Taking the leap to digital TV



If you bought an LCD flat-panel television last year, you probably paid about $4,000 for a 36-inch model.

And you probably should refrain from reading the next paragraph.

According to research firm ISuppli Corp., which tracks consumer electronics prices, that type and size of TV is now selling, on average, for about $2,700.

That trend is likely to continue for a while: ISuppli predicts that a 36-inch liquid-crystal-display television will go for about $880 in 2008.

But you have to pick your moment to plunge in - and then avoid obsessing about subsequent prices.

Regardless of which way prices are headed, this is a good time to buy. Besides the drop in price - which has been particularly acute for LCD models but applies to almost all flavors of digital TV - the technology has improved too. Some of the previous technical problems have been largely eradicated on state-of-the-art models. And there are some relative bargains to be found.

You'll probably have to make the jump to digital sometime, anyway: Federal Communications Commission regulations require that TVs sold after March 1, 2007, be able to receive digital signals. Also, you can't take advantage of increasingly available high-definition programming unless you have a digital set. (Keep in mind that not all digital TVs are HD-capable. To qualify as HD, a television must have a widescreen configuration, also known as a 16:9 aspect ratio, and a minimum resolution of 720 "progressively scanned" lines per screen.)

Here's a guide to the CRT, flat-panel and plasma types, with prices, pros, cons and subjective views of image quality. Rear projection sets are another option:

Picture tube: Sometimes called direct view or CRT (for cathode-ray tube). This is an old-fashioned tube TV configured to process digital signals.

One caution: Plenty of analog-only CRT sets are still being sold, especially in the smaller sizes, so make sure you are buying a digital model if that's what you want.

Tube TVs are a bargain in that you can get a 30-inch digital widescreen set by a major manufacturer for $800. And the image quality is wonderful, without the visible pixels or blurring common on some digital formats.

Also, CRT is a mature technology that's highly reliable. Your set is likely to have a long life.

The downsides are that CRT sets are bulky (the depth can be up to 2 feet) and heavy, and the maximum screen size commonly available is about 34 inches.

LCD flat panel: Of all the digital formats, this is my favorite.

The image produced by the liquid crystal display comes closest to looking like a window on an adjacent world. Some experts complain that its images do not display as much contrast as on a CRT set, but I didn't much notice. A former problem was that the image on LCDs appeared distorted if not viewed head-on, but state-of-the-art sets now look good even from sharp angles. And the flat panels are only a few inches thick.

But LCD sets are still, generally, the most expensive. And they are commonly available at a maximum size of about 37 inches, although that's changing. Sharp Electronics Corp., which offers only LCDs in its TV line, recently put a 65-inch set on the market - for $21,000.

Plasma: This technology is the most common for flat-panel TVs measuring 40 inches and up. A 42-inch set - one of the most popular sizes - sells for about $1,900, according to ISuppli, although a model from a major brand can cost $3,000 or more.

It's worth considering the more expensive sets because some of the cheaper plasma models produce muddy images that are not worth viewing at any price.

The image on the good sets is terrific but not under all conditions. At close range, a screen-door effect is apparent on many models. And in bright light, the plasma image tends to wash out.

In the past, there was a potential of burn-in - a permanent, ghost-like mark on the screen resulting from near-constant display of the same image (such as the news ticker on an all-news cable station). However, good-quality sets now constantly but imperceptibly shift the picture in tiny amounts to prevent the problem.

Also, plasma TVs used to generate enough heat - especially out of the top of the units - to make toast. That problem has been mostly eradicated too.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times

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