Shopping for TVs With the Experts

A 52-inch Sony TV. LCD sets, like this one, use less power than plasma TVs, but they also have a less-sharp picture.
A 52-inch Sony TV. LCD sets, like this one, use less power than plasma TVs, but they also have a less-sharp picture. (Sony Via Associated Press)
By Alan Zibel
Associated Press
Saturday, November 8, 2008

Technological advances have made giant flat-panel TV screens with intensely detailed pictures affordable to the average American consumer. But which one to choose?

Home theater enthusiasts say you can get the biggest bang for your buck with a system that uses a digital projector. They can easily be hooked up to your computer, video game system or DVD player, or cable signal, and they display images at a variety of sizes.

These days, high-quality home theater projectors by makers like Mitsubishi and Samsung sell for as little as $850.

If you're on a tight budget, you can set up your projector in your apartment or dorm room by simply directing it toward the wall. If you want a more impressive display, you can buy a screen (70 to 200 inches, measured diagonally).

These screens, made by companies such as Elite Screens and Da-Lite, can cost $225, or up to $3,000 for deluxe models that have a motor to retract the screen into an aluminum casing.

There are some downsides to projection systems: They use a specialized bulb that needs to be replaced every few years for about $350. They work far better in a dark room, so if you don't have a windowless basement or a room with dark shades, you're probably better off with a plasma or LCD (liquid crystal display) television.

Plasma and LCD sets look alike but actually use different technology. Plasma screens use a gas that's charged by electricity, while LCD screens create images by charging a different material: liquid crystal.

Some experts prefer plasma screens because they display better black hues, have sharper images and can be viewed from all angles, but the TVs have a shiny screen, making it harder to see the picture if there's a lot of light in the room. They also are big energy hogs: Consumer Reports says its tests show that plasma sets use up about twice as much energy as comparable LCD screens.

Experts say LCD technology is better for a bright room, though fast-moving images can blur a bit, and the image often doesn't look great from an angle.

Prices of flat-screen TVs -- made by dozens of companies such as Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, LG, Olevia and Vizio -- dropped dramatically in recent years. It's even possible that 32-inch LCD TV sets, which now usually cost $600 to $700, could drop to as low as $350 by the end of 2009, analysts say.

Regardless of which one you're inclined to pick, experts advise taking your time and inspecting the picture carefully to check brightness and color.

Before deciding to buy, bring your favorite DVD to the store and test it out on a new set, advises home theater designer Brian Lamont of Presque Isle, Maine.

"If they won't allow you, say 'thank you very much' and go someplace else," said Lamont, who has designed projects around the country.

There's also a lot you can do to make it easier to choose a movie from your collection. Massive media servers -- basically giant computer disk drives -- make it easy to sort through hundreds of movies, sorting it by actor, genre and the like.

Apple TV starts at $229. A competing Internet set-top box from Vudu that launched last fall has roughly 5,000 movies available and sells for $295.

"You don't have to remember where all the DVDs are," said Lewis Franke, a home theater systems designer with DM Home Entertainment in Carrollton, Tex.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company