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CONSUMERS TO SEE NEW FEATURES IN DIGITAL GADGETS

Coming soon to a home-theater store near you: High-definition television sets that "knock your socks off" with ultra-sharp images -- and prices starting at about $5,000.

"Eventually, all cable, broadcast and satellite (television signals) will be delivered digitally," according to Jim Barry, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.

Right now, however, there remain a lot of unanswered questions.

"In the short term, commercial (difficulties) and copy protections are being sorted out," he said.

The advent of high-definition television -- the first sets go on sale this fall -- is part of a wave of digital electronics. The revolution is adding features and helping propel sales of digital video-discs, digital cameras, digital videocams, digital cell phones and other consumer electronics.

Manufacturers expect digital TV to be a big seller. Considering that the average U.S. household already as 2.4 TV sets -- branded as SDTV for "Standard Definition TV" -- the switch to digital holds out the hope of an immense replacement market.

HDTV will have up to four times the resolution of current transmissions, with 1080 vertical lines vs. today's typical yield of 250 lines. SDTV sets will work at least until 2006, when they will require set-top boxes to read the digital signal.

However, digital sets will have to overcome their initial high cost and the lack of high-definition programming before they become standard living room equipment, Barry said.

What's more, the technology is getting a cold reception from the cable industry, which faces the loss of capacity that could be used for more channels and the need to come up with new standards for scrambling premium and pay-per-view programs.

Retailers are concerned that buyers are putting off television purchases until high-definition standards solidify and programming becomes widely available.

Rosa's Home Appliances and Entertainment Centers expects to have its first HDTV sets on sale early next year -- but at starting prices of about $8,000, there won't be a mass market.

"We don't get too many people begging us for one," said Paul Burkhardt, electronics buyer for the Cheektowaga-based stores.

Broadcasters in top TV markets must begin transmitting HDTV signals in May 1999. But in smaller markets like Buffalo, TV stations don't have to transmit digital signals until 2002.

That means the initial push for digital will come from subscribers of satellite services, which are planning to put some of their programming into HDTV format, Burkhardt said. Cable movie channels are planning to follow with HDTV programming next year.

Manufacturers envision HDTV will follow the path of color television in its gradual, but complete, adoption by consumers.

The first color sets sold in 1954 cost about $1,000, vs. $350 for a standard black-and-white set of the day, Barry said. It took until 1966 for sales of color sets to outpace black-and-white.

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