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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

5 Reasons it Sucks thet Rear Projection TV is Dying (and 2 that it makes sense)

Well, the writing is on the wall for rear projection TV. Sony has announced that they are leaving the segment to focus on LCD and OLED flat panel televisions. Samsung has stated that they are re-examining their options in the segment, also. Rear projection, which filled a great market niche after resurrecting itself from its bulky CRT forebears, is going to be phased out by many if not all manufacturers in favor of flatter technologies.

Here then, are five reasons this stinks for you and me:

1. Cost per square inch. RPTV's can be had at screen sizes of up to 80 inches (70 is the more common highest size, Sony and JVC offer 70-inchers. Mitsubishi offered the 80 inch "diamond" DLP set.) for under $3,000. Sony offers its newest 60" Bravia SXRD set for $2199 MSRP. This means the street price can be expected to dip below $1800. That's astounding for a 60" 1080p set. By way of comparison, most 50-inch LCD panels will run you $3000, and if you can find a 60-inch or greater set, be prepared to shell out $8000 or more.

2. Picture Quality. Simply peruse the reviews at sites like CNET.com, Soundandvisionmag.com, and Hometheatermag.com. RPTV's consistently score higher that LCD flat panel sets, and their scores routinely equal those of Plasma displays. Sony, Samsung, Mitsubishi and JVC have all put out sets which have improved each year, bringing them to a performance level which is impossible to match in their price range, and equals the performance of higher priced options. Sony's recent A3000 SXRD sets have the highest ratings on CNET this year, and are praised for their extremely deep black level, color accuracy, brightness and detail. Will RPTV going away make for better quality in LCD panels? Umm, removing competition is usually not what drives improvement in products.

3. Size. Paradoxical, you say? These sets' size is often seen as their fatal drawback. For me, it's a plus. I have two rambunctious cats at home, and quite frankly, I am scared to death of blowing $3k on a television that rests on a slender little stand. RPTV sets are generally 12 to 15 inches deep - not space hogs by any means - but big enough to remain stable even in a 6.0 earthquake (or cat quake!). Also, though their footprint is bigger, these sets usually weigh in under 90 pounds, and can be as light as 60 pounds - which makes moving them loads easier. Most Plasmas can weigh into the 150-plus range, and LCD flat panels at higher sizes push 100 pounds. I've always felt, since most installations will require a cabinet for A/V components, that you really gain nothing in space by buying a flat panel set. It just rests on the same cabinet. Unless you put it on our wall, (which, at 100-pounds plus, is a scary proposition) and build an in-wall cabinet for components, you gain nothing in space and just spend more money.

4. User Replaceable Bulbs Another paradox? Many have decried the necessity of buying a $200-plus part for your TV every 3 or 4 years. I say, what's the problem? Plasma sets get dim after 8-10 years, and LCD flat panels can burn out their fluorescent backlights as well. In those cases, you have to buy a whole new set. RPTV, on the other hand, allows you to make your set essentially brand new with a simple light source replacement, which you can do yourself without costly service visits. Given the low cost of the sets themselves, adding in some bulbs which restore your set to a like-new picture still puts the cost-benefit equation on the happy side of par.

5. I already have one! Well, it sucks for me and anyone else who has already bought an RPTV, because, once companies drop these sets from production, this means they also stop producing replacement lamps, parts, and keeping their staff trained to service these sets. Boo. After the Sony announcement, I bought two lamps on eBay to prepare for just this eventuality. I wonder whether other RPTV owners will feel the same way. I also have a 4 year warranty with Abt Electronics, a store I can't recommend highly enough for their service, prices and friendliness. But if you bought from an online retailer or a lesser store (cough... Best Buy...), you might be left out to dry in terms of s future service call.

Clearly, I'm a fan of RPTV. But I can see some reasons why the market did not support this segment the way they are going ga-ga for flat panels:

1. Reliability. Deserved or not, RPTV has a reputation in internet circles as less reliable than flat panel sets. Some sites state that RPTVs are serviced at a rate approaching 20%
. I have had my set require a visit to replace a cooling fan. Not a huge deal, to be sure, and Abt Electronics' great service made it easy. But I suppose I've never had my LCD monitor need service, nor have I ever needed service for an old-style tube TV. "Microdisplay" RPTV such as DLP and SXRD sets are new on the market, only about 5 years in, and have loads of parts. The more complex and the newer anything is, the more likely it is to need a fix here and there.

2. Flat is IN. RPTV does not enjoy the "mind share" that flat panels do. RPTV doesn't enjoy the luxury that flat panels do, being featured in movies and television shows, portrayed as the pinnacle of luxury and sexiness. Athletes and rock stars deck their house out with flat panels when they make it big. Hobbyists put LCD screens into their "rides" to "pimp" them out. Regardless of the advantages of quality and price discussed above, most consumers do not really research their purchases. They go with brand names and cultural cachet. Cachet is squarely in the corner of flat panels right now.

All in all, I find it to be a sad thing that such an exciting and affordable television technology is going the way of the dodo. The more options we have as consumers, the better. Competition drives prices downward and quality up. Hopefully, the TV market will have enough competition within it to remain vital. OLED is exciting, and hopefully can be gotten into a marketable position soon, to challenge LCD and Plasma.

Until then, I'll watch my RPTV and know that I've got a kick ass set for a low price.

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