Rich Warren: Trying to get a snapshot on picture-in-picture

TV manufacturers relentlessly search for features to hook new buyers.

In the 1980s, picture-in-picture became a fad. This allowed viewing two programs simultaneously, although listening to only one. The PIP could be adjusted in size from postage stamp to about half the screen. Some sets came with dual tuners allowing you to watch two broadcast shows at once; others required the tuner on your VCR or cable to view the second program as the PIP.

Most people thought it nifty but rarely used it. It worked best for sports or election night coverage. Since the actual feature added little cost to the TV it became a forgotten, vestigial feature on many sets. Manufacturers soon discontinued dual-tuner models with the advent of cable and satellite boxes.

That brings us to this reader question: "Does Comcast or any cable provider have any plans to bring back the picture-in-picture feature for TVs? Picture-in-picture is a great feature, especially when watching sports. (You can switch from game to game and avoid commercials.)

"I really miss it. It's very irritating that HDTVs all come equipped with the PIP feature, but digital cable doesn't take advantage of it."

Not all digital TVs include the PIP feature. We asked Comcast for an answer to this question, and its representative replied: "Our new X1 boxes don't offer it, per se. PIP is about watching two screens at the same time, right? Perhaps the concept of watching two (or more) screens at one time has evolved, given the introduction of tablets and other mobile devices, and the capabilities of our X1 box and other cable boxes.

"Here are some thoughts: With the new X1 box, you can record four shows at a time and watch a fifth and access so much content on Xfinity on Demand. Perhaps that's having an impact on the necessity for PIP? Using our new X1 box, you can run our Sports app on the side and keep up with the scores of games you're not watching. You can stream and watch shows on a tablet or portable device while watching TV. Multiple members of your family can do this at the same time in the same place.

"And of course on the X1 and other boxes, if you want to view the guide, search for On Demand content, or use some of our apps, the TV picture will reduce in size to a portion of the screen. So you can search for content and watch TV at the same time."

To which I'll add that any TV with the PIP feature can display one game from broadcast TV and another from the cable, satellite or Internet box.

Most likely 3-D TV will follow the course of PIP. It costs very little to build it into the set. The main expense is the glasses necessary to view it, which parallels including the second tuner with PIP.

The amount of 3-D programming remains minimal. TV manufacturers thought 3-D would dramatically boost set sales, but it failed miserably. So the circuitry filtered down into inexpensive TVs and will become a standard feature on most sets.

Now the industry pushes 4K or Ultra-High Definition in place of 3-D as "the next big thing." Unlike 3-D, at this point in development, UHD actually increases manufacturing and transmission costs. Ultimately, those expenses will decline like everything else in consumer electronics.

UHD on sets with screens smaller than 60 inches offers dubious improvement, unless you sit two feet from the screen.

When most of us can afford 60-inch TVs, will we have space in our homes for them? Even at 2 inches deep, that's still a lot of TV set.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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