High-tech, high-definition and high-priced must-haves

For holiday buyers, big-picture televisions - flat-screen and rear-projection - top this year's wish lists.

December 02, 2004|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

Kristin Chottiner peered doubtfully at the alabaster stripes of a zebra, displayed on two massive television monitors at the Towson Best Buy one night this week.

"Umm ... what's the difference?"

"That's gray-white," her husband replied, pointing to one screen.

"And that" - his voice rose in triumph, as he gestured at the second image - "is white-white."

With high-definition televisions topping holiday wish lists, Christmas itself may be held to new standards of whiteness this year, the weather not withstanding. In fact, those spending thousands of dollars on sets better not see the slightest hint of snow on their plasma screens.

The sleek new televisions - be they flat-panel display or rear-projection - are this year's must-have high-tech Christmas gifts, according to CompTIA, a global trade association that represents the information industry.

Just ask Brett Chottiner of Timonium, husband of the skeptical Kristen, who has pleaded like a child for a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), which is like a giant laptop computer screen, or Digital Light Processing (DLP) model, a projection TV that uses millions of micromirrors. It looks like Santa will ante up.

But this multigrand gift will have to count for Christmas and other holidays to come.

"It's Valentine's Day, birthdays, Father's Day from our cat," she said.

All of a sudden, it looks like analog televisions, the kind that served Americans loyally for half a century, might be exiled to the island of Misfit Toys.

This holiday season wraps up a banner year for televisions that use various mysterious technologies - including rare gases and light-streaming engines - to produce denser, brighter and supposedly better pictures while taking up less space than older models.

Sales of plasma sets, which use tiny fluorescent lights to produce an image, doubled this year, to a projected 734,000, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. And that's not counting LCD and DLP models - the ones that entranced Brett Chottiner - which are increasingly popular and typically less expensive.

The clamoring has increased with the arrival of Christmas.

"I'm tripling what I was doing last year at this time," said Bob Porterfield, manager of Belmont TV in Laurel.

"You can't sit down in here," said Greg Dahle, a manager of the Big Screen Store in Towson.

Why Americans have decided that Rudolph's nose needs to glow a little brighter this season and that George Bailey's black and white complexion should be composed of fluorescent particles stems from several economic and psychological factors, industry experts say.

Falling prices are a clear contributor to the craze. In 1999, the average price of a plasma TV was about $11,000; today, it's less than half that, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. High-end sets other than the plasma models can be had for less than $2,000 - and that, according to Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group in South Carolina, is "the magic price point" for this type of technology, the price that says, "Come on, splurge."

The fad is bolstered by a lack of competition from Tickle Me Elmo-type phenomena. The Christmas marketplace this year is "boring," said Erik Gordon, a marketing professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"This is a very unexciting holiday season," he said. "There aren't a lot of must-haves. The department stores look the same as last year."

Indeed, nothing she saw in the stores, besides a Yamaha portable flat-panel television, tempted 11-year-old Katie Spradling of Towson - with the possible exception of a pet piranha.

Unlike a carnivorous fish, though, she could take the TV set on long car rides, she said.

"It would be cool," she added.

A couple of decades ago, no television set would have been cool enough to be a big-ticket present, Gordon said, reflecting on an age when clothing and traditional toys crowded the trunk of the Christmas tree.

"The television was more an appliance than a gift," he said. "It would have been like buying someone a washing machine."

In the early 1980s, the advent of the VCR changed that perception. Soon, tech gifts such as the Sony Walkman became the rage. And these presents propel one another's sales - for instance, to maximize the capabilities of the DVD players everyone's been getting for the past five years, you need one of these new-fangled TVs.

Kent Norman, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies human-machine relationships, called such gadgetry the new gold, the most conspicuous measure of a modern person's wealth.

He warned that not all gizmos make good gifts these days.

"You can't impress anybody with a new computer," he said. "Computers are so mundane. It's like you bought a new stapler."

But John Xanders of Baltimore doesn't have to celebrate with the biggest or the best. All he wants for Christmas is a 44-inch LCD television.

"Not too big, not too ostentatious," he said, eyeing one at Best Buy recently. "Santa could get that down the chimney."

The trouble is his wife.

"I want a TV; she wants a puppy," he said, looking at her. She grinned - grinchishly.

Thanks to spouses and other obstacles, not everyone will enjoy digitized Christmas bliss this year. According to a Consumer Electronics Association survey, fewer than half of consumers who want a plasma television for Christmas said they were likely to get one. (Digital cameras are the most common holiday buy.)

And big TV purchases are not always manifestations of the Christmas spirit. People shopping this week seemed inclined to treat themselves to the technology, rather than somebody else.

Chris Pehlke isn't ashamed to admit it: The $2,000 Zenith LCD he ogled this week at Best Buy would be for him, and him alone. He is recently divorced and was fantasizing about placing the television, festooned with ribbons, beneath his tiny, potted Christmas tree.

"I never bought a TV for myself," he said. "It was always for somebody else."

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