5 3-D Products Worth Buying Now

WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- Remember two years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas when 3-D was everywhere and the general consensus was that we'd all be switching out TVs, wearing glasses and watching Avatar on repeat in our living rooms? Yeah, about that ...

In mid-2010, market research firm NPD Group's screen-oriented subsidiary DisplaySearch predicted 3.4 million 3-D TVs would ship by the end of last year and grow to 42.9 million worldwide by 2014, increasing 3-D's share of the television market to 37% from 5%. A few months later, those forecasts shrank to 3.2 million 3-D TVs shipped during the year, making up just 2% of the television market.

A big part of the problem is North America and the U.S. in particular, where estimates of more than 2 million 3-D TVs sold in 2010 shrank to less than 1.6 million behind a familiar refrain: It's just too expensive and unnecessary, given the relative dearth of 3-D content. Americans spent the past half-decade upgrading to HDTV and, despite releases such as this summer's Thor and Green Lantern also getting HD versions, the lack of true 3-D titles means those copies of Avatar, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and Monsters vs. Aliens are being crowded between converted 2-D titles such as Disney's The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

"While TV manufacturers have bold plans and a lot of new products, consumers remain cautious," says Paul Gray, DisplaySearch's director of TV electronics research. "Consumers have been told that 3-D TV is the future, but there still remains a huge price jump and little 3-D content to watch."

Even as some of the earliest 3-D televisions drop below the $1,000 mark, the $100 to $150 cost of glasses to watch what's on them has been prohibitive for some consumers. This isn't a strictly American complaint; DisplaySearch discovered that Western Europeans aren't even hitting a 1-to-1 ratio of glasses to 3-D sets.

"This is particularly disappointing," Gray says. "A healthy level would be closer to two pairs of 3-D glasses per TV, so it's clear that these sets at best are being chosen for future-proofing, and at worst it's an indication that consumers cannot buy a premium set without 3-D."

Looking at 3-D as a strictly televised medium may not be helping. Earlier this week, Nielsen said that the percentage of Americans who own television sets has dropped for the first time in 20 years from 98.9% to 96.7%. While the digital transition has taken TV out of the living rooms of the poor in some cases, it's also inspired a generation that's content with viewing entertainment on laptops, tablets, smartphones and other devices. If 3-D's going to take off, it's going to need a lot more than televisions and Blu-ray players to do so.

"TV manufacturers strongly believe in 3-D and are driving its cost downward, but its value to consumers relies strongly on the availability of quality material to watch," Gray says.

TheStreet took a look at the electronics market and, amid many high-priced options, found five 3-D devices that are worth a consumer investment right now. While some are TV based, the majority make a strong argument for a multidimensional approach to 3-D entertainment:

Nintendo's 3DS
At $245 and with the much less expensive and wildly popular Nintendo DS ( NTDOY.PK) and DSi hand-held consoles already on the market, the 3DS seemed like a tough sell. Thus far 3.6 million gamers -- or more than twice the number of consumers who bought 3-D televisions in the U.S. this year -- respectfully disagree.

A laundry list of such features as motion control, a front-facing 2-D camera, a rear-facing 3-D camera, 3-D videos, 3-D messaging, a virtual console full of old Game Boy games and backward-compatibility with all existing DS titles is nice, but trumped by the one element the 3DS doesn't have or need: 3-D glasses.

Its parallax barrier display wouldn't work so well on even a tablet-sized screen, but the DS's 3.5-inch 3-D screen is just small enough to give 3-D titles such as Street Fighter IV 3-D and Kid Icarus the dimension they deserve. At three to five hours for 3-D and Wi-Fi use, its battery life isn't great compared with the four- to 17-hour battery of the DSi it's replacing, but a ton of second-party support from game makers including Electronic Arts ( ERTS), THQ ( THQI), Konami, Capcom and Ubisoft as well as forthcoming 3-D movie titles from Warner Brothers ( TWX), Disney ( DIS) and Dreamworks ( DWA) make it the ideal 3-D gadget for the 3-D averse.

T-Mobile's LG G-Slate
When LG announced it was throwing an Nvidia ( NVDA) Tegra 2 chip capable of 3-D display into its G2X, it sounded like we'd be getting our first look at a glasses-free 3-D smartphone. Nope. Instead, we're going to have to wait on T-Mobile to give us the LG Optimus 3-D and Sprint to debut the HTC EVO 3-D phones that, by the sound of early reviews from the CTIA wireless trade show in March, leave much to be desired when compared with the 3DS' display.

In the meantime, however, LG and T-Mobile gave the U.S. its first 3-D tablet when they introduced the G-Slate on April 20. The 9-inch display, front-facing camera for video calls, more than eight hours of battery power, Wi-Fi, "4G" capability and Google ( GOOG) Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS are all secondary to the twin cameras mounted on the tablet's back for shooting 3-D photos and videos. Those videos can be displayed immediately on the G-Slate's HD screen -- with one very significant catch.

