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HDTVs Still Dark on Digital Inputs

January 10, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Digital TVs are getting thinner, wider and less expensive. But one important piece is still missing from several manufacturers' models: the digital inputs that would enable new forms of entertainment.

Manufacturers previewed the sets they will be introducing this year at the Consumer Electronics Show this week in Las Vegas. Wide, flat screens dominated the lineup, even in small monitors aimed at desktops and kitchens.

Although set makers continue to pump out exotic plasma screens priced higher than some new cars, suggested retail prices for high-definition sets and monitors in general continued to fall. For example, Panasonic showed 40-inch and 45-inch liquid crystal display monitors that will sell for less than $4,000.

But Panasonic, like many of its competitors, plans to keep introducing new HDTV sets that lack digital inputs, despite the commitments that cable and satellite TV operators have made to digital connectors for their receivers. It is an omission that could prove important, depending on how far the Hollywood movie and TV studios go to control digital copying.

Alarmed by the meteoric rise of music- and movie-copying services on the Internet, the studios want to scramble some premium HDTV programming in an attempt to limit piracy. This encryption also would support new business models, such as presenting a pay-per-view sneak preview of a movie in HDTV for $10 the weekend before it hits theaters.

Under the approach favored by the studios, cable and satellite operators would transmit scrambled programs through digital connectors to HDTV sets or monitors, which would unscramble them. The same programs also could be transmitted through analog connectors but wouldn't be in high definition. They would have sharper pictures than today's analog broadcasts but only one-fourth the detail offered by HDTV.

The cable industry publicly committed more than a year ago to a two-way digital connection known as FireWire. The satellite industry has announced its support for DVI, a one-way connector that delivers uncompressed video to monitors but not digital recorders.

No satellite or cable receivers are on the market yet with digital outputs, but they are expected to start popping up this year. In response, some TV manufacturers, including JVC and Thomson Multimedia (maker of RCA), have committed to putting DVI and, in some cases, FireWire inputs on all their new HDTV sets.

In addition, all Mitsubishi HDTV monitors already in stores have built-in expansion ports for digital tuners with digital inputs. And Sony announced last year that it would put FireWire inputs on some sets this year.

On the other hand, several other manufacturers, including Philips, Zenith, Panasonic and Pioneer, say they are not ready to add digital inputs to all their sets. There is no clear need yet, they say, and no point in adding a feature if consumers won't use it.

FireWire (also known as an IEEE 1394 connector) can be a costly addition to a monitor because it uses a compressed signal, which requires extra circuitry. And the specifications for DVI are still in flux.

Zenith plans to support FireWire eventually, but "right now the cost to put in 1394 is pretty steep relative to the cost of the product," said Richard V. Long, director of product management.

The lack of digital connectors hasn't stopped consumers from buying HDTVs, said Paul Liao, Panasonic's chief technology officer.

"As long as there's a market for those sets, why not sell them?" he asked.

JVC is putting DVI inputs into all its HDTV models because of the reassurance it provides consumers, said Michael Holmes, vice president of color TV.

Consumers are already apprehensive about future incompatibilities, he said, adding: "What we're trying to do is be a little bit ahead of the curve."

*

Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology. He can be reached at jon.healey@latimes.com.

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