In an Aug. 29 Business article about high-definition television sets, the name of Jim Sanduski, an executive at Samsung Electronics, was misspelled. (Published 9/2/04)
Bruce Goodman is shopping for a new plasma television. He's been doing that for a while -- about six months.
"It's much more work than it ought to be," he said of his research. "You go to three stores and ask the same question, you get four different answers."
Digital, high-definition television can be a complex enough business in its own right. But the shift from analog to digital now also means a shift from fat to flat -- instead of traditional cathode-ray tubes, new sets employ plasma, liquid-crystal display, digital light processing or other technologies to cut down on the bulk of the set.
Sales of all digital sets are up, fueled by steadily decreasing prices. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, 2.8 million such televisions were shipped during the first half of this year, the vast majority of them high-definition sets. (HDTV is a subset of the overall digital standard, which allows for a clearer picture and better sound than the old analog system.) That's up from 1.5 million over the same period last year, though it's still just a fraction of the 25 million sets Americans buy annually.
But these growing sales don't necessarily mean that everybody has a clear idea of what they're buying. In the pre-HDTV days, TV shopping was a simple business: All you had to do was take the width of your TV stand and cross-reference it against the thickness of your wallet. But the advent of new technologies has made things a little confusing. Plasma? LCD? DLP? These are some of the terms you might not have been faced with if you haven't gone shopping in more than a few years.
For those enticed by the possibility of having a television set that looks wafer-thin from across the room, there are two types of "flat-panel" sets available: plasma and LCD.
Plasma is the technology that has probably captured the most attention among shoppers at local electronics stores -- the sets tend to be large and undeniably slick-looking.
But shoppers specifically looking for an HDTV should know that not all plasma sets are high-definition. Less-expensive sets you see advertised typically have a lower resolution -- a less-detailed picture, in other words -- called EDTV (or enhanced-definition TV). Sean Wargo, the CEA's director of industry analysis, calculated that only 40 percent of the plasma sets shipped in the United States this year are true high-definition sets.
The biggest worry among plasma-TV owners and those thinking of joining them is the threat of "burn-in." Know those logos on the corner of the screen that identify the network you're watching? Leave a plasma set tuned into the same channel for long enough, and that image may begin to etch itself into the screen -- meaning that you could end up seeing the faint ghost of the CNN or Spike TV logo even when you're watching Fox News or Lifetime.
"Ten to 20 hours can produce a visible difference" on the screen, said Rick Doherty, research director for Envisioneering Inc. Though some makers have devised ways to reduce the risk of burn-in, such as moving a static screen image slightly every few minutes, none has come up with a perfect solution yet, he said.
"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.
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."