Five years ago, just about any flat-panel television could induce oohs and aahs, and high-definition was a rarity. Research firm Screen Digest predicts that by 2010 just under half of the UK's TV-watching households will have an HD-ready set, but they're common enough now and the gee-whiz factor has gone. So where do HDTVs go from here?

Improvements in picture sharpness and advances in screen size are likely to be gradual. "It's kind of like computers: if you wait around, there will always be something better around the corner," says DisplaySearch HDTV analyst Paul Gagnon.

But the next step for HDTV isn't about technology per se. It's about the experience of watching, which brings previously peripheral considerations, such as design, ease of use and integrated audio to the fore. As a result, you'll not only like what you see on your set, but you'll also have a better time experiencing that content in your home.

A nod to style

In this post-iPhone world, where industrial design is king, TV manufacturers are paying particular attention to the look and feel of their products and to integrating software with hardware.

"Everyone is looking for a unique characteristic," notes Gagnon. "You see it in laptops and mobile phones and now everybody wants a unique statement of design in a TV."

Just as mobile phones, digital cameras and laptops now come in coloured packages, TVs too are moving beyond basic black.

Manufacturers are also taking a cue from the sleek details found on smaller products. LG Electronics, for example, recently introduced TV sets with colour and style tweaks. The 32in LG40 features such accents as a curved pedestal and a red front-drop bezel; the back of the LG60 is red, too, and you can see a flash of colour peeking through the side and front.

An even bigger emphasis this year is on thinness. Hitachi, JVC and LG have all revealed thin sets, ranging from 1.5 to 1.7in thick. Crafting such a slim TV is a technological challenge.

LG, for instance, achieved its products' 1.7in depth by reengineering the circuitry around the LCD module and the TV's cabinet to remove unused space. In the future, you'll see even more slim sets on the market: Sharp's newest manufacturing facility begins mass production next year, and it will be capable of producing ultrathin 60in panels.

Despite the slimmer profiles, television manufacturers are stuffing new features into this year's cabinets, improved speakers being chief among them. A slew of companies, including Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, and Westinghouse, have added speakers that fire down instead of forward, which audio experts claim achieves more full-bodied sound.

And in its latest models, LG has hidden speakers by positioning them behind the cabinet, so that the front bezel looks smooth. JVC has even introduced multiple models that have an integrated "made for iPod dock", which lets you play both audio and video from an Apple iPod on your television.

NEXT PAGE: Make your TV part of your home Wi-Fi network, benefit from improved resolution in LCD and plasma screens and the future of the Organic Light-Emitting Diode TV > >

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According to research firm Screen Digest, by 2010 just under half of the UK's TV-watching households will have an HD-ready set. But most have already been impressed with HDTV’s capabilities, so what are TV manufacturers working on next to ensure we remain enthralled?

Connect to the internet

Also taking flight this year: televisions that connect to your home network so you can tap into its content.

Last year HP and Sony were at the fore of this trend, and Pioneer offered some sets that comply with the Digital Living Network Alliance certification (DLNA) (an assurance that they'll be able to interact with other DLNA devices such as PCs, gaming systems, and storage devices that are on your home network).

HP is installing in all of its 2008 models a Windows Media Center Extender, which lets you access multimedia on your PC via a home network. Later this year Sony will add a Digital Media Extender (DMeX) option to its sets, allowing them to interact with DLNA-compliant networks.

Internet connectivity comes in for a boost, as well. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Sharp introduced models with its Aquos Net service (for receiving customised web-based content); Panasonic unveiled its VieraCast service (for watching YouTube videos and accessing photos via Google's Picasa photo-sharing site).

As with all new bells and whistles, some of these developments are likely to be here today and gone tomorrow. The challenge for manufacturers is to find the right balance between next-gen features and price in a competitive market.

"For now, they're just testing the waters," observes DisplaySearch's Gagnon.

"I think a lot of manufacturers are hesitant to build in features that they're not sure will take off." The downside of such a misstep is obvious: increasing the prices of televisions to add a new feature that no one uses is a waste of money for both manufacturers and consumers.

LCD and plasma: future tech now

Resolution remains a big area of competition among high-def-TV manufacturers. In previous years the standard resolution was 720p. This year the scale tips in favour of 1080p, the maximum resolution for HDTV. Among LCDs, which hold a slight edge in brightness over plasma, most 720p sets sold this year will be smaller-screen models (37in and under) selling at bargain prices.

