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'Tis the Season for HD Bargains

In the time between last week's Black Friday and the coming Super Sunday (Feb. 3), bargains in the high-definition market will remain as sure a thing as the New England Patriots. Last year, slashed Black Friday prices made for a door-buster run. Promotional prices for post-Turkey Day 2006 were about 30% under everyday tags.

This year, the average cuts hit 23%. While the volatile one-day totals won't be quite as dramatic this year, demand will keep prices steadily lowered.

More time to enjoy discounts means a greater opportunity to keep a close watch on both circulars and the pictures themselves. Great prices are available for HDTVs across the three primary display technologies—rear projection, plasma and LCD. And the best news: Fine choices can be had at both ends of the performance mix.

The biggest bargains will come for entry hi-def models that feature 1280x720 progressive pixel resolution. Meanwhile, increasingly popular models with so-called “full HD”—1920x1080p resolution—are being viewed by retailers more and more as mainstream products and are receiving greater shelf share.

In fact, some industry watchers have called this holiday season the swan song for some manufacturers' 720p LCD TV sets, as demand and profit concerns influence 1080p line expansions.

The heaviest merchandising activity at both 720 and 1080 resolution levels will come in the sleeker flat-panel models, which can be had in either LCD or plasma. LCD sets generally provide a richer picture in rooms with lots of ambient light; by contrast, plasma sets produce pictures with higher color saturation in rooms that are darkened.


Rear projection sets—primarily Digital Light Processing (DLP) or Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) microdisplay-based models—are also popping up in ads as high-value, very large screen alternatives (50 inches-plus) to flat-panel TVs. But they're bulky, and consumers tend to prefer the thinner flat panels. Big-box stores have significantly reduced their rear projection TV assortments this year.

Size, as always, will play a big role in consumers' decision-making. Expect your local smaller regional and specialty retail electronics chains to devote more emphasis to LCD TVs measuring 37 inches and up, where LCD units will compete more directly with plasma sets than ever before.

Much of the available smaller-screen LCD TV supply (below 37 inches) is being channeled to the big discount store chains such as Wal-Mart and Target, and big-box consumer electronics retailers including Best Buy and Circuit City. But these stores are holding back the pricing specials for name brands like Philips, Magnavox, Samsung and Toshiba, using mostly private label and lesser-known Chinese and Taiwanese brands for promotions.

The “big picture” emphasis has hit plasma as well, with very few models now available smaller than 42 inches. The combination of bigger-screen LCD TVs and steadily declining prices has forced plasma makers to push 50-inch and larger sets this year just to keep up.

That's probably why retail television analysts say plasma models in the 42- and 50-inch screen sizes are seeing the wildest ride in both 720p and 1080p resolutions.


“Black Friday 2006 signified a passing of the torch from plasma to LCD at 42 inches,” says Sang Tang, HDTV research analyst with Current Analysis West, an NPD Group company. “This year, we expect plasma to turn the tables on LCD. Plasma will be very aggressive at 50 inches and will maintain a foothold in the high-end market, [while] LCD maintains its mass consumer appeal.”

Tamaryn Pratt, Quixel Research principal, says to look for “significant price compression in 50-inch plasma [720p]. For the top-tier brands, we'll see that prices will fall to $1,299 to $1,399, minimally for Black Friday, and regularly over the holidays at $1,599 to $1,699 depending on the feature set. Wider availability of larger-sized 40-inch-plus LCD TV is creating the majority of this price pressure,” she says.

Pratt adds that in 42-inch 720p plasma TVs, a few manufacturers have pulled out $799 and lower specials, with top-tier prices for the category running around $999 to $1,099 over the balance of the holiday season.

Huge volumes will be sold in the 40- to 42-inch LCD TV segment, Pratt points out, adding that 1080p is an important factor in those decisions. “We can expect opening price brands at $999 to $1,099 at 40- to 42-inch 720p [LCD], all the way to $1,399 to $1,499 for opening 1080p at the same screen size,” she says.

Riddhi Patel, iSuppli TV systems principal analyst, is looking for good prices in step-up first- and second-tier flat-panel brands as well. In 720p, a 42-inch LCD TV might be had for $999, with 37-inch LCD TVs priced at $699 and 50-inch plasmas at $1,199. The one thing these models will have in common with the others mentioned: You can expect them to be big holiday movers.

Greg Tarr is Executive Editor at TWICE (This Week in Consumer Electronics), B&C 's sister publication.