TV gets simple; DVD, not so much

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Something wonderful has happened in the world of high-definition video over the past few years: Flat-panel HDTVs have become everyday, relatively risk-free purchases. If only the same thing could happen for another category of high-def devices -- Blu-ray players.

In TVs, your only big choices are screen size and plasma or LCD. You can answer the former with a tape measure. The latter depends on the amount of light in the room (the glossy screens on plasmas -- and, unfortunately, many newer LCDs -- reflect too much glare) and size (few plasmas come in sizes smaller than 42 inches).

The majority of people who opt for LCDs have other features to ponder. The "120 Hz" screen technology helps compensate for LCDs' slower response time, but 240 Hz isn't worth the extra cost. Some high-end LCDs include LED backlighting so they use less electricity and display brighter colors and deeper blacks, but they demand a notable step up in price.

Don't get hung up by contrast-ratio numbers; they can help you choose between different sets by one manufacturer but otherwise offer little dependable insight.

On any HDTV, a USB port or memory-card slot will let you show off photos on the big screen.

The state of Blu-ray remains less settled. While you can easily find players for under $200, upconverting DVD players that make your existing movies look close to high-def sell for under $75. Upconverting DVD recorders have become frustratingly scarce -- especially those with a digital tuner to record over-the-air broadcasts -- but offer extra utility and can let you retire a VCR. (The gap between Blu-ray and upconverted DVD should be visible in side-by-side viewing, but that's not how most people watch TV.)

Because the stock of DVD titles vastly exceeds what's out on Blu-ray, you should think of a Blu-ray player as a DVD player with extras. One worthwhile upgrade to consider in one: Internet software to play movies streamed from sites such as Netflix, opening up additional high-def viewing options. (Some TVs include this feature, too, but at a higher price premium.)

On any HDTV, DVD or Blu-ray player, another bonus feature might simplify your TV viewing a little: "HDMI-CEC," which allows different devices to cooperate. For example, you can turn on a DVD player, then have that switch on the HDTV above it and the sound bar speaker system to its left . . . well, if things work as advertised.

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