At a Good Guys store in San Francisco, walls of sleek, flat-panel digital televisions line the shelves, confounding shoppers with a dizzying...

Share story

At a Good Guys store in San Francisco, walls of sleek, flat-panel digital televisions line the shelves, confounding shoppers with a dizzying array of technologies, sizes and prices.

“I’m really lost,” said one shopper, adding she had been looking at new TVs for three days. “It’s very hard to make a decision. The pictures look about the same.”

Befuddled buyers often end up purchasing the cheapest brand they know as they try not to drown in a sea of information on plasma, liquid crystal display and rear and front projection — all amid the sensory overload of the “in-store experience.”

Now adding to the bewildering range of choices are a slew of digital TVs made by computer companies. The recent entry of TVs from PC makers like Dell and Hewlett-Packard may cause more confusion, but consumers are expected to ultimately benefit from lower prices brought by increased competition.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

With the market for personal computers saturated and growing slowly, digital TVs, which use much of the same technology as flat-screen computer monitors, offer a new growth area for companies like HP.

“Consumers want to have their entertainment, which is now digital, in every possible form throughout the home,” said Jan-Luc Blakborn, manager of HP Digital Entertainment Integration.

Plasma, LCD

Both kinds of TVs
feature crisp, clear pictures, usually in a wide-screen format, that are a step above what you can get from a traditional television screen. Both are typically super thin and take advantage of new high-definition programming.

What is plasma?

A plasma screen is made up of thousands of little glass bubbles. Each bubble contains a gaslike substance called plasma and has a phosphor coating. When the gas energizes a phosphor, the phosphor emits colored light. The gas technology allows the plasma to be compact, creating a sleek, nearly flat display that can hang on a wall.

What is LCD?

LCD means liquid crystal display. Its screens consist of thousands of crystals sandwiched between thin panes of glass. A wafer-thin light source is behind the pane. When hit with an electrical current, the crystals twist to let only a certain color of light through. The twisting ability gives the crystals the “liquid” name; there is no actual liquid in the screen.

Until now, PC makers’ quest for the living room was in the form of so-called Media Center PCs. The devices, which run Microsoft Windows software, let consumers watch and record TV programs, play movies on demand, record music or browse the Web from a computer.

But these “hubs” have not taken off, in part because the software is too expensive and hard to use.

By selling TVs that can double as computer monitors, PC makers can market to a wider group of consumers who are just looking for a flat-screen TV.

Digital televisions also are another way for computer companies to get their brands into the living room.

HP made its first foray into televisions in August, launching two plasma TVs and two LCD TVs, starting at $2,499 for a 26-inch LCD TV.

Its digital TVs are similar to offerings by big consumer-electronics companies like Sony, Sharp, Philips and Matsushita. They are also Windows-compatible, so they can hook up to a PC and act as a big computer monitor.

But HP’s televisions are not yet available at big retailers like Best Buy or Circuit City. The Palo Alto, Calif., company is taking a slow approach, called “launch and learn.”

It is starting out in smaller, regional retailers, like Good Guys, Tweeter and PC Richards, as it seeks to make a name for itself in TVs.

The competition is fierce in the worldwide TV market, which reported sales of $65.3 billion in 2003.

Analysts say many consumers don’t yet realize HP and Dell are selling flat-screen TVs. They said it is still very much the early days and they don’t even know how many TV sets have been sold by PC makers.

Dell, famous for its low-cost direct-sales model, doesn’t plan to change its way of selling products just because it started selling TVs in the fall.

But the company realizes most consumers need to see a TV in person before they will buy one online or on the telephone. That’s how Dell sells its PCs, keeping costs down.

The world’s largest PC maker now has 72 kiosks in malls and shopping centers throughout the United States, where it shows a few of its many models of its LCD and plasma TVs, along with its laptops and PCs.

Dell hopes to make a splash with what it says are much lower prices.

“I could be one of 100 makers selling big-screen TVs through consumer-electronics stores,” said Mike George, vice president and general manager of consumer electronics at Dell. “They charge a 40 percent markup on those TVs.”

For example, Dell sells a 42-inch, high-definition plasma TV for $3,499, which it claims is comparable with a 42-inch plasma from Sony that sells for nearly $7,000.

“Many consumers might say ‘I won’t buy it sight unseen.’ But they will learn, just like PCs, they can look at the specs in the consumer-electronics store and then buy from us,” George said. “It’s a very disruptive price.”

Another PC maker, Gateway, pioneered the way into the TV market in 2000. But as part of a major restructuring, the Irvine, Calif., company closed all its Gateway stores last year, a prime retail venue for what analysts said was a successful venture into TVs.

The company continues to sell televisions online and is now returning to retail stores.

Kenny Cheung, a software engineer at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., isn’t quite ready to buy a flat-panel TV. But he said he wouldn’t mind buying one online from Dell, if he could see the quality first.

Cheung, who was looking at laptops and flat screens at a Dell kiosk, said he plans to do a lot of research before buying.

“It depends on the quality,” Cheung said. “I don’t want to go for the cheapest one on the market. … If the reviews and things were good, it doesn’t bother me to get a Dell versus a Sony.”

HP plans to roll out 17 more models this year, including rear-projection high-definition TVs and projectors. One way it hopes to distinguish itself is through its own technologies.

For instance, the company plans to introduce a technology that it calls “wobulation,” to provide a screen resolution two times higher than other TVs in the same price range.

“We think we can absolutely play in this space,” said HP’s Blakborn.