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To Be Picture-Perfect, a Choice of 3

"I always worry about burn-in," said Camilo Arbelaez, a plasma TV owner in Mount Pleasant, in an e-mail. Arbelaez figures that the lines that appear on his screen when he changes his set's volume or the black strips at the top and bottom on letterbox format DVDs will eventually leave an indelible impression. But he figured a plasma set would still be worthwhile if he gets at least five years of use out of it.

LCD screens don't suffer from that problem and are also thinner than plasma sets. And where plasma screens run hot and often use internal fans for cooling, heat isn't an issue with LCDs -- they also use far less electricity in the bargain.

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The drawback? Some say the picture isn't always as bright or crisp. "A cheap LCD will look very washed out," said Dave Arland, a spokesman for Thomson Inc., the company that sells sets under the RCA brand. "The picture contrast is sometimes not as good as it is on a $200 [cathode-ray tube] TV."

What's more, LCD screens come in smaller sizes than plasma screens -- typical sets are 30 inches and smaller, compared with plasma sets that can have twice as much screen space. The sets also cost 25 to 30 percent more in terms of dollars per screen space, as a result of the limited number of factories making glass for big LCD sets. Analysts predict that LCD screens will eventually displace plasma as prices drop and screen sizes continue to increase, but plasma will retain an advantage in the big-but-flat category for years to come.

Both types of flat-panel display are outsold by another, cheaper type of set: rear-projection televisions that reflect and magnify smaller images produced inside. Rear-projection sets can produce the best pictures of the lot, some say, and burn-in isn't an issue for them either.

The oldest type of rear-projection TV uses an internal cathode-ray tube (CRT), a relatively low-cost design that results in a somewhat thick and extremely heavy set. Newer "microdisplay" rear-projection sets ditch the CRT for an LCD or a digital light processing (DLP) array of chips and microscopic mirrors. These weigh only a little more than many plasma or LCD sets while costing much less. Most are no more than 15 inches deep -- RCA will introduce a DLP set about seven inches thick late next month, and manufacturers and analysts say additional thin microdisplay sets are on the way.

"We believe that's the best value to a consumer when you look at price, performance and form factor," said Jim Sandusky, vice president of visual technologies at Samsung Electronics, of microdisplay sets.

But Sandusky, like others, thinks that each type of set will find a space in the homes of the future. "We feel very strongly that there is a niche for each of these technologies," he said.

In the meantime, there's at least one excuse for the confused consumer to keep waiting. Every month, prices drop about 2 percent on average, and that's a trend that should hold steady for the foreseeable future.

Shoppers hoping for a better price cut than that shouldn't count on it, said Gary Arlen, president of research firm Arlen Communications in Bethesda. "There's not going to be a precipitous price drop. Demand remains high enough that they will crawl down, but they won't fall off a cliff."

And so, without any cliff-diving by prices, most people are still watching "The Amazing Race" on their old-fashioned, trusty cathode-ray set. "By far, CRT is still dominant," said Danielle Levitas, director for consumer markets research at IDC. "At the end of the day, there's still only going to be so many people who will spend $2,000 and up for a set."

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