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The only thing we can say with any certainty about televisions in the future is that they will have wider, and possibly flatter screens, probably... That’s the problem with television at the moment, the technology is moving in so many different directions there’s no way of knowing where it’s all going to end. Widescreen TV is the only safe bet, and it came one step closer on September 22nd this year when Channel 4 began a series of pilot transmissions of the PALplus system, broadcasting 16:9 widescreen format pictures. 16:9 refers to the aspect ratio or shape of the screen. A widescreen display is 16 units wide by 9 units deep, ordinary TVs have an aspect ratio of  4:3, which give them their characteristically squarer shape.


PALplus is proper widescreen TV. The current generation of 16:9 sets have the facility to blow up 4:3 aspect ratio pictures to full screen width, and they can do the same with letter-boxed movies on tape, TV disc or from satellite, but in all cases there’s a significant reduction in picture definition, or you loose a slice at the top and/or bottom of the picture. With PALplus the quality of widescreen pictures is at least as good, some say even better than normal PAL.


The C4 initiative is being co-funded by set-makers Nokia and the European Union, it will involve around 500 hours of programming up to the end of next year; Granada TV are joining in the fun too, with some regional test transmissions, and the BBC have been quietly doing their own evaluation studies. PALplus and widescreen TV trials are also underway or planned in several other countries, notably Germany, Switzerland and France, so it’s all set then? Well, not quite.  PALplus works very well indeed, and the undoubted attraction is that it is compatible with existing PAL TVs and transmitters, but there are a couple of problems.


When a PALplus broadcast is viewed on a normal 4:3 aspect ratio TV there are narrow black bands at the top and bottom of the picture, and there’s still a question mark over whether or not the BBC and other ITV companies will adopt the system. No one is really sure what the public reaction will be to the black bands, most people don’t seem to mind them on the odd movie or TV film, but how will they react when they’re there all the time, on Coronation Street and Eastenders? The transition to PALplus would be a lot faster and much less painful if there were a clear timetable, but without the wholehearted backing of the BBC and ITV there will be doubt over its future and long-term prospects, what incentive is there for a techno-weary consumer to splash out on a PALplus TV?


The confusion doesn’t end there, JVC, and more recently Philips have developed ‘Panorama’ display systems which can electronically stretch a 4:3 picture to fill a 16:9 display, which further muddies the already cloudy waters. And what about digital TV?...


Everyone seems fairly certain that TV will eventually become a digitally-based technology, but what will that mean, when will it happen, and what system will be used? Will it be widescreen, high definition? Will you be able to dial up a movie and have it sent to your home down the telephone line?  A lot of questions but as yet very few answers. The only consolation we can offer is that you don’t have to worry about digital TV and video just yet. The major changes we’re anticipating in broadcasting technology will take between five and ten years to filter through to the mass-market, moreover most industry experts agree that the PAL system will continue for another twenty years or more, so PALplus seems reasonably safe, if it takes off.... A TV brought today has a life expectancy of between five and eight years, so you can safely buy that new set you’ve been promising yourself, and not worry too much about premature obsolescence. However, don’t just buy any old telly, here’s a few of the more interesting new model on offer this year and once again it’s TV sound, not the picture, that is centre stage, with NICAM stereo and Dolby Surround taking the limelight.


One last word (almost...) about PALplus before we move on; if you’ve got £1300 burning a hole in your pocket and an unquenchable thirst to be the first kid on your block with proper widescreen TV then the set you want is the Nokia SFN 7296PP which goes on sale in October. It has a 28-inch screen and in addition to fastext (with a 512-page  memory), digital effects and the best on-screen system we’ve ever seen, it has a Dolby Pro Logic surround system.


Philips and Thomson (Ferguson) who both sell widescreen sets  right now are well placed to jump on the PALplus bandwagon, if and when it starts rolling in the UK. As far as the Japanese are concerned JVC have indicated they could be in the market very quickly, though it probably wouldn’t take the others very long, most of them have developed widescreen technologies of their own, including the JVC developed Panorama system we touch on briefly earlier on, for home consumption.


Those ‘early adopters’ who were quick off the mark and brought widescreen TVs will be relieved to know that Nokia plan to introduce a plug-in PALplus decoder that should work with any 16:9 TV, other manufacturers are likely to follow suit.


With so much confusion and debate it’s no wonder there’s been fewer widescreen sets launched this year. Sony are one of the exceptions, and they’ve just brought out the first 16:9 set with a Trinitron tube -- a 28-incher -- but hold on to your hats, the KVW-2812 costs just under £1800, though you do get a 100Hz flicker-free display,  NICAM and Spectrum sound. The other new arrival is at the other end of the market; the 27-inch Bush WS500 costs just £800, it’s not as exotically specified as the Sony set but it does have NICAM sound and the obligatory fastext decoder.   


It’s easy to forget that the majority of UK households are still watching 4:3 sets with mono sound; NICAM remains the most important technological upgrade for most viewers. Thankfully it’s no longer considered a luxury feature. It still adds a few bob to the price, but it’s money well spent, as most people who hear it for the first time will agree. Every manufacturer now has a range of NICAM TVs to suit most pockets and living rooms, and to be brutally honest there’s not a lot to choose between the bulk of middle-market sets, but a few models still manage to stick out. One manufacturer who has managed to do just that is Toshiba, with their Quadryl range, which sound superb. Sound from these TVs has a distinct quality, an added sense of depth if you will. This is created  by a second set of speakers, built into the top of the cabinet which create a fairly natural-sounding spatial effect. There’s two models so far, the 51cm 2145DB they costs just under £499.99, and the 59cm 2545DB, that has an RRP of £600.


Elsewhere in the NICAM market the emphasis is on pricing and the Korean manufacturers are being particularly aggressive, so much so that there’s now talk of an EU tax -- possibly as much as £20 per set  -- on TVs made in countries such as Korea, Turkey and India, to discourage ‘dumping’. Goldstar’s seven strong line up for 94/95 includes two NICAM sets which look particularly attractive. They’ve gone for a more rounded ‘softer’ look this year and could easily pass for one of the latest European or Japanese designs. The prices are definitely going to make anyone think twice about buying a mono set. The 21-inch CI-21C22F costs just £380 whilst the CF-25C20F, which has a 25-inch screen and multi-system display, will sell for only £480. The other major Korean manufacturer Samsung have launched a range of high-performance sets, called the 37 series, but more interestingly they’re talking seriously about a Dolby Pro Logic set for next year, and they have 28 and 32-inch 16:9 widescreen models ready for production, that could be fitted with PALplus decoders, if there’s sufficient demand.


Grundig are another company poised to launch Dolby Pro Logic and PALplus next year but at the moment they’re concentrating on their large-screen models and are just about to launch a pair of  78 and 89cm ‘Superscreens’. Prices? Well, if you have to ask you probably can’t afford it, say goodbye to around £3000 for the baseline model...


The next step up the home cinema ladder has to be Dolby Surround. These TVs comes with Dolby Pro-Logic decoders and an extra pair of speakers, to put behind the sofa, so your living room will sound like the best seat at the local Odeon. However, before we get too excited remember these are still very early days, the technology is still quite expensive, and there’s not a lot of choice, but it’s getting better quickly now. Until fairly recently Toshiba had the Dolby Surround TV market all to themselves, then along came Hitachi with their excellent Cinemasound range. They now been joined by Ferguson, JVC, and as we’ve already mentioned Sony and Nokia as well. Next year though the world and his wife will be flogging Dolby TVs, so it might be a good idea to wait a while as the competition is bound to be fierce, and prices should fall quite quickly.




Ó R. Maybury 1994 1809






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