Archive for February 13, 2009

Pioneer, Vizio exit plasma HDTV market

WHITE-FLAGAnd then there were three. This week, both Pioneer and Vizio revealed they were exiting the plasma TV market, leaving just three companies—LG Electronics, Panasonic and Samsung—active in the plasma business. But while Vizio is dropping plasma to focus on LCD, Pioneer is leaving the TV business entirely.

Yesterday, Pioneer confirmed earlier rumors that it was exiting its display business, which includes TVs. The company said it will cease new-product plasma TV production for the U.S. as of April, 2009, and that it will completely be out of the display business by March 2010. It will continue to provide service for the TVs it has sold, however.

Vizio's news was a bit more surprising, as there was little inkling that it was contemplating such a move, although the company didn't show any new plasma models at CES. Vizio, which created a major disruption in the TV market by offering plasma and LCD TVs at prices well below its major competitors, has quietly been selling off its plasma inventory, and all existing stock will be shipped by the end of the first quarter, the company says.

Pioneer: No more Kuro TVs

Pioneer's announcement will put an end to a TV brand that's consistently been at the top of Consumer Reports' plasma TV Ratings (available to subscribers). The company's newer line of Kuro plasma TVs drew acclaim for industry-leading black levels, and prototypes indicated further improvements and razor-thin designs. The company didn't make LCD TVs, but was expected to introduce its first models, sourced from Sharp, later this year—something that now will not happen.

For Pioneer fans, this might be a great time to get a set if you're satisfied that the company will deliver on its promise of continued support. According to a report in the trade publication Consumer Electronics Daily, Pioneer recently dropped minimum advertised price (MAP) requirements on its premium Elite-brand products, and began allowing Internet sales, something it had previously prohibited. It also has widened distribution through warehouse clubs. For example, on Costco's website, we found the 50-inch PDP-5020FD for ,999, and the 60-inch PDP-6020FD, which was priced at ,500 in CR's latest Ratings of plasma TVs (available to subscribers), for ,800. On Amazon, OneCall had the Pioneer Elite Pro-111FD for ,000; it's listed for ,000 in the latest CR Ratings. Butterfly Photo had it for ,839, the cheapest price we found.

The company also said that it was considering several options for its Blu-ray and DVD player business, including the formation of a joint venture. The obvious partner would be Sharp, which took an almost 15-percent stake in Pioneer last year. Going forward, the company said it would focus its home electronics business in three areas: audio products, DJ equipment, and cable TV set-top boxes.

Vizio: Focus is on LCDs

Unlike Pioneer, which is exiting the TV business entirely, Vizio is dropping plasma to focus on LCD TVs, which now represent 90 percent of the TV market. While, the company became established with basic TV models selling at very low prices, its more recent focus has been on offering step-up technologies, such as 120Hz refresh rates and even LED backlighting, at prices well below competitors.

If you're looking for Vizio plasma bargains, you may already be out of luck. We had a hard time even finding the two models in our Ratings—the 1080p 50-inch VP503FHDTV10A and the 720p VP422HDTV10A. And the few models we did find weren't priced lower than the average selling prices listed in our Ratings.

Though it's narrowing its TV focus, Vizio is broadening its product lineup beyond TVs. For example, the company is now selling a soundbar speaker system, and plans to sell its first Blu-ray player, a BD-Live model priced at 9.

We'll be monitoring the plasma TV business to see where the technology is headed. With just three major manufacturers remaining, we wonder if the plasma business will mirror what we've already seen happen in the rear-projection market, where just a single supplier remains.

—James K. Willcox

(Photo: davi sommerfeld)

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How to take great winter action shots

photography tips action panning motion blur Whether you're photographing friends racing down ski slopes or just leisurely walking through the snow, taking action shots during the winter season can present challenges. Some digital cameras, such as the Olympus Stylus 1050 SW, claim to have features that help you in the cold. In fact, almost any camera can capture the action, although more advanced models provide greater flexibility.

