Prices on TVs, disc players fall like snow
At a time of year when traditions are important, there are two in the consumer electronics world that are back this holiday season like a regifted fruitcake, only tastier:
* Big-screen television prices are lower.
* Blu-ray and HD DVD players also have gotten cheaper as the two high-definition disc formats continue to slug it out over which will win -- if either.
So if you’re heading out to buy the items that are generally at the heart of a home entertainment system -- the TV and the disc player -- here’s a guide to the latest:
If you’ve been waiting for the best TV prices of the year, you’ve probably missed them. On Black Friday, the shopping day after Thanksgiving, televisions were deeply discounted as a lure.
“There were door-buster prices, like a 42-inch plasma set for under $900, for just that day,” said Ross Rubin, consumer technology analyst at the NPD research group. “In fact, some of those prices might have been in effect for only a few hours.”
But the low prices that day were an indication of the kind of value available this shopping season, especially in the much-desired liquid crystal display models.
As recently as 2005, 42-inch LCD flat-panel sets were priced at nearly $10,000.
This year, the Best Buy chain has 42-inch LCD flat-panel TVs for less than $900.
That’s for a discount brand, but name-brand LCD TVs in the same size are being offered by several retailers for under $1,000.
Moving up to an LCD set that can display the maximum resolution under HDTV TV standards, called 1080p, brings the price up to just under $1,100 for a discount brand at the Costco membership stores.
Time out for a quick background note: Discount stores have become so important to brand-name manufacturers that Sony Corp. and others are making models specifically for sale by those retailers. So if you buy a 42-inch Sony at a discount store, it might not have all the features of one the same size available, for a higher price, at a more upscale retailer.
But the differences are often slight. Perhaps the discount model doesn’t have as many inputs for DVD players and other gear. Or it might lack the most up-to-date image processing equipment.
In any regard, this has been the year for LCD flat-panel sets. They’ve moved solidly into the 50-inch-and-larger range, which used to be almost solely the province of plasma and rear-projection TVs.
And the price drop for LCDs has been dramatic, even in just the last few months.
In April, the average retail price for a 32-inch set was $1,136, according to research group ISuppli. Last month, the average was $850, down about 25%. And, of course, lower prices than the average are available.
There are other good reasons to go for an LCD flat-panel set, said analyst Richard Doherty of Envisioneering Group.
“They are lighter and greener,” he said. “An LCD set at 47 inches is about half the weight of a plasma set and probably uses half the electricity.”
And although the image produced on an LCD flat-panel screen might not be as technically good as on the best plasma sets, the difference would be difficult for most folks to discern. Besides, in a brightly lighted room, LCD wins hands down.
Still, some of the best bargains can be found in sets that use rear-projection technologies, such as digital light processing (there are also LCD rear-projection sets).
The disadvantage of rear-projection sets is that they are a good deal thicker than flat-panel models. This prevents them from being hung on walls.
But, oh, those prices. According to ISuppli, the average 65-inch DLP set is going for $2,250. An LCD flat-panel set of the same size costs $9,000 on average and a plasma set is $8,498.
In addition, if you can wait a bit, word has it that rear-projection TVs will be quite a bit thinner in the near future, if not as svelte as flat-screen models.
Discount brands have become very popular, but Doherty has a warning: “Part of the miracle that has allowed their prices to go so low is the repair situation,” he said. “The warranty might be for a year in parts, but where is the service center? There might be only one, and it could be 2,400 miles away.”
Name brands, as well as the better value brands, are more likely to have several repair centers across the country.
“And save the box,” he said. A manufacturer could charge $100 or more for an appropriate shipping box used to send a set in for repairs.
If you have an HDTV with 1080p resolution, you won’t be able to see the best images it’s capable of producing unless you have a high-definition disc player.
After all, none of the broadcast, cable or satellite services is providing programming in 1080p and probably won’t for a long time; the electronic pipeline needed to send those signals is too big to be practical now.
But with one of these disc players, which have also fallen greatly in price this year, getting 1080p is a snap.
There remains, however, a big catch.
There are two incompatible formats for these discs: Blu-ray and HD DVD.
Studios have been fighting over which one should be the standard and, if anything, the two sides have become more entrenched in 2007.
Currently, Walt Disney Co., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox release their wares only in Blu-ray, and Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures are in the HD DVD camp.
Among the majors, only Warner Bros. regularly releases movies and TV shows in both formats.
So, if you get a Blu-ray player -- now commonly available for $400 -- you can watch the “Spider-Man” movies in HD, but not “Heroes” on an HD disc.
And if you get an HD DVD player -- selling for about $300 (it was below $200 in some spots on Black Friday) -- you can watch past seasons of “Lost” in HD, but not the Disney oeuvre.
It’s not fair, but take solace. Regular old DVDs might not produce the ultimate in resolution but they still look fantastic on HDTVs.
One solution is a dual player that will play Blu-ray and HD DVD. A new model that LG is bringing out this month will probably sell for about $800.
Bill Hunt, co-owner of the Digital Bits website, which tracks the latest in disc technology, believes Blu-ray will eventually win out, partly because far more movies and TV shows are available in that format than in HD DVD.
But he can’t in good conscience recommend that the average viewer take the plunge into the new discs.
“The best thing for them,” Hunt said, “is probably to sit on the sidelines.”
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