Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: The World's Thinnest LCD HDTVs [Ultrathin Lcds]


It's not every day that you get to check out the world's thinnest LCD HDTV, let alone all three "ultrathins" currently in production, but that's what's going down. Sharp's super insane new flagship, the Limited Edition Aquos LC-65XS1U-S, arrived at my door in a bulletproof shipping container, 138 pounds of metal and glass measuring 65 inches diagonal that you can barely see from the side. Yes, in spite of its full-frontal gravitas, it measures only an inch thick at its edge, and a slightly more flexed 2 inches in the middle. It's gorgeous and ridiculous and designed to hang on a wall with no more protrusion than a dainty sketch in a frame—only it can blast Casino Royale at 1080p, 24 frames per second, while your face melts, and I'd have to sell my car twice over to buy it.

I love you Giz readers too much to stop with something that none of us can actually afford—and if you can afford it, you'll be decent enough to not let us know—so I called in the new slender 1080p models from Hitachi and JVC, too. As much lower-priced sets, I thought they'd just be the icing on Sharp's Limited Edition cake, but they turned out to be, in their own right, fine specimens. Let's review, shall we?

Who Thin?
"Ultrathin" is best defined, at this moment, as a TV that is mostly thinner than 2 inches.

Hitachi's Director's Series 1.5 UltraThin UT37X902 (37 inches listing for $1,900) got its name because it's an inch and a half thick across its entire panel. It is a monitor with speakers, but no tuner and the barest of inputs—one H! DMI and one VGA—to help it keep trim. JVC's LT-46SL89 (46 inches for $2,400) on the other hand is a true TV, with digital HD tuner, 3 HDMI ports, 2 analog inputs with option of component, composite or S-Video, and a PC VGA input. That adds a bit to the girth—while most of its main panel is one-and-three-quarter-inches thick, there's a middle section that is a fat three inches.

To give you a sense of comparison, Pioneer's fairly slim and lightweight first-gen Kuro plasma is nearly 4 inches thick, with a slimming bezel that measures about half that. Pioneer isn't content there, though—its newest Kuro Elite monitors are quite trim, and you'll recall last CES the company showed off an unbelievably thin half-inch plasma screen that's presumably nowhere near production.

WTF Thin?
When I asked Sharp Aquos product manager Tony Favia what the fuss was about all of these new super thin TVs, he said that customers, particularly high-end ones, wanted a TV that could hang on a wall as flush as art, and even fill in for art as needed. That's why Sharp loaded the XS1 with paintings: When you push "Image" on the remote, up pop masterworks by Hokusai, Renoir, Seurat and Van Gogh, about 10 or 12 total. You can't leave the TV set on a particular image, though, despite the remote's discreetly stashed Play/Pause/Fwd/Rew transport buttons.

The XS1 achieves its thinness in part by farming out its functionality: An accompanying AV box, tethered by a single long HDMI cable, doesn't just handle all of the inputs, but the digital tuner and AquosNet internet access as well. It's so integrated into the TV's life that without it that, though I was able to run a video source directly, I couldn't even touch picture settings.

The thing about thin is that it's not cheap, and as such, manufacturers aren't at liberty to cut out performance to slim down the screen.! This is probably why the biggest successes in TV sales—Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and LG—haven't expressed outright interest in marketing slim product. In fact, Sharp is smarter than JVC and Hitachi, aiming the thin concept at particularly spendy customers (Russian oil barons, professional golfers, Alaskan governors who may soon sign book and/or TV deals), rather than just going thin to differentiate itself at the Best Buy.

You Can't Afford It
The sleek all-metal Sharp 65-inch XS1 Limited Edition costs $16,000. The 52 incher costs $11,000. The build materials have a lot to do with the cost. A critically acclaimed, plastic-encased 3.7-inch thick Pioneer 50-inch plasma (that weighs 13 fewer pounds) lists for around $4,000, and sells for as little as $2,500. So you're not a sheikh, I'm not a sheikh, why are we talking about a sheikh's TV? Favia said the company went for a "no compromise" approach, and as hard as I looked, I found just one technical compromise, one most (sheikhs) could live with. If the damn thing didn't cost so much, the XS1 would be one of my favorite TVs ever.