Here's what to do if you prefer to let the camera do most of the work for you:

  • Shooting winter sports or outside action is like taking pictures at the beach. You're dealing with a lot of sun and light reflecting off the snow. For these shots, use your camera's beach setting or, if there's a snow mode, use that.
  • If your camera doesn't have an optical viewfinder, viewing the LCD can be difficult if snowy settings cause images to wash out on the display. However, there are ways to block at least some of the sun. You can cup your hand around the top part of the LCD to shield some of the light. Or use an accessory, such as these "pop-up" shades. There are similar accessories for SLRs.

photography tips winter snow scenes exposure settings

If you have an SLR or a point-and-shoot with advanced features:

  • To make snow look whiter, and avoid a gray tinge, overexpose by raising the EV (exposure value) setting by a half-step or one step. The high shutter speed you're using to freeze the action will compensate for the extra light. If you're using lots of zoom, increase the shutter speed and make sure image stabilization is engaged. (Click on the image at right for a closer look at examples of two differently exposed snow scenes.)
  • Panning: This lets you capture a sharp image of your subject, but with a blurred background that conveys a sense of motion. (Click on the image at the top of this post for a closer look at my example panning action shot.) But make sure that your subject won't be moving directly toward you. Instead, have your subject pass you by. Next, set a low shutter speed—1/60th second or slower. Set the camera on burst mode, which will let you fire off several shots in rapid succession. Then, follow your subject with your camera and when he or she is near enough, start firing as you track your subject.
  • Indoor sports shots are often taken under poor lighting conditions, so set the shutter to the highest possible speed and increase the ISO to 800 or higher. But make sure that your camera can take good quality pictures at high ISO.
  • Cold batteries may lose power more quickly, so carry a spare set with you and keep them warm.

Dress appropriately. Bring a hat, gloves, and scarf, and dress in layers. If there's lots of snow, wear good boots. Keep snow and ice off your camera, particularly if it's a point-and-shoot. An SLR may have more moisture protection, but it's still a good idea to keep it as dry as you can.

For advice on how to choose a digital camera, watch our digital camera buying guide video by clicking on the embedded player at right. And you can check out our free digital camera buying advice on Consumer Reports for more helpful information.

—Terry Sullivan

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New insight on antennas

Bob Richardson, Director of Engineering from our corporate offices sent this summary of information on antennas. It has some really good information and I’m passing it along as Bob wrote it as a “guest blogger”.
In the current (March 2009) issue of the IEEE Spectrum magazine there is a good article about the technology leading to the development of the latest generation of television receive antennas.  While many of you already know about this, some of you may not.  Below I’ll attempt to summarize the article.
 
