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Special Report: Decoding Digital TV

To Be Picture-Perfect, a Choice of 3

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page F01

Bruce Goodman is shopping for a new plasma television. He's been doing that for a while -- about six months.

"It's much more work than it ought to be," he said of his research. "You go to three stores and ask the same question, you get four different answers."

_____Decoding Digital TV_____
Your Questions Answered: Recording, Shopping, More
The Digital Transition (The Washington Post, Aug 29, 2004)
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Transcript Rob Pegoraro was online to answer your HDTV questions.
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Digital, high-definition television can be a complex enough business in its own right. But the shift from analog to digital now also means a shift from fat to flat -- instead of traditional cathode-ray tubes, new sets employ plasma, liquid-crystal display, digital light processing or other technologies to cut down on the bulk of the set.

Sales of all digital sets are up, fueled by steadily decreasing prices. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, 2.8 million such televisions were shipped during the first half of this year, the vast majority of them high-definition sets. (HDTV is a subset of the overall digital standard, which allows for a clearer picture and better sound than the old analog system.) That's up from 1.5 million over the same period last year, though it's still just a fraction of the 25 million sets Americans buy annually.

But these growing sales don't necessarily mean that everybody has a clear idea of what they're buying. In the pre-HDTV days, TV shopping was a simple business: All you had to do was take the width of your TV stand and cross-reference it against the thickness of your wallet. But the advent of new technologies has made things a little confusing. Plasma? LCD? DLP? These are some of the terms you might not have been faced with if you haven't gone shopping in more than a few years.

For those enticed by the possibility of having a television set that looks wafer-thin from across the room, there are two types of "flat-panel" sets available: plasma and LCD.

Plasma is the technology that has probably captured the most attention among shoppers at local electronics stores -- the sets tend to be large and undeniably slick-looking.

But shoppers specifically looking for an HDTV should know that not all plasma sets are high-definition. Less-expensive sets you see advertised typically have a lower resolution -- a less-detailed picture, in other words -- called EDTV (or enhanced-definition TV). Sean Wargo, the CEA's director of industry analysis, calculated that only 40 percent of the plasma sets shipped in the United States this year are true high-definition sets.

The biggest worry among plasma-TV owners and those thinking of joining them is the threat of "burn-in." Know those logos on the corner of the screen that identify the network you're watching? Leave a plasma set tuned into the same channel for long enough, and that image may begin to etch itself into the screen -- meaning that you could end up seeing the faint ghost of the CNN or Spike TV logo even when you're watching Fox News or Lifetime.

"Ten to 20 hours can produce a visible difference" on the screen, said Rick Doherty, research director for Envisioneering Inc. Though some makers have devised ways to reduce the risk of burn-in, such as moving a static screen image slightly every few minutes, none has come up with a perfect solution yet, he said.


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