December 02, 2023

The last picture tube show

When I was a kid, a television was a hulking appliance that ran on a forest of vacuum tubes and produced as much heat as a wood stove. Even after the transition to transistors, the cathode ray tube (CRT) lingered behind as a living dinosaur. Like the internal combustion engine, the miracle of this Rube Goldberg contraption is that it works at all.

The CRT was the last true vacuum tube—a filament, cathode, grid and anode sealed inside of glass and depleted of air—left in consumer electronics. For decades after transistors took over, a television set had two vacuum tubes: the CRT and the high-voltage rectifier that charged the anode. The latter was long ago replaced by silicon devices.

We now live in a solid state world. HD flat panel displays are par for the course and Moore's law rules the roost. But while there will always be a need for speed at the high end, Intel's budget N100 is fast enough at the low end. We've reached a performance plateau where the only thing holding back a Windows upgrade is the UEFI requirement.

Going forward, the ability to squeeze the guts of not just computers but most ordinary electronic devices onto inexpensive SoCs will have transformative effects on the costs and capabilities of consumer electronics.

The way a twenty dollar Roku runs off a 64 bit ARM CPU and you can get an AM/FM/clock radio on a five dollar SoC (a lot less if purchased in quantity). Even more amazing (to me, at least) is that all of the key electronics in an old school CRT television can be handled by a single chip. Yes, somewhere in China, dinosaurs still roam the Earth.

The vacuum tube is dead! Long live the CRT!

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# posted by Blogger Joe
10/26/2010 9:24 AM   
In a few respects the tube is still superior to its various replacements. Only the high end LCDs have the same color reproduction and getting high resolution was relatively easy. Plus the "refresh" rates have still not really been equaled by any replacement. Then there's the resolution scaling issue--easy with a CRT, doesn't really work with anything else.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
10/26/2010 2:07 PM   
The question is ultimately about where the fidelity, price, and "good enough" curves intersect. Just as the ideal light source will always come from heating something (like tungsten) white hot, digital forever approaches analog, never equaling it, but eventually falling within an acceptable margin of error.

Or is given a boost by another compelling variable, such as noise or ergonomics.

My first reactions to getting satellite and DTV were the same: "Wow, no noise!" But because of signal compression (as a general rule of thumb, the fewer the number of subscribers, the narrower the bandwidth allocated to a satellite channel), my TV Japan signal has less fidelity than local over-the-air DTV.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
10/27/2010 6:03 AM   
Great writeup.

I have had a 42" 720p Panasonic Plasma for a year and the price / performance ratio puts CRTs to shame.

As one who does not care for LCD TVs I find the dominance of LCD over Plasma very interesting to observe. It appears the mass market prefers brightness and color intensity over total picture integrity. Then again do not the critics offer a similar complaint about the American preference for sports cars, entertainment and food?
# posted by Blogger Joe
10/27/2010 9:34 PM   
price / performance ratio

Seriously, Dan?

No question that Plasmas are nice, but with prices $950 and up for just a 42 inch, you've got to be kidding me.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
10/28/2010 2:50 AM   
$479 at Costco [Model TC-42PX24]|90607|2341&N=4047300%204294967278&Mo=3&pos=14&No=2&Nr=P_CatalogName:BC&Ns=P_Price|1||P_SignDesc1&lang=en-US&Sp=C&ec=BC-EC877-CatHome&topnav=
# posted by Blogger Joe
10/28/2010 6:47 PM   
How does the 720p handle your Blu-Ray player (which I presume upsamples to 1080p)? And what does it do with 1080p or 1080i content? Does the player down convert it or the TV?
# posted by Anonymous Dan
10/29/2010 4:30 AM   
Blu Ray plays fine. I use HDMI which I believe allows the devices to negotiate the supported resolution. The only real downside to this particular Panasonic is the screen is glossy so you have to be mindful of light sources that might cause annoying reflections.