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CES Notebook: Tips For HDTV Shopping

Monday, January 10, 2005;

With this newsletter, I'm closing the book on another Consumer Electronics Show. I've tried to shed some light on what this year will bring in the electronic realm in my column and the other bits I've filed for our site, but I'm sure y'all will have other questions.

So tune in today at 2 p.m. ET, when I'll be online taking questions about CES. Submit a comment or question early if you can't be online at 2.

_____Recent E-letters_____
Macworld, Intel and a Side of Fry's (washingtonpost.com, Jan 18, 2005)
What I Hope to See at CES and Macworld (washingtonpost.com, Jan 3, 2005)
Media Center's Clunky Extender (washingtonpost.com, Dec 20, 2004)
E-letter Archive

Meanwhile, here's a download from my CES notebook regarding some things to look for when shopping for an HDTV -- based on what I've noticed after spending most of the last three days eyeballing various plasma, LCD, microdisplay and, yes, even CRT sets.

First, if the set is an LCD, make sure it isn't playing the slow-motion slideshow seen on so many screens here. This choice of content does give you a chance to appreciate the set's color fidelity, but it doesn't allow you to see how it handles fast-moving objects -- a weak point of some LCDs. Tune in the TV to a sports program and see how things look then. Also, look up its "refresh rate" -- Anything slower 16 milliseconds should be suspect.

And another point: Night scenes in a movie or other program can allow you to gauge the set's black levels -- how close it gets to complete black.

Second, if the set is a rear-projection model, make sure you view it sitting down and standing up. Some of these sets -- traditional CRT-based models as well as newer DLP (Digital Light Processing) and LCD microdisplay sets -- only allow a relatively limited set of viewing heights -- i.e., the picture will look fine from the couch, but if you get up, it will look much darker.

A tiny proportion of people who look at DLP sets will see a rainbow effect, a byproduct of the way its internal color mechanism functions. I've never seen this, but the way to see if you may be susceptible, I'm told, is to look for high-contrast motion -- for instance, a white ball bouncing in front of a dark background.

(While I'm on the subject of microdisplays, I should note that DLP developer Texas Instruments has been arguing that the chemicals used in rear-projection LCDs break down after being exposed to high heat for long enough. To show this, it set up a microdisplay LCD whose screen was full of yellow, green and blue blotches. The name of its manufacturer was taped over, and TI did not offer details of how it had been used or misused in the store where TI had bought it. When I asked a Sony executive about this that night, he said flatly that his company's own durability testing has never shown any such issue.)

Third, don't worry too much about maximum resolutions. The difference between a 480-line "enhanced definition" picture and a 720-line high-def screen can be hard to see on smaller screens, and on bigger screens it's difficult to notice any difference between 720- and 1080-line resolutions, the two most common HD formats. Samsung set up an exhibit of a pair of 61-inch DLP sets that displayed the same set of images -- one at a 720-line resolution and the other at a 1080-line resolution. I watched this presentation from start to finish and, from five feet away, saw only the smallest differences -- the lines in a diagram looked slightly finer on the 1,080-line display, for instance.

Fourth, consider every technology in the market. I've been down on plasma sets in the past, mainly because they cost too much in high-definition models (those under-$3,000 sets all top out at a 480-line enhanced-definition resolution). But true HD plasmas are now starting to come down to Earth, while manufacturers say they've addressed burn-in and lifespan issues. Panasonic, for example, says the phosphor chemicals on its latest models now eliminate the need for a break-in period of restrained use (yes, just like on a new car) that some plasma experts once recommended. Across the board, 60,000-hour lifespans (enough for, manufacturers say, 25 years of viewing) are now the usual instead of 30,000 hours.

You might even want to ponder the humble, hefty CRT. LG and Samsung both showed off 30-inch tube TVs with redesigned innards that allow them to be about a third thinner than usual -- 14 or so inches deep instead of 20. These sets aren't any lighter, however, and their prices of $1,000 to $1,300 are unlikely to represent a big discount over those of 30-inch LCDs in the coming year.

You can read some of my other notes from CES later today at the Gadget Gab blog on washingtonpost.com.

-- Rob Pegoraro (rob@twp.com)

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