able to send signals to a digital TV in the more precise progressive scan format used by computer monitors.