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Choosing the best big-screen TV for you -- Page 2

Another concern is no one can really say how long plasmas will last, which is a factor if you're sinking thousands into a purchase. Like LCDs, plasmas will also gradually lose brightness over time, he says.

In addition, the sets can have problems with burned-in images if similar pictures or graphics stay on the screen for a prolonged period, so they are not recommended for video games or 24/7 use. Still, weigh the options. The problem of burn-in is "played up too much," says Greenberg. "Obviously, it's worrisome for someone who's spending $5,000 to $6,000 for a television."

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Two things that aren't widely known: The sets are extremely heavy and generate lots of heat, says Heim. As a result, "you probably need to have a professional install them," he says. In addition, some makers sell the tuner separately, so you need to add that to the tab.

And beware of plasma sets that aren't high definition, says Greenberg. "I don't recommend $2,000 to $3,000 non-high definition plasmas," he says. "That's not a very good value." For big-screen value in that range, look at rear-projection high-definition sets, he says.

Rear-projection sets
These are the sets you see in sports bars. They're not as thin as flat panel, but LCD and DLP versions are much thinner than conventional sets. Gives the size of plasma and nearly the clarity. Here's a run-down of some rear-projection options:

Rear-projection CRT: "This is the defacto technology that's been used for the past 10 years," says Greenberg. These are the "bigger, bulkier style" of rear-projection sets, he says. Prices range from $1,000 up to $4,000, and high definition versions "start at $1,200," he says.

Picture quality "especially for a high-definition version, is very good," says Greenberg. "In some ways it's even better than LCD or DLP quality." Great contrast and will render natural black.

Microdisplay LCD: While these don't come in a flat-panel version, they are much slimmer than the traditional CRTs, "so you can shove it against a wall," says Greenberg.

The main advantage is the huge screen size for the money, says Greenberg, who considered this technology "the biggest bang for the buck." Prices range from $1,000 to $6,000. Screens are available as large as five feet. And quality doesn't necessarily mean most-expensive. Greenberg tested one 61-inch model that retailed for $2,800. "You'd think it was plasma."

Another advantage is no burn-in problems, so it's better for video games than other technologies.

A disadvantage is that as good as the picture can be it's "not quite as sharp and detailed as plasma," Greenberg says. Again, it's LCD, so it doesn't show black and can lose brightness over time. Also, sets contain a bulb that has to be replaced every year or two, he says. Cost: $250 to $500.

Microdisplay DLP: Digital light processing sets are similar to LCD microdisplays in strengths and weaknesses. Also slimmer and lighter than CRTs. Will not render pure black. As with LCD sets, you have to replace expensive bulbs occasionally.

Between LCDs and DLPs, which technology has the edge? "DLPs have a lower resolution than LCDs, so the picture may not look quite as sharp if you were able to compare it side to side," says Heim. "And they are more expensive: $3,500 to $10,000."

Greenberg doesn't agree. "You can get equivalent performance," he says. "Neither has it over the other in terms of resolution or picture quality. It really depends upon the individual TV itself."

Front-projection TVs
This is not your high school teacher's film projector. The new projectors, whether CRT, LCD or DLP, throw a picture on the wall just as big as you want it. And while the price has come down, the quality has gone up. It's still not the most practical option for everyday use, so these sets are more the purview of the home theater aficionado.

CRT projector: The market is "really moving away from the CRT technology," says Greenberg. The reason: they require regular maintenance. "Even the best units need to be continually reconverged and recalibrated," he says. But the advantages are the same that you'd find with any CRT product: great contrast, true black and a terrific picture. Prices run from $2000 up to $15,000.

LCD projector: You can get a very small set that throws a very large picture. "Some very high-end ones, and some entry-level ones, are the size of a couple of paperback books," says Greenberg. Unlike CRTs, they are very low maintenance and require no calibrating.

The picture quality is similar to other LCD sets. Prices run from $1,000 to $10,000.

DLP projector: Advantages are similar to LCDs projectors, with the same low maintenance requirement. They tend to cost a little more, running from $1,500 to $25,000. Picture quality is similar to other DLP sets.

Ups and extras
Now that you've selected the type of television you want, how about some of the new features?

Wide screen: Strictly a matter of preference, but techies definitely seem to prefer the wide screen. "If you're spending more than $500 on a TV it should be a wide-screen," says Greenberg. "That's where the industry is going."

Heim agrees. For people who want to get a big-screen high-end television, "going for the wide screen makes sense," he says.

The downside is that if you're watching something that's not in wide-screen format, you will notice black or gray bars on the sides of the screen where there is no picture. Or many sets have an optional feature called "stretch mode," which expands the images on the sides of the screen to fit the format, says Greenberg. And while characters in the center of the screen appear as they normally would, if they move to one side or the other, "they look like they've gained 10 pounds," he says.

High definition: "It can be compared to when TV went from black and white to color," says Greenberg. "Whereas regular television looks like television, high definition looks like you're looking through a window."

Terms you might see:

  • Integrated high definition: Everything you need to capture a high definition picture is in the box. The most sensible and usually the most expensive option, says Heim.
  • High-definition ready: "Tells you you're going to have to spend money later for a high-definition tuner," says Heim.
  • EDTV: Stands for "enhanced definition television." Not the quality of high definition, but a little better than the normal picture. "If I want something better than regular TV, I would rather go all the way and get high definition," says Heim. "This is a compromise, and I'm not sure it's going to last very long."

You also need to do a little homework on the signal you're getting, says Andy Pargh, co-author of "The Gadget Guru's Guide to the Best." Just because you have a digital box or satellite dish doesn't mean that you are getting a high-definition signal. If you need to upgrade the receiver, you want to know that before you buy, he says.

Get what you pay for
The best way to get a good buy? Still the shoe-leather approach.

The biggest mistake consumers make is "going by the specs," says Greenberg. Instead, he recommends bringing a live-action DVD movie that you've seen several times. Watch portions of that on your top choices and see how it looks. "You will instantly know whether this TV is doing it for you," he says. And if the store balks, walk.

"It's like test-driving a car," Greenberg says. "You will not know if a car's for you until you get behind the wheel and drive it."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Posted: Oct. 25, 2004




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