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Surveying HDTV Prices

Monday, May 17, 2004;

Also in this e-letter: Chat about E3, CD/DVD reliability, iTunes album price update and a look at PlayFair for iTunes.

I often use this space to promote my own Web chats, but in this case I'll shine the spotlight on my colleague Mike Musgrove, who spent the last week in Los Angeles at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. (Why didn't I also fly out to sunny southern California instead of holing up indoors to immerse myself in the finer points of WordPerfect Office 12?)

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Mike will be holding forth on the state of the video-game industry–PC games, the Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube, and Nintendo and Sony's upcoming handhelds -- at 2 p.m. ET today. Stop by if you can, or submit a question early.

At E3, Microsoft continued its remarkably successful push to build the Xbox as a gaming platform on a par with Sony's PlayStation 2. Away from the show, however, it walked away from another hardware field it had entered only recently: The news broke on Monday that it would stop making WiFi access points and receivers.

I was sorry to see the news; I tried one of Microsoft's 802.11b access points last spring and found its setup process remarkably easy. And in this market, we could use more companies that make a point of putting usability first.

Now for the update on HDTV prices I promised in last week's newsletter, which follows up on the survey of prices I did at the beginning of March. As before, I looked for the cheapest prices I could find on 30-inch or larger LCD HDTVs and 40-inch or larger "microdisplay" sets (that is, that use Digital Light Processing circuitry or rear-projection LCDs to provide a large picture in a cabinet that's only a few inches deeper than a plasma or LCD set).

I looked at Amazon.com, Best Buy, Circuit City, Costco.com, Dell and Gateway -- a somewhat arbitrary selection, but one that should capture where mainstream prices are at.

* Sceptre: $1,800: Costco
* Westinghouse: $1,900 (Amazon)
* Dell: $2,499
(In my last survey, the lowest price was $2,190 for the Westinghouse set.)

* Zenith 52-in. rear-projection LCD: $2,380 (Amazon)
* Samsung 43-in. DLP: $2,700 (Circuit City)
* Panasonic 50-in. rear-projection LCD: $2,700 (Best Buy and Circuit City)
(In March, it took $2,800 to buy a 42-inch DLP set).

The two things I haven't seen yet in this ongoing survey are a major consumer electronics manufacturer cutting its LCD prices below $2,500, followed by the availability of a microdisplay set under 40 inches -- which in my book still counts as large enough to invite people over for -- for under $2,000. But in the digital-TV business there's always next month. Or year.

Another non-game tech topic in the news this week: the reliability of CDs and DVDs. One or two readers have asked about the best way to avoid the specter of decaying discs. Beyond offering the usual practical advice (don't use the disc as a drink coaster), I can point you to a Web page the National Institute of Standards and Technology has on the topic.

If you want the details, NIST has a 50-page PDF file available for download (1.2 MB). I confess that I haven't read it yet, but that's mainly because I need to put all the loose CDs around my computer back in their jewel boxes first.

Finally, I have two updates on the iTunes Music Store this week. One is a follow-up to my earlier follow-up on my column about album prices at Apple's store.

That Modest Mouse album that cost $13.99 a month ago and $11.99 three weeks ago now goes for $9.99, the usual per-album rate. One thing I have heard from record labels is a wish to charge more for albums right after their release, then scale back pricing over time; I suppose this is one example of that type of behavior.

My other iTunes update concerns PlayFair, the open-source program that removes the copy controls from songs purchased off iTunes. It's resurfaced online under a new name, Hymn, short for "Hear Your Music aNywhere." The latest version now preserves the purchaser information in each exported song file -- meaning you can't share those files online without the entire world knowing you're a thief.

I gave the Mac OS X version a whirl for research purposes, and found that it worked as promised -- but not on songs I've purchased since a few months back.

-- Rob Pegoraro (E-mail me at rob@twp.com)

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