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CES: Toshiba blurs the line between TV and PC

January 7, 2009 | 12:05 pm

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LAS VEGAS -- Like seemingly every other TV maker, Toshiba has noticed the online video revolution. It plans to offer an Internet-savvy set-top box and build some (limited) Web and networking capabilities into selected TVs launched later this year, although marketing VP Scott Ramirez wouldn't say which ones at this morning's International Consumer Electronics Show news conference. But Toshiba also announced a prototype far geekier than other major TV brands have done, called the Cell TV. Basically, it takes the ultra-powerful microchip from the PlayStation3 and puts it into a combination high-def TV, Internet TV and PVR. It made my mouth water.

Unfortunately, Toshiba plans to sell the thing, as Ramirez put it, "in the $5,000 to $10,000 range." Oh well.

The CES is partly about sales, partly about aspiration. Not consumers' aspirations, that is -- manufacturers. They display not just the products they're certain to manufacture, but the ones they would love to make if only the demand emerged. Typically, such wishful sorts of things are aimed at the very high end. Such is the case with the Cell TV, which Ramirez said will come in two parts: a large LCD monitor (at least 55" diagonally) and a set-top box with the aforementioned cell processor. The monitor will have four times as much resolution as today's top-of-the-line TVs, and the set-top will be able to find, record and play up to six video streams simultaneously. Cell TV owners will be able to watch four high-def shows on a single giant screen in the living room, while other members of their family can watch two additional high-def programs in different rooms.

One other thing about products like the Cell TV: The groundbreaking technologies they trumpet often trickle down into mass-market offerings. It seems inevitable that the public's demand for online video and processor-intensive HD formats will drive TV makers to put more powerful chips and more flexible software into their sets. (Ramirez's prediction that 1080P -- 1,980 by 1,080 pixels -- would eventually give way to 4K -- 3,820 by 2,160 -- seems like a good bet too.) The cell seems like overkill today, but it may be mainstream two years from now. Meanwhile, chip makers continue to expand the capabilities of the software built into their microprocessors; witness the recent move by Intel to support Adobe Flash, an extremely popular format for online video. And as TVs become smarter, blurring the distinction between their capabilities and a PC's, they'll be better able to serve as portals into the content and innovation of the Web.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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