Among plasma TVs, known for their high-contrast images on massive screens, you'll have more 1080p choices than ever. By next year, this shift in resolution for plasma should be mostly complete; Pioneer, for one, says it will have eliminated 720p sets from its lineup by 2009. For the foreseeable future, however, LCD models will continue to offer 720p at smaller, entry-level screen sizes (20 to 32in), which don't benefit as much from 1080p.

Other technological improvements are headed your way. LCD televisions' 120Hz technology, which helps LCD panels better handle rapid motion, such as in action scenes and in sports will move down to midrange models this year.

NEXT PAGE: How pricing and 120Hz technology will affect HDTVs in the future.

For the latest games and home-entertainment news and reviews visit Digital World.

Five years ago, just about any flat-panel television offered the wow factor but now they’re common enough. We take a look at how manufacturers are injecting new life into HDTVs to ensure our enthusiasm doesn't wane

Pricing

Last year a TV with HD technology cost £250-£300 more than one without it, but this year that feature should add only £100-£150 to the price, explains Tim Alessi, LG product development director. By next year, Alessi believes, the additional cost will be minor or non-existent.

Now that 120Hz technology is becoming more mainstream, LCD TV makers can focus on other potential breakthroughs, such as adding LED backlights to less-expensive models. Also introduced last year by Samsung, LED backlights can offer a wider range of colours and higher contrast. Sound pioneer Dolby is among the companies exploring this technology.

Currently, LED-backlit displays remain a rarity, limited to one or two premium models per year. DisplaySearch's Gagnon doesn't expect to see them any more often in the next year or two, but he does believe that, over time, their pricing and availability will improve.

Recently, plasma-television manufacturers have provided some glimpses into the future, as well. CES saw Pioneer showcase two intriguing concept technologies: "absolute black" and "very thin" plasma displays.

"Absolute black" refers to the colour of the set's screen before any image appears on it; all television panels emit some light, making the base screen more of a dark gray.

"If we can't start with a completely black canvas, all of the colours will seem washed out or will look faded," explains Paul Meyhoefer, vice president of Pioneer's marketing and product planning for plasma displays. With the new technology, "you can go into a pitch-black room, and you will only see the image, not the TV or any other light emitting from the TV. Because we can now create the black, we can create a lot more color, and a lot more depth and dimension in colour".

Pioneer also showed a prototype plasma technology that produces a display measuring 9mm thick (sans TV tuner). "It's basically the thickness of the glass," notes Meyhoefer.

"Our ultimate goal is to take both technologies and integrate them into an ultrathin design concept."

Panasonic, meanwhile, is working on improving luminescence efficiency, which should produce brighter plasma panels that consume less power and can better compete with the brightness of LCDs. At CES the company exhibited a prototype of a slim plasma TV with a depth of just 24.7mm, just shy of an inch.

NEXT PAGE: Organic Light-Emitting Diode displays place in the future of HDTVs.

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What technologies will manufacturers be employing for HDTVs in the future to ensure they still offer a 'wow' factor? We speak to some of the companies to find out.

OLED: still too pricey

After what seemed like years of hype, Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) display technology has finally become a large-screen reality.

At CES, Sony introduced the first OLED TV aimed at consumers. The 11in XEL-1 offers brilliant colours and high-contrast images in a superthin panel (only 3mm thick), but at $2,500 (£1,250) it's less of a mainstream consumer breakthrough than a proof of concept. Sony says it intends to release larger displays next year.

Other manufacturers are keeping an eye on OLED, but only Samsung is speaking publicly about its future plans. The company showed two prototype OLED displays at CES, one 14in and the other 31in; however, like other manufacturers, Samsung doesn't expect to bring OLED displays to market until at least 2009, as the models become cheaper to produce.

For many vendors, OLED remains on the periphery. "It's still kind of a novelty," says LG's Alessi. DisplaySearch's Gagnon predicts that the technology probably won't reach its prime for another three or four years.

When to buy

If you're in the market for a high-definition TV now, none of the developments slated to come this year and later is a reason to hold off. Better design, sound, and resolution will all be welcome improvements, but when they finally arrive they are unlikely to make you regret purchasing a set today. And don't let the distant glimmer of lower prices hold you back, either: According to both IDC and DisplaySearch, HDTV prices won't fall as quickly this year as they have in the past.

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