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Will your next PC be an affordable DTV?

PC or TV? Sharp’s 23in HD-ready TV can be used as a PC display. Apple’s G5 iMAC puts the computer and DVD drive inside the display. Photos courtesy Sharp and Apple.

It is hard to ignore the reality that TVs and PCs are looking more and more similar as the component technologies from which they are built rapidly converge.

It is also no coincidence that the same companies are increasingly making graphics subsystems for PCs and components for the consumer electronics (CE) industry. In some cases, the same company makes graphics subsystems for TVs and set-top boxes and supplies the tuner chips required to receive ATSC broadcasts and connect to digital cable systems. One such company is ATI Technologies. ATI acquired NxtWave Communications in 2002, about the time NxtWave was claiming they had solved the ATSC reception problem.

As it turns out, over-the-air DTV reception may not have been the most important problem to solve. Reaching an agreement between the CE industry and the cable industry to make new DTV receivers digital cable-ready (DCR) may turn out to be more important in today's marketplace. These industries finally reached an agreement on one-way digital cable compatibility last year. Shortly thereafter, the FCC added the provision that any new DCR set must also include an ATSC receiver.

ATI was ready with a single QAM/VSB tuner chip for commercially available integrated DCR HDTVs. Of the 11 CE companies that have announced digital cable-certified HDTV sets, nine rely on ATI's NXT series components.

But this position may soon be challenged if OTA reception turns out to be more important than being digital cable-ready. Several companies have announced intentions to use the fifth-generation ATSC receiver chip developed by LG Electronics. Recently, the Sinclair Broadcast Group announced that they were going to start promoting DTV broadcasts, in large measure because they believe that the fifth-generation receiver has finally made reception of ATSC broadcasts reliable, even in difficult multipath environments. USDTV is currently developing set-top boxes for their subscription DTV service using the new LG chips. Products using the new chips are expected to reach the market next spring.

All of this provides digital broadcasters with renewed hope that the DTV transition is finally beginning to move in the right direction. There is even more encouragement when one walks through the aisle of the TV departments in specialty CE and mass-market retailers. There, one can find affordable HDTV receivers, not to mention a rapidly growing number of options for displaying HDTV content. For example, a 30in-screen Sanyo HDTV or a 27in Samsung HDTV with integrated ATSC tuners can be purchased for less than $699.

According to salespeople, however, these are not the sets that most people are buying — and for good reason. They have relatively small screens in huge cabinets because they are built around direct view CRTs. By definition, HD is a big screen viewing experience, and that is what most people are buying.

The salespeople will also tell you that consumers are not buying many HD products with integrated DCR/ATSC receivers. As of July, the FCC mandated that 50 percent of all new receivers larger than 36in must include an ATSC receiver. More than two-thirds of the big screen sets ordered by retailers for this Christmas season are still HD-capable monitors without digital tuners.

PC or TV?

Recently, the Consumer Electronics Association and the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition petitioned the FCC to change the next phase of the DTV receiver mandate schedule. The schedule calls for 50 percent of sets between 25in and 36in to include an ATSC tuner starting in July 2005; 100 percent as of July 2006. But the CE industry wants to eliminate the 50 percent requirement and move the date up to March 2006 for 100 percent of sets this size. They reason that, given the choice, consumers will choose the cheaper monitors without digital tuners. While this appears to be a cooperative gesture, in reality it would give the CE industry another year to sell the cheap mid-sized NTSC receivers that still dominate the market in terms of unit volumes.

LCD panels are all the rage in the world of PCs. The units are slim, the images are sharp and the prices are falling as new manufacturing capacity is ramping up to meet demand. One of those demands is to turn LCD panels into TVs — to replace the smaller sets that are common in U.S. homes. LCD panels are growing wider, both for PC and TV applications. And, when the size reaches 20in or larger, they typically offer HDTV resolution.

Another way of looking at this is to say that the display requirements for a PC and an HDTV are converging, if they have not done so already. The major difference is the distance one sits from the screen. As PC displays grow past 20in, they become large enough to watch comfortably at TV viewing distances.

Microsoft is trying to turn the home PC into the media center that drives the big screen in the family room. You will soon see ads co-sponsored by Microsoft and Intel, promoting the advantages of the Media Center PC as the hub of your home entertainment systems. The purported advantages include the ability to use the PC as a PVR, a DVD recorder/player and a digital jukebox with all of your favorite music and digital photos.

Meanwhile the CE industry is trying to add intelligence to the TV. Several models of HDTV monitors now come with slots for the various flash memory cards used in digital cameras and IEEE 1394 connections for digital camcorders and other components. But the CE industry is moving more slowly toward the kind of total integration being offered by the Media Center PC concept. It's moving even slower toward a computer-style graphical interface to control home entertainment systems.

The CE industry still favors the idea of appliances that turn on instantly, and do not crash or get sick from viruses. And they still want a home entertainment system assembled from multiple components.

The PC industry seems infatuated with the home entertainment opportunity. This is not surprising because the markets for PCs are flat. PCs have become just another mass-produced commodity. Manufacturers including Dell, Gateway and HP now have TV product groups (see Web links). HP is moving aggressively into the CE space with Media Center PCs, TVs and a range of related products, including an HP-branded Apple iPod portable music player.

Apple just announced the Photo iPod, which stores both music and digital photos. The tiny player can hook directly to a TV to present slide shows with music. Ironically, while Apple has been involved in the development of many of the technologies that are common to both CE and PC products (e.g. FireWire [IEEE 1394] and Wi-Fi) the company seems reluctant to push the Media Center concept at this time. Instead, Apple seems to be slowly transforming itself into a CE company, which is less threatening to potential partners in the CE industry.

The Apple G5 iMac and the Sharp IT-23M1U LCD IT-TV demonstrate just how blurred the lines are becoming between PC and TV. The new iMacs look very much like the rows of LCD TVs now found in the TV departments of many retailers. The computer is integrated within a 17in or 20 in widescreen LCD display. The displays are about 2in thick. The 20in model offers 1440×900 resolution. About the only thing the new iMac does not include is a TV tuner.

The new Sharp LCD IT-TV takes PC/TV convergence in an interesting new direction. The 23in widescreen panel offers 1366×768 resolution, a built-in analog TV tuner and all of the interfaces needed for video components, including HD sources. The most interesting twist is that it is an instant-on TV that can also be used as a PC monitor. The only thing missing is the PC.

If it is not obvious already, there must be some convergence going on here. The question is: Where is the convergence happening? The Internet has been abuzz lately about this subject. Type the word convergence into Google search engine and you will get more than 9 million hits.

PC-centric early adopters are yawning. They have been cobbling together media centers with PVRs and other functions for years. However, mainstream HDTV buyers are skeptical. For the most part, they are just buying monitors with the assumption that the best way to future-proof their purchase is to add tuners and other components that can be replaced easily as the technology evolves.

The PC industry may be barking up the wrong tree by trying to take control of the big screen in the family room. Thanks in part to the proliferation of cheap TVs in our homes, and to the “up close and personal” nature of PCs, we have become a nation of personal media consumers. The notion of the family gathering around the electronic hearth during prime time is all but forgotten in a medium that is now driven by highly targeted demographic audiences.

All this makes me wonder if the next PC many folks buy will be their first DTV receiver.

Web Links

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube labs and he hosts and moderates OpenDTV Forum.

ATI Technologies

Microsoft Media Center PC (opens in new tab)

HP TVs (opens in new tab)

Dell TVs (opens in new tab)


HP Digital Entertainment Systems (opens in new tab)

Apple iMac (opens in new tab)


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