Archive for February 10, 2009

Will Pioneer exit the TV business?

Exit-signCould this be the last year we see the well-respected—and highly rated, by Consumer Reports—Pioneer Kuro plasma TVs in the marketplace?

That’s the word coming out of Japan, where media reports suggest that Pioneer will announce its exit from the TV business later this week. If so, the company would be the latest plasma defector, following the likes of Philips, Sony, and Toshiba. However, unlike those brands—which dropped plasma to focus on LCD TVs—Pioneer has no presence in LCD TV, which could mean the end of Pioneer as a TV brand altogether. Just last year Sharp took an equity stake in the company, with the idea that Pioneer would enter the LCD market this year with sets sourced from Sharp as part of the deal, something that now looks unlikely to happen.

In response to questions from Consumer Reports, Pioneer called the reports “speculation” by a Japanese journalist, saying that the company is currently “reviewing all the business operations to make our mid-term business strategy group wide.” Pioneer says it will announce new restructuring measures officially on Feb. 12, 2009 in Japan, or as soon as tomorrow in the U.S. as Japan is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

Pioneer has typically targeted more affluent customers, especially with its step-up Pioneer Elite models. The company has earned a following with a line of plasma TV models that set the industry benchmark for black levels. Still, selling a pricey TV has never been easy, and recent economic woes have made it even more difficult to compete in a market where well-regarded competitors, such as Panasonic and Samsung, typically price their models for thousands less than a Pioneer of a similar size. For example, in our latest Ratings of plasma TVs (available to subscribers), a 50-inch Pioneer Elite PRO-111FD sells for about ,000. Samsung’s PN50A650 is priced at ,900, and Panasonic’s TH-50PZ800U model is ,400. And both companies offer even lower-priced 1080p 50-inch sets with comparable performance.

In an effort to become more competitive, last year Pioneer announced it would stop manufacturing its own plasma panels and instead source them from Panasonic. The deal with Sharp was expected to broaden the company’s offering to include LCDs, which now constitute 90 percent of all TV sales.

Stay tuned for more news about Pioneer’s plans for TVs—including on-going support of models already sold—in the near future.

—James K. Willcox

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New Amazon Kindle: Slimmer and chattier

Kindles-fronts-side-by-side

Amazon today unveiled a second-generation version of its Kindle, with enhancements that promise to preserve the device’s supremacy among e-book devices. But the Kindle isn’t yet aimed at casual or budget readers, given that the changes don’t include a cut in the gadget’s 9 price. (Click on images for closer looks.)

The Kindle 2, which you can preorder now for shipment on Feb. 24, retains the key attribute that made its predecessor so appealing—namely wireless access to a huge selection of Amazon e-book titles and other content, via a no-extra-cost connection to Sprint’s 3G data network. But here are three key ways in which it improves on the first-generation device:

More portable. Kindle 2 is about half as thick as its predecessor—0.36 inches compared with 0.7 for Kindle 1—and Amazon claims it’s thinner than the iPhone and other leading 3G smart phones. Its slimness, plus the iPhone-like chrome back that replaces the rubberized surface of the Kindle 1, make Kindle 2 notably easier to slip into a handbag or briefcase. It’s slightly longer than Kindle 1 but the same width—much like that of a typical book—and a fraction of an ounce lighter, at 10.2 ounces.

It will read to you. A text-to-voice feature now allows you to turn any Kindle title into an audio book, extremely handy for, say, drivers. Just don’t expect the stentorian tones of the actors who read actual audio books. Instead, the Kindle will read to you in what Stephen King—a guest at the announcement; more on why he was there later—described jokingly as “a GPS voice.” In a demo after the event, the renderings seemed passable to me—not James Earl Jones but not bad. Amazon spokesman Jay Marine told me “people find they get accustomed to it quickly.”

Kindles-side-by-side

Better navigation. The old Kindle’s scroll wheel has been replaced by a five-way joystick that controls more functions. I tried out the wheel at the demo, and it indeed seemed easier to use and more versatile than the old scroll wheel, which you used only to select content to read, after which you had to resort to other controls to navigate within that content.

The navigation strips on each side of the screen, controlling next and last pages, have also been modified; they now click in toward the screen, rather than out away from it. The benefit was unclear to me, perhaps because—as a Kindle user since 2007—I’d have to relearn to use strips that I’ve clicked out to hundreds or thousands of times.

The new device also comes with better battery life, up by 25 percent, though that was never much of an issue with the old device, which you could use for days without recharging. The screen remains the same size, and monochromatic only, but Amazon says the number of gradations of gray has gone from 4 to 16. In the demos, I saw the difference mainly in photos and other artwork, which appeared to be rendered more faithfully. Improvements in text—in the contrast between type and background, one of my quibbles about the first-generation Kindle—looked modest at best, a point that Amazon’s Marine confirmed. But electronic page turns, another of my quibbles, seemed slightly faster; Amazon says they’re 20 percent speedier with Kindle 2.

The new Kindle has a larger memory—2GB, sufficient to hold more than 1,500 books—prompting Amazon to remove the micro-SD card slot found on the old Kindle, in part to make the device slimmer, according to Marine.

Already own a Kindle and plan to get the new device? You won’t get a break on the price or to the option of trading in your old one. You will, however, go to the head of the line for Kindle 2. Amazon will start taking orders at midnight tomorrow. Anyone who ordered Kindle 1 since December, when stock ran out, will automatically receive Kindle 2 soon after Feb. 24. Marine added that, despite the embarrassing shortages of the device last holiday season, they expect to have plenty of Kindle 2s available this spring.

Kidles-top-to-topIf you’re upgrading from the original Kindle, you’ll be able to access the same content from both devices, right down to the page you were on when you stopped reading. Amazon unveiled what it calls Whispersync, which permits you to access your content—from the so-called Amazon “cloud”—from either device.

More interesting than this feature, aimed at two-Kindle households, may be its implications for helping Kindle, the service, expand to platforms other than Kindle, the device. Marine confirmed that plans continue to allow the purchase and reading of Kindle titles on smart phones, though he wouldn’t give details on which ones or when. Just as interesting, given the screen-size limitations of smart phones—for my part, I’m not sure I’d want to read a book on a screen large enough to carry only a sentence or two at a time—was that Marine wouldn’t rule out expanding Kindle to laptops, where screens might capture even more text than the Kindle’s screen.

Stephen-King-Kindle2
So is this the time to jump into an e-book reader, and the Kindle in particular? If you’ve been seriously considering the device, the answer is likely yes, especially if the enhancements of the new version have special appeal. The Kindle’s wirelessness continues to give it an edge over its primary rival, the Sony Reader, which has an updated version out since we reviewed it. Casual readers or less-than-early adopters may want to stick on the sidelines a little longer, especially with the prospect of Kindle coming to devices you already own.

Oh yeah, the Stephen King connection: The horror-meister has agreed to release a new novella entitled “Ur” exclusively to the Kindle. He read a passage at the launch event, one that—spoiler alert!—included a character who owns a Kindle, only to find that the device allows him, in King’s words, to “access other worlds.”

—Paul Reynolds

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