Sunday, November 26, 2006
Over this year, one of the biggest obstacles to buying a high-definition TV crumbled into dust. Even if you're looking for a big, flat-panel plasma or a liquid-crystal display screen, you no longer have to spend more than the cost of a good laptop computer.
But as flat-panel TV prices have deflated by anywhere from a third to half, choosing the proper set hasn't gotten much easier. Depending on whom you talk to, either plasma is the sole sensible choice, or only a fool would pick that over LCD.
True, there are real differences behind the techno-zealotry. That became clear during lengthy trials of four televisions selling for no more than $2,000 and change.
Two were 40-inch LCDs: Sony's KDL-V40XBR1 and Samsung's LN-S4041D. The other two were 42-inch plasmas: Panasonic's TH-42PX600U and Philips's 42PF9631D.
None of these issues emerged as a tragic flaw in the test runs. They're just things to weigh against your priorities and needs.
Start with where that new HDTV will go. If the area won't accommodate a set above a certain size, that alone could drive the decision. LCD is the only flat-screen option that comes in sizes smaller than 37 inches across, but it gets prohibitively expensive for anything bigger than 46 inches.
(Flat-panel alternatives have their own size limits. Conventional tube TVs max out at 34 inches, while "microdisplay" sets -- the projection sets that measure a foot or more thick and go by names like "DLP," "rear-projection LCD" and "LCOS" -- usually can't be had under 46 inches.)
With a TV size in mind, see how much light comes into the room. If a houseplant thrives on the windowsill, an LCD is probably best. LCDs are generally brighter and less prone to glare than plasma.
Then, consider the spots from which people might watch TV. Plasma sets offer the widest viewing angles, followed by LCDs; once you move past 45 degrees or so from straight on, an LCD can start to look a little pale. (Most microdisplays, meanwhile, have more limited viewing angles than either plasma or LCD.)
Next question: Will a computer or video game console be plugged into the HDTV? If so, avoid plasma TVs unless you can accept "temporary image retention." On both plasmas, keeping a static image on the screen -- for instance, the Windows desktop or a TV programming guide -- for an hour left a faint after-image that lingered for maybe another hour before fading away.
Finally, will the TV hang on a wall or from a ceiling -- or will it just get lugged up the stairs? LCDs are a lot lighter than plasmas: The Samsung LCD, at 46.5 pounds, was less than half as hefty as the Philips plasma.
If all those factors still allow you to pick either plasma or LCD, plasma should offer slightly better picture quality. It allows for greater contrast, a deeper range of blacks and faster "refresh rates" (for instance, a fast-moving ticker on ESPN was clear on the Philips plasma but smeared slightly on the Samsung LCD).
To minimize those disadvantages on an LCD, look for a set with the highest possible "dynamic contrast ratio" (4,000:1 or higher) and the quickest refresh rate (8 ms or fewer).
Plasma has a reputation for being less efficient, but tests with a power meter didn't bear that out: The Panasonic used about the same amount of electricity over an hour as either LCD -- though the Philips plasma drew about 25 percent more juice.
With any HDTV, keep a few features on your shopping list. Make sure the TV has a digital tuner and is not just a monitor. With an antenna, that tuner will offer crisp, clear, high-definition broadcasts for free -- if nothing else, a fantastic backup for cable or satellite. (This is the biggest secret of HDTV: It makes over-the-air broadcasts relevant again.)
Unfortunately, not all digital tuners are as capable. The Sony, Samsung and Panasonic sets delivered good to excellent reception, but the Philips would lose the signal if I looked at it the wrong way.
Equally important: a full set of video inputs. High-definition video comes in via two connectors: digital HDMI (high definition multimedia interface) and analog component video. Get a TV with two of each kind, plus a VGA (analog) or DVI (digital) port if a computer will be plugged in.
Some HDTVs include a convenient extra -- a memory-card reader or USB port to show off digital photos.
Lastly, don't pay a cent extra for "1080p" resolution. Ads calling it "true" or "full" high-definition overlook two inconvenient facts: No broadcast, cable or satellite service offers that resolution, and you probably won't see the difference from your couch on a screen smaller than 50 inches.