Speaking of the Kuro, I placed a first-gen model side-by-side to calibrate and compare, and though the Sharp LCD wasn't always as perfect as the Pioneer plasma, I was surprised to see how well it kept up. Even though the LCD is equipped with 120Hz Fine Motion Enhanced blur reduction, I realized that during the action sequences in Casino Royale it went with native 24p (24-frames-per-second) movie playback. There wasn't any noticeable blur. In fact, thanks to the massive LCD's dazzlingly snappy 4-millisecond response time, I found that you really didn't need 120Hz at all.

Contrast Is King
In the all-important land of contrast, this Sharp scores big. Sharp has, in the past, been criticized for confusing contrast with an overuse of darkness. The XS1 is obviously a ground-up redesign, but in that arena in particular, I found I could tweak settings to walk the line between crushed and ! bleached blacks. You don't see charcoal gray when you're supposed to see pitch black, and yet dark textures are plainly visible.

This has much to do with the tight grid of RGB LEDs behind the main panel that light only what's needed. This technique has recently earned Sony and Samsung high praise for contrast and color reproduction, but it has a third crazy attribute: The 65-inch Sharp is capable of using less energy than the 46-inch JVC and even the 37-inch Hitachi, because it lights only what it needs and doesn't require the constant glare of a fluorescent light source.

When it comes to specific wattage demands, the Sharp hovered in the low to mid 100s with peaks upwards of 200W. The plasma was averaging 250 or higher, maxing out during the brightest scenes at 400W. The JVC's 46 incher could be set, using the backlight slider, anywhere from 98W to 200W, and the Hitachi similarly ranged from 83W to 171W. Though nice and slim, both of these sets use constantly lit fluorescent lamps.

While contrast on these smaller TVs didn't immediately seem as good, I got a sneaking suspicion that LED backlighting is, at least in part, a psychological trick. See, constant FL light means that, when watching 2.35:1 widescreen movies, you get a touch of gray in the bars at top and bottom, at least you do unless you dial down the backlight and sacrifice some whiteness. With LED backlighting, the LEDs behind the letterbox's black bars are simply turned off. You perceive that contrast to be better since there are fewer dead giveaways of less-than-perfect contrast.

I'm not trying to uncover a mystery here; I'm just saying that once I ignored the light shining through the black bars, I was happy enough with the contrast and color—demonstrated below by Disney's new Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray, our friend HD Guru Gary Merson's favorite color-gamut test source along with, naturally, Southland Tales—on both the JVC and Hitachi. Sometimes "good enough" is actually "good."

The La! st LCD I ssue
The funny thing is that two of the three test TVs suffered from an annoying LCD-related problem, and it wasn't the cheaper two. Both the Sharp and the JVC, which in many ways could not be more different as TVs, lost color saturation and even shifted in tint when viewed from the most peripheral angles.

Viewing angle issues are far from new: Projection TVs and LCDs have continued to suffer from them for years and years (in some cases decades). And maybe you think that it's no big deal, since most people watch a TV sitting head on. But I think that ultrathin TVs—intended to hang flush on walls, and without a pivoting mount—should be especially good looking at every angle where the picture is remotely visible. The Hitachi alone managed to hold its colors to the very edge, losing only brightness, as you'd expect.

New Hope
In the end, I think this review session did more to renew my faith in LCD technology than it did to sell me on the whole ultrathin thing. I spent years at line shows wondering why anyone would buy an LCD when plasma was an alternative, and even the amazing rise of Sony and Samsung in the LCD space was clouded by the simultaneous rise of all those extra-crappy savings-club TVs.

It's worth noticing that these ultrathin sets don't hail from the current Korean, Japanese or Chinese TV powerhouses. But as flagships from their companies, they do an even better job boding well for the whole industry, at least from a technical perspective. Plasma can still enjoy its high noon, but at a cost—nothing here looked better than the Kuro, but it took twice the energy to deliver that marginally better picture. And when it comes to hanging these bastards on the wall, well, let's see if Pioneer's still going to make good on that ultra-ultrathin promise from last CES. If not, these LCDs are going to be the slim-o-cizers to beat. That is, until the first 40-inch OLEDs hit the market. [Sharp Aquos Limited Edition XS1; Hitachi 1.5; JVC SuperSlim]