Don't bury the tube TV quite yet

As consumers continue to scoop up CRTs, it appears the reports of the demise of the old-style sets have been greatly exaggerated. Photos: Defenders of the CRT
Written by Erica Ogg, Contributor
Though manufacturers and retailers have sounded a death knell for TVs built around cathode ray tubes, those trusty old boxes are still holding on for dear life.

At the end of 2006, CRTs accounted for 46 percent of all televisions shipped to North American retailers, according to iSuppli, but you wouldn't know that based on the flood of advertisements and news stories proclaiming the demise of the old tube TV in favor of flashier flat-panel televisions like liquid crystal displays and plasma screens. Despite a decline, CRTs still make up a big chunk of the market, mostly because of their attractive prices, which in many categories are much lower than those of flat panels.

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And CRTs are finding success in some unexpected situations. For example, major sporting events are supposed to be the killer app for big-screen, high-definition TVs, but CRTs sold surprisingly well before this year's Super Bowl, according to figures released Tuesday by The NPD Group.

Nonetheless, though tube TVs make up just under half of the TV volume right now, that number is dropping fast. Just four years ago, they comprised 88 percent of the market. In 2004, that number dropped to 75 percent, and in the following year to 64 percent.

The Consumer Electronics Association is predicting that by 2009, CRTs will no longer be sold in the U.S. But until then, there are plenty of CRT models to choose from, and it seems the average television buyer is still game for a tube TV at a good bargain.

Even Samsung, the world's largest LCD TV manufacturer, says it still produces one CRT for every eight TVs shipped. And the Korean electronics giant is still putting money into improving the technology in its tube TVs, like reducing the depth of the TV and improving the circuitry, said Ali Atash, Samsung's senior product manager.

At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, Samsung rolled out five new CRT models that, if glimpsed just briefly, appeared to be flat-panel displays. That's because of the very thin form factor, flat glass and side-mounted speakers.

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Video: Are consumers still buying tube TVs?
CNET News.com talks with customers looking for new sets to see if CRTs are as unpopular as retailers say they are.

And it's not a market Samsung plans to abandon anytime soon. "From our perspective, it's very strategic," Atash said. "We've been very confident in the prospects for 2007."

The main reason for the enduring appeal of CRTs: their prices in many popular sizes remain competitive with LCD prices, said Riddhi Patel, an analyst with iSuppli.

In 2006, the average selling price for 30- to 39-inch CRT TVs was $602, while LCDs in that same range averaged around $1,235. "It's still double," Patel noted. "In 2007, we're predicting in that 30- to 39-inch range (average price of CRTs) would be $411, and LCDs would be $780. The price difference is coming down."

Of course, flat-panel LCD televisions have made huge market inroads, especially in North America, where they accounted for $14 billion in spending on TVs last year, or just under half the total of $30 billion.

'Taking it down a notch'
Sometimes retail customers are surprised at how expensive LCDs and plasma displays continue to be. "Many of our customers do come in looking for flat-panel TVs, but when they look at the pricing, (a CRT) is very, very much more affordable," said Antony Varghese, a Magnolia Home Theater salesman at Best Buy in San Francisco.

Comparison shopping
Average selling price for 30- to 39-inch TVs
2006 2007
LCD TVs $1,235 $780
CRT TVs $602 $411
Source: iSuppli

As if to prove that point, San Francisco resident Shay Jackson came into the store moments later, clutching one of the store's circular ads. She was looking for a specific TV she had spotted, and said she was disappointed to discover that the $400 set she had her eye on was a tube.

"It doesn't look too fancy. I thought it would be a flat screen," she said. But since she wasn't willing to spend more than $400, and since it was just for her bedroom, Jackson said she'd be fine "taking it down a notch" and buying a CRT.

Varghese said 32 inches is the most popular size of the CRTs sold at his store, particularly for secondary sets. "Some of our customers come in and buy smaller TVs that have DVDs built in, VCRs built in--they just want to put them in their garage."

Last year, LG introduced one new CRT model for the North American market. Also last year, Sony introduced a line of CRTs that it will sell "for the foreseeable future," but it isn't planning on any updates to the technology, said a company spokesperson.

Though Sony isn't rolling out new models stateside, Sony India is pushing a technology called Sparkling Wega, which it claims will better hold contrast and brightness.

There's a reason for that. At 71 percent of the total market, CRTs are still ruling the global TV market, specifically China, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, where they have a stronger hold, said iSuppli's Patel.

"In markets like North America and Europe--because of increased spending power and consumers ready to move to the next set, new technology--(consumers) are willing to spend a couple hundred dollars more. But if you look at emerging countries, even $50 more becomes a lot of money. In those markets flexibility of spending is not as high as it would be in some of the mature markets," she said.

But why, here in the U.S., did CRTs sell so well leading up to the day of the Super Bowl? Because LCDs are getting less expensive, but still can't beat the price of a 30- or 32-inch CRT, said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for NPD.

Standard CRT TVs experienced the most growth of all types of TVs the week prior to the Super Bowl this year, according to the data released this week by NPD. Unit sales of CRTs grew more than 60 percent, while revenues increased 46 percent. Super Bowl week can be an opportunity for retailers to lower prices to push inventory leftover from the holiday sales season.

"Clearly there's a segment of the market that, if you look at the average selling price, LCD has not yet been able to capture a large enough screen size, so direct view is going to be a factor for the next several years," he said. CRTs will also continue to be attractive for the significant number of consumers who have not yet made the jump to HD, Rubin said.

Special effects and CRTs
Meanwhile, the technicians behind some of today's most cutting-edge film effects are loath to switch from CRTs to flat-panel monitors because of the color and contrast that they haven't been able to accurately reproduce on flat panels.

John Knoll, visual effects supervisor at Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic, and an Oscar nominee for his work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, said calibration is the biggest issue.

"We need to have consistent color across all the monitors in the company," he told CNET in a video interview. "We've been using these Sony Artisan CRTs for a bunch of years because they can be calibrated and they have a really good black richness and a nice dynamic range, but they're not manufactured anymore. Almost nobody's making CRTs anymore, and we're definitely having supply problems."

Knoll said it was "inevitable" that ILM would have to make the move to flat panels, of which he's still not convinced yet. "We're getting the first batch in to see how they really work in production...It's not exactly the calibration as much as the dynamic range of the monitor, how good the blacks are, and all of that."

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