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Choosing the best big-screen TV for you

Dreaming of a big-screen TV? The devil -- and the value -- will definitely be in the details.

Ten years ago, all you had to do was decide your price range, then bag the biggest, baddest set your wallet could support. These days, you have to navigate a myriad of different technologies.

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Price and size are still important. (The "big screen" category starts at about 32 inches if you measure the screen diagonally.) But with the emergence of DVDs and high definition signals, the true test is picture quality. The goal for the savvy buyer: Make sure the image looks as good in your living room as it did in the store.

"Some big-screen TVs out there have miserable picture quality," says tech writer and expert Corey Greenberg. "In that case, your money would be better spent on a smaller screen of higher quality."

None of it comes cheap. Big-screen buyers pay anywhere from $500 to $25,000 for the screen of their dreams. And one manufacturer recently showed off a prototype plasma that would run $60,000.

So if you're stalking the big screen, here are the pluses and minuses of some of the different types now available -- along with the straight story on what ups and extras you need and which ones you can leave at the store:

Direct-view CRT (cathode ray tube): This is the old reliable TV you had growing up, and it's still considered the most durable technology on the market. Aside from plasma, CRTs "still deliver the best picture quality," says David Heim, deputy editor for Consumer Reports, who reviewed the best and worst on the market for a 24-page spread in the magazine's November issue. "It got the best high-definition performance," he says. "And in many cases, it was as good as plasma."

And if you're pinching pennies, it's the least-expensive technology on the market. Sizes run from 32 to about 40 inches. For the larger models, you can pay $650 to $1,200. Hi-def versions will run $1,000 to $2,500, Heim says.

The downside is the sets are big and bulky. And they have a smaller maximum size. "And you're sort of buying last year's technology," says Greenberg.

Flat panel LCD: This is the same technology as a laptop computer screen. The high definition "is either good or very good," says Heim.

Sizes range from 14 inches up to 56 inches. For a 30-incher, "prices topped out at $5,000," says Heim. "I wouldn't start looking for fire-sale bargains yet."

Drawbacks include unknown long-term reliability and the price, says Heim. Plus, the contrast isn't as good as with other technologies. "The better the TV, the blacker it gets," says Greenberg. "But you don't get very much beyond dark gray." And the sets will gradually lose brightness over time, he says.

In addition, LCDs tend to have a relatively narrow viewing field, Heim says.

Plasma: "Right now the top of the line as far as picture goes," says Heim. You can also get a colossal screen -- up to 63 inches. "They are way cool," he says.

Greenberg agrees. "Razor-sharp definition, the best colors and they can do pure black." They also have the widest viewing angle, he says. "Even people sitting off to the side of a plasma will get a clear image," says Greenberg.

The biggest drawback with plasma is the cost. In the stores, "prices start around $3,000 and go up to as much as $25,000," says Heim.

-- Posted: Oct. 25, 2004




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