At three times the size of the 3DS, the G-Slate still requires glasses for 3-D viewing. A pair comes with the tablet, but if 53% of consumers surveyed by the NPD Group in February said that the inconvenience of wearing glasses in their own homes was preventing them from buying into HD content, they're probably not going to be much more comfortable slapping on polarized shades while taking their tablet out in public.

Another issue is the price, which at $520 with a two-year commitment is more expensive and onerous than buying a strictly Wi-Fi Apple ( AAPL) iPad 2. It's $70 less than the similarly performing Motorola ( MMI) Xoom, however, and $200 less than a 3G iPad with similar 32-gigabyte storage space. The not-so-minor caveat is that you need both a T-Mobile voice and data plan to get that $530 price, as the lack of a voice plan nulls a $100 rebate and an unlocked version without a T-Mobile data plan goes for a gaudy $750. Otherwise, the G-Slate is a great buy for the storage, the speed and your position ahead of the 3-D curve.

Vizio and LG "Passive" 3-D televisions
Again, a majority of Americans aren't adopting 3-D based strictly on the glasses. When Panasonic ( PC) and Samsung announced their first 3-D televisions more than a year ago, the glasses that came with them were not only expensive -- $150 to $200 -- but heavy as well. Folks used to wearing passive "polarized" shades in movie theaters were taken aback by the "active" shutter-driven glasses that felt as if someone had parked a Vespa on the bridge of the wearer's nose.

Samsung's recently addressed that problem by including two sets of free glasses with its televisions and dropping the price of extras to $50 apiece from $130. That really doesn't fix the problem with shutter lenses, which 90% of respondents to an NPD survey last fall say would inhibit them from multitasking.

Companies such as Toshiba and Sharp are already trying to make glasses-free televisions and demonstrated that technology at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, but they're starting on 20-inch screens and still have quite a way to go. While the cost of a 3-D TV was a key deterrent for 64% of consumers polled by NPD Group in February, already declining costs are being helped out by companies such as LG and Vizio, which have developed "passive" 3-D technology that allows viewers to use the same, lighter, cheaper glasses used at movie theaters. The glasses are available for as little as $5 to $7.50 on Amazon and other sites, but LG includes four pairs with its $1,600 47-inch LG 47LW6500 and Vizio packs four pairs in with its 60-inch, $3,000 Vizio XVT3-D650SV.

Right now, the 32-inch Toshiba 32TL515U is the only passive 3-D TV below the $1,000 mark, and it hasn't released yet. With Panasonic, Samsung and even Vizio 42- and 46-inch active 3-D sets selling for less than $1,000, passive 3-D doesn't seem like much of a bargain. That's true at this point, but passive glasses are the only way to watch 3-D programming and update your Facebook status at the same time.

Sony's Uncharted 3
With Sony ( SNE) pouring a lot of money into its own 3-D televisions, the pressure on it to make sales-driving 3-D content for its other products, including the PlayStation 3, was intense.

Its Gran Turismo 5 racing game looked lovely and cost roughly $80 million to produce, but didn't get a lot of traction out of its 3-D features. Its MLB 11: The Show was not only yet another disposable cog in a long-standing sports franchise, but its 3-D "functionality" was akin to drawing a 3-D comic book. Killzone 3 looked great at CES, but wasn't adding much to a game that had 7-Eleven sponsorship and was going to sell scads of copies regardless.

Sony's Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, meanwhile, hasn't been released and is already making the fanboys weep with joy. Archeology, violence, cooperative game play -- that's all kid's stuff. This ridiculously cinematic release may be the first video game that makes gamers consider buying a 3-D television just to play it instead of making gamers who own a 3-D television buy it just because it's 3-D.

"With a core focus on cinematic story and action, Uncharted 3 is the prime candidate to convince the naysayers that 3-D belongs in video games -- it certainly has convinced me," says Jesse Divinich, vice president of capital analysis for video game analytics firm EEDAR. " Uncharted 3 could do for 3-D gaming what Avatar did for 3-D movies."

It might just help to already have a 3-D screen handy, however, as the $60 it'll cost to pick up Uncharted 3 later this year is a far preferable entry fee to the $1,000 to $3,000 you'll spend on a TV and glasses.

Fujifilm FinePix 3-D W3
If you were one of the first adopters who bought the $600 Fujifilm FinePix 3-D W1 back in 2009 and dealt with poor low-light sensitivity, grating noise, inability to shoot video and the size and weight of a brick, we hope you're really enjoying your paperweight.

For those who held off, however, the new $400 version is slimmer, lighter, easier to use and has a 3-D display that gives Nintendo's 3DS a run for the money. The images don't reduce elements in the background to the flat, featureless forms found in bad stereoscopic 3-D movies and video games and look especially great when connected to a larger 3-D screen via an HDMI cable. More importantly, you get the ability to shoot 3-D video that, while funky-looking at first, is that wave of the future the Hollywood studios have been talking about for the past two years or so.

It's the one 3-D camera product out there that actually looks like a real camera -- a rarity during a time smartphones are replacing point-and-shoot cameras -- but if you're going to experiment during the early stages of 3-D photography, shouldn't you at least look like a photographer while doing so?

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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