Friday, October 27, 2006

My Hi-Definition Safari

The Jungle
A few months ago I decided it was time to get a high definition TV. I fired up my notebook and started what seemed like a simple search to find a good high definition TV that would suit my needs. What happened in reality was that I was hit by a ton of products and specifications and technologies that I had never heard of - and so I attempted to find out more about the beast before bringing one home. This was a big challenge because researching high definition equipment in Pune is difficult due to lack of knowledgeable folks. That started off my safari in the high definition jungle - the beasts here are cunning and adapt very quickly - by the time you approach them they have changed colors and spots and voltage ratings - and they are quick you devour you if you make a mistake. I oiled my trusty Google rifle and set off to hunt - determined to bring a beast home. Here's how it all played out...

The Beasts
Very quickly it became clear that there were a bunch of key offerings from a technology perspective that could provide me the high definition viewing experience I was looking for:

  • Plasma TVs
  • LCD TVs
  • Rear Projection TVs
  • Projectors

As I ran through the list and started researching it, the pro's and con's of each technology became apparent very quickly allowing me to whittle down my list to the final two technologies -LCD and Plasma - that I would go on to consider. I won't try to go too much in depth here as there are tons of information about the pro's and con's of each technology out there - that it would be pointless to start replicating all that here. So instead I will summarize the information in a separate blog to do it full justice.

The Lure

The key decision factors in the model selection were:

  • Branded product
  • Good product reviews
  • Excellent picture quality for high definition content (DVD, XBox, HD-DVD, Blu Ray, Divx)
  • Acceptable picture quality for standard definition content (cable TV)
  • Good screen life
  • Good dealer/service network
  • Good resale value
  • Easily available finance options
  • Future proof to the extent possible
  • Should have a ton of connectors (composite, component, S-Video, HMDI, VGA/DVI, RF)
  • Width of the panel with speakers should not exceed 46" (limitation of my display rack)
  • Should have Picture-In-Picture facility
  • Should work well in a bright room
  • Must act as a PC monitor for Internet surfing on the big screen
  • Minimal burn-in/static image problems

I thought it would be as easy once I knew what I was looking for, however as I found out, the hunt wasn't going to be an easy matter.

The Hunt

After evaluating the technologies, for reasons mentioned above, it became clear to me that if it was high definition nirvana I was seeking, then LCD/Plasma was the only way to go with either LCD or Plasma at the 42" screen size and LCDs for the 42" and smaller screens and Plasma for the 42" and larger screens. With that clearly established, I started the hunt by going to the local stores in Pune on MG Road and Dhole Patil Road to check out some of the Plasma/LCD panels on display. Fortunately most of the main brands available in the US are available in India - the only difference being that the number of models available in India are only a handful of the complete portfolio of products available with these vendors globally. Given the market in India and the purchasing power, I guess it makes sense for them to focus on the models that are perceived to sell well in India. This is what my experience was like:

LG: The LG showroom in Pune was a great example of people trying to sell products that they don't know anything about. The staff in the store that I went to had no clue what the difference was between an LCD and a Plasma display. They also had no idea what high definition meant and were generally clueless. The safest bet is to ignore everything they say and do your own research. That is what I ended up doing and found that the 42" display that I felt was close to my requirements was the 42PX4RV model. However hard I tried to like LG - I found it really difficult to digest the lack of knowledge of people selling their products - for which I partly blame LG because I believe it is their job to educate their sales force about their products.

Samsung: Samsung has an excellent and very focused India strategy. This is apparent in their high profile advertising in print and TV, billboards all over the city, roping in top tier movie stars to hawk their wares and a India website that stands heads and shoulders above all the other vendors in the market today (other than Sony). This multi-pronged approach to spread knowledge about their products and technology to a wide audience highlights Samsung's commitment to the India market. This should be an important factor in the decision making because this usually means: (a) an extensive service and dealer network (b) perceived brand value which makes it easier when you want to sell your old display panel and upgrade to a new one (c) easy availability of parts in case of repair (d) upto date information available on the Internet which means you are not at the mercy of local dealers to get upto date product information (e) good finance options to purchase their products. Samsung, unlike Sony, has both LCD and Plasma display panels - with LCD panels in the 15" - 46" panel size and Plasma in 42" - 63" range. The only area that I found confusing about Samsung was the sheer number of models that they carry - with very little comparison information about the differences between each model - making it the consumers job to do their homework and figure out what exactly they want. For instance Samsung has the Bordeaux, M6, M5, S5, R5 and T5 series in their LCD range and the P5, D5 and S5 in their plasma range for India. I asked the local dealer in Pune what the difference was between these models - and his answer was that the Bordeaux model was made in India while the rest were imported. I didn't really buy his theory - and will have to load the product manuals for each of the models from the Samsung website (which is something I really like about Samsung) and do the comparison myself. I will post it once I have the details in an easy to understand format - both for me and others looking to buy these products.

