By David Carnoy Executive editor, CNET Reviews (December 4, 2006)
Around the holidays each year, as more folks get serious about making HDTV buying decisions, my in-box fills up rather quickly with frantic e-mails from readers agonizing over their choices. The usual themes persist--for instance, LCD vs. plasma--but the one that's been popping up the most lately is whether to buy a large, rear-projection set or a 50-inch plasma. And the majority of people are leaning toward the flat-panel over the rear-pro, which doesn't bode well for the future of projection-based HDTVs.
In making their decisions, buyers are mulling over several factors, including price and viewing environments (sun-drenched rooms are a strike against rear-pro), but the critical point seems to be lifespan--in other words, just how damn long are these TVs really going to last? This would seem to favor rear-projection, since the knock against plasma has been that they don't live all that long. However, in the last couple of years, plasma manufacturers, with the aid of brick-and-mortar retailers, have been able to blunt that criticism with lifespan numbers--7 to 10 years--that are now more acceptable to consumers. While people disinclined to believe in plasma's durability tend to favor LCD, 52-inch LCD TVs are still too pricey for most folks. So that leaves us with rear-pro sets that mainly feature LCoS (Sony SXRD, JVC HD-ILA) and DLP (Samsung, Toshiba, Mitsubishi) technology--both technologies have largely supplanted their CRT and even LCD rear-projection predecessors in the marketplace. Theoretically, these sets should last for many, many years.
Rear-projection HDTV: an endangered species?
Ah, but there's a catch. Not only do RPTVs lack the superthin hang-on-the-wall form factor of flat-panels, they also utilize bulbs that need to be replaced every few years. And those bulbs cost a couple of hundred bucks, sometimes more. It's not a big deal to replace a bulb--I've done it myself in less than 10 minutes. But the fact that your TV will potentially go "dead" after a couple of years, and that you'll have to replace a part to get it going again, seems to be turning a lot of people off. The fact is that, if you do the math--as plenty of people are--and you figure that you have to replace your bulb roughly every two years, you're looking at around $1,000 over the course of eight years--which is approximately the minimum lifespan of a 50-inch plasma.
This is how the mind of someone on the fence works. It careens back and forth between the plusses and minuses, as well as the intangibles in column A and column B, and it ends up concluding, "That $2,500 rear-projection TV is really going to cost me $3,500. Screw that."
Right now, of course, if you want something bigger than 50 inches, your best bet is rear-projection, as 60-inch plasmas remain prohibitively expensive. But pricewise, that 60-inch plasma--and probably that 60-inch LCD as well-- is going to quickly creep down to the level of the 60-something-inch Sony SXRDs and JVC HD-ILAs (both use LCoS technology), not to mention the Samsung and Mitsubishi DLPs of the world. Then all that rear-pro manufacturers will be left with is gargantuan sizes. And not that many people have room for a 70- or 80-inch TV.
If manufacturers hope to extend the lifespan of rear-projection TVs and not have them go the way of direct-view CRT (tube) sets, they'll have to do a few things. First, they have to maintain a significant price differential. Today, buying a 50-inch Samsung DLP, for example, instead of a 50-inch Panasonic plasma, can save you about $850. That's enough to convince a lot of people, but when you consider that bulbs cost $200 to $300, the difference shrinks fast. Bulbs need to be a lot cheaper. These should be $50 to $75 items, max, and an extra bulb should be bundled with every new TV. (We would attempt to calculate the true bulb life for some of these sets, except that we return our review samples fairly quickly, usually within a few weeks of doing our review and sometimes sooner).
Sony is actually bundling an extra bulb with its latest SXRD TVs, which is a good thing. The manual recommends you replace the bulb "...after 4,000 hours of use; when the screen becomes dark of the color looks unusual; when the "Lamp" LED on the front of the TV blinks; or when the lamp replacement message appears." Bundled replacement bulbs or no, however, Sony seems to have a bigger problem. There have been rumors that some of its highly rated SXRDs are developing something called green blob syndrome after 1,000 to 2,000 hours of use. Allegedly, due to a flaw in the light engine, a glow of green light appears on the screen and just doesn't go away. While we've yet to see this phenomenon in person, several pictures of the blob have appeared on the Web. Whether the images have been doctored to make trouble for Sony, we can't say, but there are rumors of a class-action lawsuit--or at least, a pending lawsuit that Sony wouldn't comment on. A Sony spokesperson did say that "Sony's own customer service data among hundreds of thousands of satisfied consumers who purchased SXRD televisions in 2005-06 indicate service and return rates that are similar to or below Sony's historical television average and the overall industry average for microdisplay televisions." All I can say is, if there is a flaw and it's unfixable, this would be a far more serious issue than the that a relatively small percentage of viewers experience when they watch DLP TVs.
Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against rear-projection TVs. I've owned a CRT rear-pro and more recently, a DLP rear-pro (no, I don't see rainbows). But I'm pretty sure the next set I buy will be a direct-view, thin-screen model. The writing is on the wall. Or in this case, if it can't be hung on the wall, its days are numbered.
Editors' note: This column has been changed from its original version. It now correctly specifies which of Sony's SXRD models include extra projector bulbs, as well as listing Sony's advertised lifespan for the bulbs.
Is rear-projection TV a dying breed, or will it persevere in an increasingly flat-panel world?