When it comes to pure decadence, no technology delivers like LCD. Slim, space-saving flat-panel LCDs have made it practical to have home entertainment systems almost everywhere: swinging out from underneath a kitchen cabinet, appearing almost magically from behind a bathroom mirror, even rising from underneath a bed. Sadly, though, we've had to leave all that sheer video joy behind as soon as we step outdoors.
Hospitable as the outdoors can be to the human body, they're brutal on TVs. After all, LCD panels produce images using liquid crystals, and we all know how extreme temperatures can affect liquids. They thicken or freeze in the cold, and thin or vaporize in the heat. Even in Southern California - arguably the most hospitable climate in the lower 48 states - temperatures can drop below freezing in the winter and exceed 110 degrees in the summer. The electronic components inside TVs don't tolerate heat well, either. Yup, the backyard is no place for a TV set.
At least, not for an ordinary TV set.
A few lifestyle-savvy electronics companies have noticed that Americans are outfitting their backyards with fancy furniture, underground subwoofers, and pools elaborate enough to make Steve Wynn blush. Why, they asked themselves, must we leave our movies and TV shows behind when we want to enjoy a fresh breeze or an evening in the hot tub? So they set themselves to designing TVs that could handle the heat, the cold, the moisture, and the dirt that outdoor environments dish up every day.
"There's a real need for outdoor TVs," says Joe Pantel, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur who recently founded a self-named TV company. "They're not just for backyards. You need them for sports stadiums, hotels, boats, bars, restaurants . . . We found that people have been using regular TVs outdoors and changing them a couple of times a year because they keep breaking."
Scott Hix, vice president and general manager of Planar Systems Home Theater, agrees. "There's about $100 million already being spent in this market," he reports, "but most of the product is considered disposable - it's expected to go bad. Planar builds displays for ATM machines and gas pumps, so we know how to make a TV that can survive outdoors."
Planar's Runco division has already introduced the Climate Portfolio WP-42HD, a 42-inch LCD screen designed to be used outdoors in ambient temperatures ranging from -4°F to +104°F. The company is now working on a TV with twice the normal amount of internal backlighting so it's bright enough to be viewed comfortably in direct sunlight.
Planar and Runco may be making the most noise about outdoor TV, but others are getting into this nascent market, too. Besides Pantel, other notable outdoor TV makers include SunBrightTV and Aquatic AV.
I've had the pleasure of punishing two of the new outdoor TVs: Pantel's 32-inch, $3,950 PAN320 and Aquatic AV's 17-inch, $1,999 AQ-LCD17S-1. Both are similar in that they receive video and audio wirelessly, which saves you a ton of hassle because you don't have to run wires from your indoor audio/video system to the outdoor TV. All you have to do is plug them into an outdoor AC socket. A wireless transmitter plugs into the indoor system in your home. A supplied infrared emitter connects to the transmitter; you can put the emitter in front of, say, your DVD player and control the player from outside by pointing the remote at the TV. Neither brand's transmitter accepts high-definition video, but the PAN320 does have HDMI, component video, and VGA inputs behind a panel on its back.
(Click on the image above to see our image torture gallery, where we slam the TV with water, fruit-punch, and fresh soil.)
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