FOR MOST consumers, high-definition television has produced only high anxiety.
Entering this year, price tags on basic large-format home theater monitors are hovering at $3,000 or more, and prospects for owning that stunning plasma, LCD or DLP screen might seem as dim as the picture on that old black-and-white.
Chin up, videophiles.
At last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, signs emerged that prices will slide rapidly by year's end.
Competition has kicked up as Dell, Gateway and other computer companies turn their attention to digital displays.
Intel, the world's largest microchip maker, joined the movement in Las Vegas. The company's leader said Intel will aggressively develop chips for big-screen, high-definition televisions based on the liquid crystal on silicon, or LCoS, technology.
Some observers scoffed at Intel as being overly optimistic, but the company says it expects to bring 50-inch high-definition sets, priced at less than $1,800, to the marketplace by next year.
Other economic forces are at work. Chinese and Southeast Asian factories are boosting production of flat panels for LCD and plasma units, potentially depressing prices.
Samsung opened the electronics show by unveiling a 57-inch LCD set. Previously, manufacturing issues had limited LCD televisions to 46 inches diagonally, leaving the large-display market to plasma. That should force down prices.
The battle of technologies also will push makers to add features to give their sets the edge over rivals. That trend appeared all across the 1.4 million square feet of exhibits.
Epson, for example, showed up with a pair of LCD projection sets that also house memory card slots, a printer and a CD-rewritable drive. The configuration permits users to archive photos to CD simply by punching commands on the remote control, no computer necessary. Epson's 47-inch model will sell for about $3,499; a 57-inch model is $3,999. Both will ship in March, the company said.
Philips introduced an add-on technology dubbed Ambilight. Basically, it is a set of lights positioned behind its flat-screen models that change colors in sync with the dominant color on the screen. An ocean on screen triggers a soft blue glow. A raging fire changes the glow to red. The company calls the effect "surround sound for your eyes."
Other digital televisions sported Wi-Fi connections and DVD players. And Sharp introduced what it is calling the world's first line of LCD TVs, with built-in TiVo-like digital video recording features and two PC-card slots. The slots let users record television programming onto a portable hard drive or wirelessly connect to a home computer network. The 15- and 20-inch models, with suggested prices of $1,399 and $1,899 respectively, will be available this year.
As LCD sets move up in size, plasma keeps raising the bar. The show marked the American debut for Samsung's 76-inch plasma panel. No pricing or availability was released.
Texas Instruments and its DLP chips also made waves. DLP (digital light processor) televisions can be cheaper, but big-screen versions have tended to be too thick for hanging on the wall.
At the show, however, Thomson presented DLP-powered high-definition sets that are less than 7 inches deep. The RCA Scenium Profiles line, including 50- and 61-inch models, will be available at retail stores this fall for $8,999 and $9,999.
Analysts are abuzz over the potential of this slimmed-down DLP, which uses a combination of lenses to collapse the rear-projection mechanism. A large screen weighs less than 130 pounds and will challenge plasma and LCD sets in a new way, many predict.
The Sceniums are as visually stunning as the competition. A black crystalline screen frame containing the picture is cradled against a silver backdrop, much like a painting on an easel. The result is a "floating picture" that visually suspends the image as a separate element of the cabinet.
The transition to digital television is accelerating as prices drop. Sales of digital television products made up $6.1 billion of U.S. industry revenue last year on sales of 4 million units according to figures released by the Consumer Electronics Association. That's a 44 percent increase in dollar sales and a jump of 56 percent in total units over 2002.
Right now, plasma televisions make up the majority of the sets sold. But, given the developments showcased at the electronics show, things may change - and fast.