For the past few years, we've been hearing about
computer companies trying to muscle in on the consumer electronics action, taking on big boys such as Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung at their own games. Apple, of course, is the notable success story, and Microsoft has fared pretty well with Xbox. But at the same time, we've been treated to the whole Gateway fiasco, that little mishap where the once-mighty South Dakota company was convinced its return to prosperity could be found in cheap plasmas
and a smorgasbord of other, mostly crappy
CE products. In just less than a year, Gateway managed to show industry-watchers that doing the CE dance is a lot harder than it looks, especially when your company isn't known for its design prowess.
Dell has dabbled too in CE, mostly with MP3 players and flat-panel displays. Its first-generation products were decidedly lackluster, but this year we've seen some marked improvements, particularly to its LCD and plasma TVs, which offer sexier designs, excellent connectivity, and decent performance at aggressive price points. These aren't the best flat-panels we've reviewed, but they're definitely a step in the right direction for Dell if it hopes to compete against both time-honored CE brands and a collection of bargain-priced no-namers populating the shelves at Costco, Wal-Mart, and other retailers.
Would you buy a consumer electronics product from a computer company?
Dell has serious CE aspirations, and it's going to be a player because it can leverage its well-honed direct-sales model and has a hefty marketing budget. But what took me and my home-theater cohorts, Senior Editor David Katzmaier and Senior Associate Editor John Falcone, by surprise is what HP is up to. Earlier this year, we reviewed one of the company's consumer DLP home-theater projectors, the ep7120, and came away fairly impressed by the effort. It was "awright," as judge Randy on American Idol likes to say. Still, when we trotted into our meeting with HP reps at last week's Home Entertainment Show in New York City, we didn't expect to see what we saw: some potentially serious HDTVs.
Lo and behold, the company's Pavilion line has officially been extended from computers to TVs. Taking a cue from Pioneer, HP's gone with a piano-black, glossy finish on its flat-panel plasma and LCD sets. They hold their own in the design department against the Sonys, Panasonics, Samsungs, and Pioneers, and at least on paper--and judging from our brief viewing experience--they offer strong feature sets and potentially competitive video performance.
HP's Pavilion MD6580n, a 65-inch DLP-powered HDTV.
Attractive plasmas and LCDs are nice, but what ultimately made a bigger impression on us was the company's new line of slick-looking, rear-projection DLP TVs, which includes four models. Two of them, high-end sets in 58-inch and 65-inch sizes, offer 1080p resolution
while the entry-level 50-inch and 58-inch models deliver 720p resolution. For reference, high-def starts at 720p
, but only a 1080p set can, in theory, resolve the full resolution of maxed-out 1,080x1,920 HD content. These new models are clearly aimed at Samsung's popular DLP line which features identical DLP chips from Texas Instruments. And while pricing hasn't been set, HP promises its DLPs will be priced competitively with Samsung's latest
and will be in stores by the end of the summer along with those new flat-panel HD monitors I mentioned earlier.
Of course, other factors go into building microdisplay TVs, and HP, with its pedigree in imaging, is saying it has the secret sauce--things such as a better color wheel and a technique called "wobulation" that HP is marketing under the moniker of Visual Fidelity--that makes its DLP sets superior performers. We can't deliver a final verdict on video quality until we run a review unit through its paces, but I will say this: the Pavilion DLPs have a couple of innovative convenience features that we simply haven't seen before. And I'm not talking about incorporating a printer or memory-card reader--or anything along the lines of what Epson did to try to distinguish its rear-projection LCD sets such as the LS57P2.
Remarkably, HP has put all the input jacks on the front of the TV. Yes, you heard right: the front. You pop open the set's front-panel door just below the screen, and you're essentially looking at the back panel of your typical TV. The setup not only gives you easy access (no pulling the TV away from the wall), but it allows you to rein in all your components' cables and almost completely hide them if you decide to purchase the optional stand, which has a hollow frame for cable snaking.
The other convenience feature we saw demonstrated was something called thumbnail source selection. Push a button on the remote and you'll get snapshots of all your input sources (DVD, Xbox, HD tuner, and so forth) on a single screen showing you what's on each input. You can then select the input by toggling through the thumbnails. This feature is also available on HP's flat-panel displays.
For the record, I'm not a shill for HP or any other company. But every once in a while, some product manager does something smart that manages to wake me up from my jaded slumber and makes me take notice, especially when HDTVs, whatever their flavor, are rapidly becoming commodities. True, budget models generally don't offer the performance that name-brand, higher-priced models do. However, when you start to compare Samsung DLP sets to Mitsubishi DLPs, then to Sony's Grand WEGA and Hitachi's rear-projection LCD TVs, the differences are maddeningly subtle. (You don't want to know how many readers write in asking what's the best TV among those models.)
Aside from the early look at the HP sets, at the Home Entertainment Show we also got to experience a videophile's dream comparison: the folks from Texas Instruments were doing a head-to-head between the Samsung's new 1080p DLP (the HL-R6768W) and the Qualia 006, Sony's premium 70-inch LCoS rear-pro set that retails for $13,000. Naturally, the Texas Instruments reps were saying that the DLP picture was better on the less-expensive Samsung. But we came away from the demo feeling that the Sony did some things better than the $7,000 Samsung--and vice versa.
The point I'm ultimately trying to make is that, for computer manufacturers to make it in the CE world, they not only have to perform as well and look as sleek as the competition, but they have to offer a unique, value-added proposition. In Dell's case, that may be straight cash savings. But for others, it has to be something innovative that makes the product more user-friendly. In any case, we're just glad that HP's now trying to live up to its "invent" tagline and not just slapping its logo on an iPod and hoping people will think the company's cooler for it.