Remember when TVs weighed 200 pounds? A look back at TV trends over the years – CNET

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The author sizes up an 85-inch TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is part of CNET at 25, celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.

If you could point to one tech trend over the last 25 years, it’s that gadgets are getting smaller. Phones, computers, watches — all pack more power into more compact packages than ever. A quarter century ago a phone was the size of a brick and did nothing but make calls. A PC was a box on a desk with a fat monitor. A watch was pretty much the same size but just told time: It couldn’t begin to imagine all the functions we see in today’s smartwatches.

TVs took a different path. They got smarter too, but with the advent of flat-panel LCD, plasma and OLED technology they’ve also grown. A lot. Two decades ago a 32-inch TV was massive and ridiculously heavy — typically more than 100 pounds and bulky enough to require its own piece of furniture. Today that same screen size is considered too small for many bedrooms and you can get an inconceivably gigantic 75-inch screen for less than $1,000. 

“Screen sizes keep getting bigger and that has proven to drive interest and demand,” said Steven Baker, VP of industry analysis at NPD group. “The No. 1 reason people buy a new TV is for the screen size and I don’t expect that to change.”

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Totally tubeless today

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Sony’s 34-inch tube TV was a 200-pound beast.

Crutchfield

I’ve been CNET’s TV reviewer since 2002, and spent years reviewing TVs for other publications before that, so I’ve seen a lot of that change in person. I remember getting in a 34-inch widescreen Sony cathode ray tube TV for review (one of the last of its kind and a superb performer) and struggling with a colleague to lift it onto a stand for evaluation. The thing weighed nearly 200 pounds. Today I routinely lift 65-inch LCD and OLED models out of their boxes and onto stands by myself — especially now that I’m working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic and my coworkers aren’t around to help.

I asked Baker for some stats on how TVs have changed along two basic metrics: price and screen size. His earliest numbers were from 2004. That’s two years after I started at CNET and a time when most TVs were still CRTs and rear-projection models — just 7% of TVs sold that year were flat-panel. Today every TV sold is a flat-panel TV.

TV size and price averages over 15 years

Screen size Selling price $/sq. inch
2004 25.4 $552 $2.15
2019 47 $336 $0.39

Even though I’ve been reviewing TVs for that entire 15-year stretch, it’s still amazing to me how stark those numbers are. The most impressive is the last one: Calculating from that average size and price, a square inch of screen in 2004 cost more than five times as much (!) as it does today — more than seven times as much if you factor in inflation. Baker says the average price of TVs peaked in 2007 between $900 and $1,000.

People have also changed their TV-buying habits in the last 25 years. Baker points out three major trends: The emergence of online retailers such as Amazon; the fact that big-box retailers including Walmart, Target and Costco are selling more TVs both online and in stores; and the willingness of people to buy a new TV without it being a long, drawn-out process. “Price points for high quality, large screen TVs have fallen so much that a broader swath of consumers can easily afford to buy one,” he said. In short, it’s now a lot easier, and cheaper, to buy a TV.

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CNET’s Scott Stein in front of a 92-inch Mitsubishi 840 series rear-projection TV, one of the last of its kind.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Buh-bye big black boxes

Brett Pearce/CNET

Before flat TVs came along, the most important factor limiting the mass adoption of big screens wasn’t desire — we’ve always hungered for a huge, immersive, theatrical picture in our living rooms. It was technology. CRT-based TVs maxed out at 40 inches so if you wanted a bigger screen your only choice was a technology that died eight years ago: rear-projection. 

Back in the day you could buy a rear-projection TV that was 65 inches or even larger, but it took up a huge chunk of space and cost a relative fortune. A good example was the Samsung HL-S5687 I reviewed for CNET in 2006. This 56-inch TV cost $2,700 at the time and I called it “a top choice for people who want a 1080p big screen but don’t want to break the bank.” Yep, nearly three grand for a 56-inch TV was a good value 15 years ago. In fact I told my future father-in-law to buy that same TV and he used it for 12 years before upgrading to an LG OLED.

