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Consumers may choose to wait for Internet TVs

The television will not be revolutionized — at least not as quickly as it was by high-def six years ago. But both 3-D and Internet connectivity are coming down in price and up in quality. Is now the time to splurge?

Manufacturers hoped you would trade a mortgage payment to coax James Cameron’s “Avatar” characters several inches out of your TV set. But in 2010, only 2 percent of flat-panel sets sold were 3-D, according to market research firm DisplaySearch.

“I don’t see it as a fad, but I do see it as a more marginal innovation than HDTV,” says Jim Willcox, Consumer Reports’ senior editor for electronics.

Unlike HDTV, not everything lends itself to this new technology.

“You won’t want to watch the news and talk shows in 3-D,” Willcox says, although both Discovery and ESPN are already broadcasting with 24/7 channels in the extra dimension.

Also, as in high school, nobody wants to wear glasses. (In a Nielsen study last year, 57 percent of those who tried and didn’t like 3-D TV cited the eyewear.) And the best current 3-D technology, active, requires glasses with batteries that make them heavy. (This is so they can open and close their lenses in sync with a screen that alternates, rapid-fire, between slightly different perspectives for each eye.)

These glasses also are $150 a pop, so be careful where you sit.

Passive 3-D was introduced this year — by Vizio, LG and JVC — as a solution. Its glasses are light and cheap ($10 to $30). However, it works by creating alternating scan lines, much like ancient tube TVs.

“At any given moment, your eyes only see half the TV’s vertical resolution, so the images are not as detailed and sharp,” Willcox says, “and if you get close to the TV, you really notice that.”

Toshiba may introduce a glasses-free set later this year. It would work by hiding one screen inside another. Willcox checked it out at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, but observed an unpalatably narrow, head-on-only viewing angle.

“Even moving your head six inches ruined the 3-D effect,” he says.

Glasses-free 3-D — which requires a major resolution upgrade — is already on shelves in the form of game consoles such as the Nintendo 3DS. However, such small devices are pretty much only viewed head on, not from a chair on the side of your living room.

“My gut feeling is that the technology is still five years away,” Willcox says.

In stark contrast, the hardware for Internet connectivity is already perfected and in place. Your only requirement is a broadband modem. (An increasing number of Internet TV remotes feature pull-out QWERTY keyboards for typing.) According to DisplaySearch, 21 percent of TVs sold last year have some form of web integration — although only Sony, LG and Samsung models so far include browsers that enable you to do everything on the Web that you can on your laptop.

Many Internet TV owners already have untethered themselves from cable TV and dishes to watch Hulu television streams for free — and Netflix movies for less than $10 per month — while Skyping with their cousins in New York and fielding room-sized Facebook messages.

Yes, we’re talking about young people. But eventually, everyone with an Internet TV will be able to buy products via the commercials that advertise them and — in the example likely to sell more Internet TVs than anything else — vote for “American Idol” contestants without peeling an eye from the action.

“That’s coming soon,” promises Mike Abary, senior vice president of Sony Electronics Home Division. “That’s the close future.”

Both 3-D and Internet connectivity were introduced as pricey step-up features last year and are creeping into more mainstream and cheaper models. They currently add between $100 and $500 to the cost of an equivalent set.

But Internet TV’s problem is that buying a new TV isn’t necessary to get it. The Sony Internet TV Blu-ray Player ($399.99) enables you to browse the Web on the TV you have now. So do external boxes such as Roku, Apple TV and D-Link’s Boxee Box, as well as the PlayStation 3.

“It makes sense for someone who’s in the market for a new TV,” Willcox says.

But if you just bought your flat screen 18 months ago and you’re happy with it? Consider remaining on your couch. Neither 3-D nor Internet connectivity make a new TV absolutely necessary.

“It really depends on who you are,” Willcox says.

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0456.

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