Five years ago, just about any flat-panel television could induce oohs and aahs, and high-definition was a rarity. Research firm Screen Digest predicts that by 2010 just under half of the UK's TV-watching households will have an HD-ready set, but they're common enough now and the gee-whiz factor has gone. So where do HDTVs go from here?

Improvements in picture sharpness and advances in screen size are likely to be gradual. "It's kind of like computers: if you wait around, there will always be something better around the corner," says DisplaySearch HDTV analyst Paul Gagnon.

But the next step for HDTV isn't about technology per se. It's about the experience of watching, which brings previously peripheral considerations, such as design, ease of use and integrated audio to the fore. As a result, you'll not only like what you see on your set, but you'll also have a better time experiencing that content in your home.

A nod to style

In this post-iPhone world, where industrial design is king, TV manufacturers are paying particular attention to the look and feel of their products and to integrating software with hardware.

"Everyone is looking for a unique characteristic," notes Gagnon. "You see it in laptops and mobile phones and now everybody wants a unique statement of design in a TV."

Just as mobile phones, digital cameras and laptops now come in coloured packages, TVs too are moving beyond basic black.

Manufacturers are also taking a cue from the sleek details found on smaller products. LG Electronics, for example, recently introduced TV sets with colour and style tweaks. The 32in LG40 features such accents as a curved pedestal and a red front-drop bezel; the back of the LG60 is red, too, and you can see a flash of colour peeking through the side and front.

An even bigger emphasis this year is on thinness. Hitachi, JVC and LG have all revealed thin sets, ranging from 1.5 to 1.7in thick. Crafting such a slim TV is a technological challenge.

LG, for instance, achieved its products' 1.7in depth by reengineering the circuitry around the LCD module and the TV's cabinet to remove unused space. In the future, you'll see even more slim sets on the market: Sharp's newest manufacturing facility begins mass production next year, and it will be capable of producing ultrathin 60in panels.

Despite the slimmer profiles, television manufacturers are stuffing new features into this year's cabinets, improved speakers being chief among them. A slew of companies, including Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, and Westinghouse, have added speakers that fire down instead of forward, which audio experts claim achieves more full-bodied sound.

And in its latest models, LG has hidden speakers by positioning them behind the cabinet, so that the front bezel looks smooth. JVC has even introduced multiple models that have an integrated "made for iPod dock", which lets you play both audio and video from an Apple iPod on your television.

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