  • For the 19 million viewers that depend on direct, over-the-air television reception, the quality of what you see from a digital transmission – or even whether you get a picture at all – won’t depend on the TV or the converter box but the antenna.
  • Television purists prefer over-the-air reception to bypass the compression algorithms used by cable and satellite providers that degrade the picture detail.
  • The transition to digital has given antenna manufacturers new incentive to develop a new generation of television antennas that replace the decades-old designs.
  • One of the new antennas is the Silver Sensor (marketed by Zenith and Philips), an antenna designed for set-top UHF reception (and tried by several employees here in the Broadcast Division shortly after its invention in 2001).  Another new UHF antenna is the SquareShooter from Winegard, designed for outdoor installation.  And the ClearStream2 from Antennas Direct that uses thicker-than-traditional elements and tapers the thickness of the two loop elements, allowing the antenna to respond to a greater range of frequencies.  These last two utilize a non-traditional design that employ circular elements and a grid.  The Silver Sensor is an adaptation of a log-periodic array of horizontal elements. 
  • Some manufacturers still use the old designs and market them as HDTV antennas since they cover the DTV channels allocated by the FCC.
  • Two factors bring about improved performance from the latest generation of receive antennas: improved design software and reduced spectrum allocated for digital broadcasting (channels 2 – 51).
  • Through the use of design software to model the antenna along with the use of vector network analyzers to test the design, prototypes that used to take months to developed can now be designed and tested in a matter of days or even hours.
  • In the days when the analog allocations were made, most stations were given a VHF channel assignment with smaller stations and translators given UHF channels.  Now with digital allocations, 74% of the stations are UHF, 25% are high-VHF and the remaining 1% are low-VHF.
  • Receive antenna gain isn’t as critical a factor as many may think.  While gain should be considered (perhaps in the 7 to 12 dB range), the overall performance of the antenna should be the main consideration.
  • Some small indoor antennas are labeled with gain numbers between 30 and 55 dB, the result of including a cheap amplifier.  Most cheap antenna designs with their cheap preamps generally overload the amp and potentially the receiver as well resulting in signal distortion that can degrade or eliminate DTV reception completely.  A passive antenna is the preferred approach.  If a preamp is necessary, the best choice is a high-quality, low-noise model installed as close as possible to the antenna.
  • DTV viewers using only an indoor antenna face new challenges.  Even better antennas must sometimes be readjusted to receive certain channels, not a good situation for couch potatoes.  In 2008 the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) developed the ANSI / CEA-909A Antenna Control Interface standard that allows the television receiver to communicate with the antenna, instructing it to adjust and automatically lock onto the signal as the viewer channel surfs.  Because the antenna and receiver “talk” to each other, the antenna can change either physically or electrically to adjust tuning, direction, amplifier gain, or polarization.  This allows the use of a narrowband antenna element to cover a wide range of frequencies (tunable bandwidth).
  • The reduced spectrum requirement is producing some innovative antenna designs that, to paraphrase, ”aren’t your father’s TV antenna”.
 
A sample of the new antennas…………   
 
                                                                BEST for                            Estimated range                            Dimensions                        Street price
                                                                                                                     (miles)                                           (inches)
INDOOR
   
Antennas Direct PF7        Near the transmitter and for those                14.9       9 X 11 X1                                                                 who want a hidden or discrete
                                       antenna
 
RCA ANT1500                  Near the transmitter and for those                14.9      5 X 15X11                               30                                    who want a hidden or discrete antenna
 
Philips Silver Sensor        Reception that needs higher gain and          19.9        13 X 13X2 2            
25
                                       multipath rejection for urban areas       
 
 
INDOOR / SMALL OUTDOOR
 
Channel Master 4220       Near to medium range                                    19.9 (for ch. 13) to                    6 X 24 X 35                                 30
                                                                                                                       29.9 (for ch. 69)
 
Winegard HD-1080          Near to medium range with                             39.8                                            35 X 18                                        60
                                            improved VHF
 
Antennas Direct                Near to medium range, in a                             49.7                                            20 X 12 X 5                                80
ClearStreamC2                smaller size
 
 
MEDIUM-SIZE OUTDOOR
 
Winegard HD-7015         People who need VHF and UHF in                34.8 (UHF) to 49.7 (VHF)           88 X 111 X 26                        50
                                           one package
 
Channel Master 4221      Medium to long-range UHF reception            44.7                                               20 X 5 X 36                             40
 
Antennas Direct D84       Medium to long-range UHF reception            55.3                                                4 X 19 X 29                            50
 
 
LARGE OUTDOOR
 
Winegard HD8200U        Long-range combination VHF/UHF                60.3                                              168 X 110 X 33                      120
 
Antennas Direct 91XG    Very long-range UHF reception                       70.2                                              22 X 20 X 93                           75
 
Televes DAT75                Very long-range UHF reception                       70.2                                              71 long                                     200
 
 
The IEEE Spectrum article doesn’t endorse any of these antennas.  Those shown above are just an example of what is out there in the way of new antenna designs.  You may want to use this information when answering viewer questions concerning antennas.
 
I’ve recently noticed antennas being promoted as “HDTV”.  To the uninformed this may seem like an ideal antenna to install with their new zillion$ HDTV receiver.  Unless they read the specs and know what to look for, this antenna may be the same antenna design available 40 years ago as a “color” antenna or 50 years ago for general VHF and FM reception.

Thanks Bob! Some great info here.

 

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