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Hi-def, ho-hum

Adefinite buzz was in the air at the 2001 CES-with 122,000 attendees, it's hard to be quiet-but it wasn't about HDTV.

Sure, there were tons of HDTV displays at the show, and some even carried the American Football Conference playoff games that were being broadcast in HDTV by local CBS affiliate KLAS-TV . But the exhibitors and attendees at the consumer electronics industry's annual January gathering in Las Vegas seemed more excited about wireless devices, home networking systems, satellite radio, CD burners and recordable DVD technology.

Panasonic's 90-minute press briefing, for example, barely touched on HDTV, despite the fact that it is sponsoring CBS' prime time HDTV broadcasts. Instead, Panasonic highlighted tiny SD memory cards and brought models on stage to display the latest "e-wear" fashions, basically anoraks with small pockets for electronic devices.

Philips Executive Vice President Guy Demuynck talked mostly about the Internet and DVD-RW recorders. As for HDTV, he allowed that Philips would continue to make its current line of rear-projection HDTV sets. Philips also introduced an HDTV DirecTV set-top.

Sony sidestepped HDTV in its presentation "Making Digital Dreams Come True," except to mention a prototype optical storage device, DVR Blue, that will store 2.5 hours of HDTV. The company did exhibit a new 40-inch HDTV-ready 4:3 Wega display and a 60-inch 16:9 HDTV Wega display, but neither has an integrated HDTV receiver. The one new HDTV tuner was a DirecTV set-top.

Speaking afterwards, Sony Consumer Electronics President Mike Vitelli said he was still concerned by the ongoing debate over the DTV transmission standard, although most industry experts expect that to soon be resolved in the favor of 8-VSB-the current U.S. standard.

"You invest money in a half-million TVs and they switch the standard; that's devastating," said Vitelli. Although he wouldn't pick a side between 8-VSB and COFDM, he said the existing installed base of DTV receivers was small enough that a switch to COFDM was still feasible.

On the other hand, Thomson made its new RCA L5000 high-definition display the centerpiece of its press briefing. The 50-inch set relies on LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) display technology developed by Thomson to produce sharper pictures while cutting an HDTV set's weight in half. The product is expected to sell for between $6,000 and $8,000 when it is released this summer. Thomson is also subsidizing CBS' hi-def broadcasts of the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl.

Zenith, too, introduced a DirecTV HDTV set-top and showed new rear-projection HDTV displays. More important, it announced that it will soon be selling a 27-inch integrated DTV set capable of receiving all HDTV and DTV formats and displaying them in SDTV for under $1000. That would represent a price breakthrough for an integrated DTV receiver/display.