It is becoming harder to buy a television set than a personal computer. The unheralded side effect of the digital transformation that promises to bring TV sets new levels of quality and performance is that they've become much harder to decipher.
These things were once commodity items that anybody could buy based largely on brand and price, but the evidence on the show floor at the Consumer Electronics Show here indicates that they're all shifting painfully back into the status of "exclusive" products, each with a unique mix of innovations, limitations and, most of the time, higher prices.
"Whatever TV technology you buy, you will face a bewildering array of options," Rob Pegoraro wrote in his weekly Fast Forward column, based on what he saw at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
(Steve Marcus -- Las Vegas Sun Via Reuters)
Monday, 2 p.m. ET: Rob Pegoraro will be online to talk about his latest columns on Verizon Wireless's BroadbandAccess service and e-mail technology.
This tension between creativity and commodity is part of this industry's way of life. A product can't be born without creativity, but it can't be a success until it hits commodity status. In between, it's a mess for consumers to sort out.
That's the story behind three big stories of this year's CES: flat-panel digital televisions, digital video recording and wireless media networks.
Consider the first, those lust-worthy LCD and plasma screens, at sizes as big as 80 inches (in the form of a Samsung prototype that occupied its own wall in the company's sprawling booth). Choosing between LCD and plasma may be easiest decision; you won't find plasma sets under 40 inches or so. Then brace yourself as you contemplate these and other features: ATSC tuner; CableCard compatibility; and DVI, HDMI or FireWire connectors.
In (more or less) English: Does the set include a digital tuner for over-the-air broadcasts, can you pop in a card issued by your cable company to tune in digital broadcasts without a cable box, and which of three different kinds of digital inputs does it include?
For my money, the optimal answers are yes, yes, HDMI and FireWire. (Fortunately, a more troubling "feature," the government-mandated copy-protection "broadcast flag" copy-protection scheme, seems unlikely to show up on many sets until next year.) The catch: A set meeting those requirements will still run you more than $3,000.
For relief from that kind of cost, new "microdisplay" technology may offer a cheaper way to a thinner set. On Thursday, Intel announced a major venture into developing chipsets for one kind of microdisplay, Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS), with a goal of making a 40-inch set possible for under $2,000 by next year.
In comparison, manufacturers I talked to didn't expect LCD sets to get past 30 inches for that price in that time frame, even with aggressive pricing from such new entrants as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Westinghouse and Daewoo.