REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – The lone conventional television set at Anderson's TV store sat along a side wall like a castoff. Its screen was dark as dozens of other gleaming flat-panel and big-screen models flashed nearby with vivid color images.
The staff at the Redwood City store hadn't even bothered to turn on the cathode-ray tube TV until a reporter asked to see it on a recent afternoon.
The obvious neglect reflected the wallflower status of today's CRT TVs, as well as the mature technology's doomed future. Experts say the old-fashioned boob tube that catered to generations of Americans will soon be all but extinct.
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"It's already dead, but it doesn't know it yet," said Jon Paul Belstler, an audio/video consultant at Anderson's. "It's just trying to hang on."
In North America, sales of the bulky traditional TVs are in steep decline.
By next year, the tube TV will cede its crown of dominance to LCD sets for the first time, according to the market research firm iSuppli Corp.
Sales of CRTs will fall from an estimated 14.4 million units this year to 10.4 million in 2007, while sales of LCD TVs are predicted to rise from 10.9 million units to 17.8 million.
By 2010, iSuppli predicts CRTs will account for only 2.1 million of the 44 million televisions sold.
The decline comes despite the venerable CRT's bargain prices: $223, on average, compared with $1,007 for LCD or $2,335 for plasma, according to research firm DisplaySearch.
But consumers are increasingly enamored with the thin designs and stunningly sharp pictures available with newer sets.
And high-end, large-sized CRT TVs are already running close in price to similarly sized LCDs. The solitary tube TV at Anderson's was a 34-inch Sony WEGA HDTV model going for $999. At Amazon.com, you could find special deals for a 32-inch LCD HDTV for the same price.
"CRTs are just losing their buzz when you have competing TVs that have technology that's similar to the CRT for almost the same price," iSuppli analyst Riddhi Patel said.
LCD prices have fallen precipitously — about 30 percent annually since 2003, according to DisplaySearch — narrowing the price gap to CRT TVs.
David Barnes, an analyst at DisplaySearch, expects a consumer will be able to find a 32-inch LCD TV for $500 by Christmas 2007.
"Sure you could buy a CRT at that point, but why?" Barnes said.
Besides, Americans love big TVs if they can handle it in budget and space.
The main draw of flat-panel displays is that they can be the size of an oven door or bigger without hogging the depth of, well, an oven. Even models in the 60-inch range are only a few inches thick and can be mounted like paintings.
By contrast, the largest CRTs left on the market are 36-inch models that rival washing machines in heft.
Anything bigger proved too bulky for consumers' tastes, said Ali Atash, a senior marketing manager at Samsung Electronics Co., which introduced a short-lived 40-inch tube TV years ago.
Samsung has since developed slimmer CRT TVs, trying to capitalize on the lingering albeit dwindling demand for conventional sets.
With the company's "SlimFit" technology, a 20-inch TV that previously stretched back 24 inches is now only 13 inches deep.
Retailers expect little to no demand for CRTs by 2009, partly because of a government-imposed deadline requiring television broadcasts nationwide to switch to all-digital by February of that year.
Industry observers predict many consumers will have purchased a digital TV by then.
Digital CRT sets sold today are capable of handling high-definition TV, and video experts say CRT technology still represents the gold standard in picture quality with the deepest blacks and best color accuracy.
But the performance of LCD and plasma displays have improved dramatically in just the past two years, making the differences in picture quality insignificant to all but discerning videophiles.
Major TV makers like Sony Corp. (SNE) and LG Electronics Co. have been steadily reducing their CRT shipments to focus on what will soon be the larger flat-panel TV market.
LG, in fact, had followed Samsung in creating slimmer versions of CRTs two years ago but is no longer pushing the technology. Only two CRT models remain in LG's lineup of 50 televisions this year, spokesman John Taylor said.
"We saw the writing on the wall years ago, and flat panels have taken off much faster than a lot of people have expected," Taylor said.
At a Video Only store in San Francisco, only about three in 20 TVs currently sold are CRTs, store manager William Arias said.
Unlike Anderson's, which now devotes most of its showroom to the CRT's modern-day counterparts, Video Only still keeps about two dozen conventional sets on display.
"There are people who aren't ready to spend $1,000 on a TV yet," Arias said. "And lots of people still have big built-in TV cabinets. We tell them, that since saving space isn't an issue, they could still go with a CRT."
Circuit City Stores Inc. (CC), the nation's second-largest electronics retailer, plans to have very few CRT models in its stores by the end of 2007.
No. 1 electronics retailer Best Buy Co. Inc. (BBY) hasn't declared a blackout on CRTs but is steadily devoting less retail space because more consumers are looking for flat panels.
"The CRT has served us well for many many years — since the early 1930s into the golden age of television and the advent of color in the 60s," said LG's Taylor. "The longevity of that technology is probably second to none in our industry, but time marches on, and flat panels have really captured the enthusiasm of the American public."