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New TV Models Are Model-Thin

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, January 11, 2009

As a professional journalist, I find the latest trend toward thinner TVs, like the ones shown off at this past week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, troubling. You see, my retirement plans may include living out of a cardboard box at some point, and I'd like to know that there will be some housing options out there with a little more elbow room.

The famously massive trade show, which wraps up today, had long been a place where TV manufacturers compete for bragging rights over who has the biggest screen, but thin is evidently the new large. Panasonic showed off a prototype set that was 8.8 millimeters thick; Samsung Electronics showed off a TV that measured in at 6.5 millimeters. Such developments, of course, are great news for those eager to finally reclaim so many wasted cubic centimeters of space atop their entertainment centers.

TV sales growth is also expected to be narrow this year, an increase in unit sales of 2.6 percent, underperforming even the modest expectations for the rest of the consumer electronics industry. All told, the Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association forecasts that people around the globe will fork over $724 billion on gadgets and electronic appliances this year. That's up 4.3 percent over 2008, though well below last year's growth of 13.7 percent.

"It feels like we've entered a period of reduced expectations, a time when we may be tempted to temper our optimism and scale back our ambition," said Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer during a low-key address at the tech show in which he talked up the upcoming version of Windows.

"But no matter what happens with the economy or how long this recession lasts, I believe our digital lives will only continue to get richer."

Due by this year's holiday season, Windows 7 has been described by some early lookers as being something like the previous release of the operating system, but a version "that works."

CES wasn't the only muted tech event this past week. Many attendees at the recent Macworld in San Francisco were underwhelmed by the latest that Apple has in store, such as facial recognition tools in its photo management software and its latest top-of-the-line laptop, priced at $2,800.

An announcement from the tech bellwether Intel on the eve of the show, lowering its guidance for the current financial quarter, may have helped cast a pall over the proceedings at the Las Vegas Convention Center, but the tech industry is not without bright spots. Sales of netbooks, an emerging class of handbag-size laptops, have jumped a whopping 160 percent this winter. Products in this booming category, dominated by Acer, typically cost in the neighborhood of $400. Sales of GPS units are also expected to be brisk again this year.

CES is often seen as setting the trend consumers will be buying in the coming months, and this year's bets by the electronics makers indicate that they believe consumers will be interested in energy-saving technology and devices that can be used in cars.

But even the biggest news coming out of last year's show is a technology that still hasn't really gotten much traction. This time last year marked the end of a format war between the two tech standards seeking to replace the DVD as a high-definition video format. A year later, the victor, Blu-ray, still hasn't caught on with mainstream consumers. TV commercials for movie discs this time last year hawked the latest titles as being available on "Blu-ray," though they have lately taken to referring to the format as "Blu-ray high definition," as if to give consumers more clarity on why they're being asked to spend more money.

As the economy flailed in 2008, the CEA maintained a stance that consumer tech sales will hang in there because people view electronics as necessities these days, not as luxuries.

"It's unlikely we're going to see growth in this economy," admitted Steve Koenig, the CEA's director of industry analysis. "But we're insulated, to a degree, because technology is so embedded in our personal lives these days. Consumers will likely be cutting back, in 2009, on their discretionary spending but it's unlikely they'll make drastic cutbacks in their technology spending."

To me, this claim rings true. As a brand-new dad, my own consumer tech expenses are skyrocketing, despite the shaky economy and uncertain world. So far, the birth of my daughter has provided me with an adequate excuse to buy a wireless printer, one of those fast-selling Acer netbooks, and a pile of blank DVDs and CDs. (Heck, I stopped by the Apple store on the way to the hospital to attend a workshop to learn tricks on how to pull video footage from one piece of Mac software to another.) Many more investments, such as for a gigantic external hard drive on which to archive my booming collection of snapshots and videos, are certainly on the way.

This weekend, if can get out of the house, I'm probably going to buy a new TV. No joke. My wife has gotten tired of our old, tiny tube set. I'll be looking for the thickest flat-panel set I can find, just in case our own digital TV "transition" comes sooner than expected.

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