And that RPTV was a good deal, at least compared to flat-panel TVs at the time. In 2005 CNET reviewed one of the first LCD-based TVs, the Sony KDL-VXBR1. It measured 40 inches in size and cost a whopping $4,000. In succeeding years flat-panel TVs became cheaper to produce and prices quickly fell, helped by models such as the Vizio P50HD, a 50-inch plasma TV that cost “just” $2,000 — a tremendous bargain in 2006. It took another few years for larger flat-panel TVs to get affordable, however.

Select TVs during the fat-to-flat transition

Year Model Screen size Technology Price
2004 Sony KD-34XBR960 34-inch CRT $2,200
2005 Sony KDL-VXBR1 40-inch LCD $4,000
2006 Vizio P50HD 50-inch Plasma $2,000
2006 Samsung HL-S5687 56-inch Rear-projection DLP $2,700
2007 Panasonic TH-58PX600U 58-inch Plasma $5,800
2009 Panasonic TC-P54G10 54-inch Plasma $1,600
2009 Mitsubishi WD-65737 65-inch Rear-projection DLP $1,600
2013 Panasonic TC-P65ST60 65-inch Plasma $2,000

The transition from rear-projection to flat-panel was basically complete just three years later with CNET’s last RPTV review, the 65-inch Mitsubishi WD-65737. In 2009 it sold for $1,600 and although it had an “excellent screen-size-to-price ratio” in my review, the writing was on the wall for these big, ugly black boxes. Mitsubishi was the last company to make a RPTV and it sold its last one in 2012.

Pour one out for plasma

Rear-projection was replaced by plasma among big-screen seekers. For years as a reviewer I steered readers not toward LCD-based flat-panel TVs but toward plasma, another flat-panel TV technology that, in my tests, produced a better picture for less money than LCD. Panasonic led the way with numerous excellent models and Samsung also had some superb examples, with each company striving to outdo the other in image quality with each succeeding year. Eventually the requirement for higher resolution — namely 4K, which plasma couldn’t easily achieve — and the falling prices of LCD pushed plasma out of the market. 

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The ZT60 was the ultimate Panasonic plasma TV in more ways than one.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Panasonic made its last consumer plasma TV for the US in 2013, the excellent ZT60, a set I hailed as being “closer than ever to perfect picture quality.” Samsung stopped making new plasmas in the same year although its flagship model, the also excellent F8500, remained on sale through the following year. It was truly the last great plasma TV.

Those two brands exemplify how betting on the wrong TV technology horse can go awry. Panasonic invested heavily in plasma but after that technology failed it ended up leaving the US entirely in 2016 — and hasn’t sold a new TV here since. Samsung invested primarily in LCD and, more recently, in its SUHD and QLED-branded LCD variants, and has enjoyed the No. 1 worldwide market share in TVs for more than a decade.

2019 top 5 market share (units sold)

Samsung 21%
TCL 15%
Vizio 14%
LG 10%
Hisense 5%

“The shift in the last 15 years is clearly the brand change away from the Japanese brands, who were ascendant at that time and the rise of the Korean brands and then more recently the Chinese brands,” said Baker. Japan-based manufacturers Mitsubishi, Hitachi and Panasonic were all household TV names in the last 15 years. All have since bowed out of the market to make room for Korean and Chinese brands like Samsung, LG and TCL. 

Sony, a force over the last 25 years and the only major Japanese TV maker remaining today, has seen its market share shrink steadily. It’s not even in the Top 5 anymore.

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To 85 inches (for $1,000) and beyond

I agree with Baker: People will always want bigger, cheaper TVs. The next frontier is almost incomprehensibly huge — 85 inches — but today you can buy one for $1,900. It won’t be long before it costs $999 or even less. That might be close to the upper limit for traditional flat-panel LCD and OLED tech when you consider shipping and factors like, you know, fitting the thing through a doorway, but modular MicroLED and rollable OLED are two current solutions for that, in addition to good old-fashioned projectors

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Since I started other TV trends have taken hold too. Today’s sets have scads of built-in streaming apps, Alexa and Google Assistant voice control, 4K and 8K resolution with high dynamic range and more. But the most noticeable change for me has always been that ballooning size, and as far as I’m concerned it’s a good thing. When it comes to home entertainment, bigger really is better.

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