Sony: The name Sony evokes instant brand recognition in India and is also perceived as high quality brand making it one of the main contenders in my purchase decision. Sony doesn't advertise as aggressively as Samsung - and in my opinion is counting on their brand to speak for itself. However during the recent Diwali festival, Sony's advertisements for their Bravia range was splashed almost daily for a week in the local dailies. Sony also pioneered (pun unintended) the concept of Sony World - a single exclusive showroom for all Sony products available in India which was intended both as a branding exercise, product information and consumer awareness program which in my mind is a huge success - this concept today has become deriguer with all the other manufacturers. Sony used to make both LCD and Plasma panels earlier - but has now officially stopped making plasma displays and are focusing exclusively on their LCD range dubbed BRAVIA (Best Resolution Audio Video Integrated Architecture). With the current technology, LCD's work best in sizes 42" and under - once the panels start getting bigger in size the problems with LCD start becoming apparent. The Sony models that I had shortlisted were the KLV-S40A10, and KLV-V40A10. The model I was really keen on was the KLV-46V2500 model which is not available in India at the time of writing. The other thing to note about Sony is that their TV's are on average more expensive than any of the other vendors for the same panel size - this I assume is Sony cashing in on their global quality brand perception.

Hitachi: Hitachi has a very thin network in India - and they don't seem to be really targeting the Indian high end consumer goods market in a big way like Sony or Samsung. This is apparant from the handful of dealers listed on the advertisements, as well as very sparse information on their India website. Unlike Sony, Hitachi manufactures both LCD and Plasma TV's - with the LCD TV topping off at around 40" and the Plasma TV's taking it over from there. The 42" model that caught my eye was the 42PD8900TA - this is a plasma TV with a 1024x1080 pixel resolution supporting upto 1080i resolution (that's right - no 1080p). This screen has an unusual resolution in that it has 100% of the vertical resolution required for a high definition display - viz. 1080 lines - but is 20% short of the high definition horizontal resolution of 1280 pixels. This difference is not apparent when you play the content available in the market today - but could be a problem a few years down the road when you start getting high definition content - where this deficiency can start becoming a real pain - especially when you have plunked down some serious cash for this display. The retail cost of the 42PD8900TA in Pune was between Rs. 1,75,000 and Rs. 1,79,000. The big problem with buying Hitachi in India is that they are not registered with any of the credit card companies - so getting finance from a credit card company for a Hitachi TV is not an option. You can either take a personal loan (at a whopping 10-14% interest at the time of writing) or make a down payment to the vendor and use your credit card to split down the remaining amounts into smaller EMI's spread out over 6-12 months. This is a serious shortfall of Hitachi in India today. The other issue is the service network - I called their helpline and was relieved to hear that they had at least one service center in Pune - but that's still a concern given the number of service centers that other manufacturers have locally. These are some areas that Hitachi needs to start looking into seriously - because even though they have a fabulous product - getting it into the hands of the consumer and increasing their comfort level with the brand and service will be an uphill battle for them going forward given their current strategy. Detailed reviews and specifications of the 42PD8900TA can be found here.

Pioneer: Pioneer has no India strategy to speak of. The company does not advertise their plasma panels in India, they have no brand recall or recognition to speak of, they have a very sparse dealer/service network - in other words everything designed to keep one from buying their products. I was able to finally track down a small boutique store in Pune that had Pioneer products but even they only had a handful of models and no finance options available. So I didn't pursue Pioneer further even though they have some very critically acclaimed models - the other negative factors far outweighed any advantages that the company had to offer - which is a shame but unfortunately that's how the dice rolls.

Philips: Philips is also a well known brand in India, in my opinion falling somewhere after Sony and Samsung but ahead of LG in terms of brand reputation. Philips sells LCD panels made famous by their AmbiLight feature. The largest model they sell in India at the time of writing was the 42" LCD TV - 42PF7421/98.

Panasonic: Panasonic has been selling products in India for a while, but is not as high profile as either Sony or Samsung. Panasonic is slightly better than Hitachi in my opinion, because they seem to have established a decent dealer network in India - nowhere near the network size of Sony/Samsung/LG - but definitely better than Hitachi or Pioneer. Also the good news with Panasonic is that they offer finance options on their products unlike Hitachi - which means product acquisition is a little easier for end consumers. However there are still a lot of key differences between Sony/Samsung/LG trio vs. Panasonic - the latter has only recently started advertisement campaigns for their plasma range of TV's and don't have such a mass appeal and brand recognition in India (save Mallu's who got back Panasonic stereo systems from Dubai). So it will be an uphill struggle for them to establish their brand name in this high end consumer electronics segment - they will need to have a clear and coherent brand strategy in India to succeed. If they adopt the stand-offish attitude of either Hitachi or Pioneer - they are doomed. The reason why I chose to highlight Panasonic is because they have some excellent reviews for their plasma displays and seemed reasonably priced too (compared to Sony).

One thing I consistently noticed was that the typical large multi-brand showroom have salesman that don't really know much about the product they are selling nor do they understand the typical customer profile for the high end products. This is one area where all the dealers fall short - they just don't understand the profile of the customer who would be interested in such products and how to pitch and sell these products to the consumer. A lot of consumer education is sorely needed in this area - and I think the onus is on the manufacturers to take the lead in this and educate their dealers. This is where the boutique stores shine - they have a very clear understanding of the customer, know exactly how to talk to and treat the customer and have no pressure selling tactics that make it such a pleasure to work with. They are also on average, more knowledgeable about the products they sell and are passionate about it - which gives them a huge edge over the average retailer/dealer who is solely focused on his bottom line.

The Kill

The stalking has started in earnest and the quarry seems near - the grass sways gently in the breeze and I can see the stripes and the swish of the tail - yet as I approach the grasses part and the clearing is empty - I can scent the beast but can't get it in my sights yet - it continues to elude me. I will spend the next few weeks staking out the display panels that make it to my top 3 and provide detailed reviews and specs for each one. Hopefully by then I should be ready to make my purchase. I will keep you posted - hope you enjoyed reading his article.

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