HDTV through thick and thin

Answers to questions about buying a flat-panel TV monitor

Plugged In

October 12, 2006|By The Dallas Morning News

Some people want to get thin no matter what. Others will settle for more girth, which does have some advantages.

Among all the decisions high-definition TV buyers have to make, it boils down to one choice: Thin? Or not-so-thin?

With the holiday shopping season approaching, a new crop of first-time HDTV buyers will descend upon electronics stores, studying a long list of acronyms and terminology to make the best purchase possible.

It's a difficult process, but thinking about the differences between thin TVs and thicker TVs can help narrow the choices down.

Thin TVs - the plasma and LCD models that can hang on the wall - are popular and attractive.

Thicker rear-projection TVs don't get as much attention but offer a lot of value.

Shoppers, of course, want style, a good picture and a low price.

"What's the hot button?" said Tamaryn Pratt, principal analyst at TV industry analysis firm Quixel Research. "Are you really dying for flat, or is your pocketbook the most important? And brand and resolution also factor in."

If you're unfamiliar with HDTV display technology, ask yourself these questions:

Where do I want to put my TV?

TV makers like to point out that flat-panel displays are so thin - typically 3 to 8 inches deep - that they can hang on the wall like a picture.

But hanging a TV isn't as simple as hammering a nail into the wall. In many cases, "you're talking about ripping up drywall," said Steve Kovsky, principal analyst for digital TVs at research firm Current Analysis.

Positioning the TV in the right place and figuring out what to do with the wires can require costly professional help.

And the TVs aren't particularly light, either - a typical 50-inch plasma screen weighs 60 pounds or more.

Only about one-quarter of flat-panel buyers leave the electronics store planning to hang up their TVs on the wall, Pratt said.

The rest are either using the traditional armoire or a credenza to support the TV.

If you're not planning to hang your TV on a wall, you might want to consider a rear-projection model.

Flat-panel displays still look cool and sexy on a credenza, but if you're sticking one into your big TV cabinet, who cares how thick it is?

How much does flat matter?

Rear-projection TV makers know that flat matters, and they're trying to get their products slimmer to win consideration from people who absolutely won't look at any other option.

Samsung is selling a 46-inch digital light processing (DLP) rear-projection model this fall that measures 10.6 inches thick and weighs less than 50 pounds.

The TV is based on a "slim DLP" concept developed by Texas Instruments Inc., the maker of DLP chips.

"Given that the market is moving more and more toward flatter screens, you'll see this concept doing very well," said John Reder, manager of worldwide strategy and business development for Texas Instrument's DLP TV chips.

But if you want the absolute skinniest right now, it's LCD or plasma.

Do I want the latest in picture technology?

This takes some explaining, but it's an important consideration.

HDTVs are able to show the highest-quality TV signals, which are broadcast in two formats, called 720p and 1080i. (The numbers refer to lines of resolution, and the letters refer to whether the picture is "progressive" or "interlaced.")

In the last year, though, a newer format has picked up steam.

It's called 1080p, and consumer electronics marketers are calling it "True HDTV" because it's a little bit better than the other two formats.

A 1080p TV can play the other two formats.

That's good, because broadcasters haven't even begun airing shows in 1080p yet.

But the two types of high-definition DVDs introduced to the market this year, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, are capable of playing movies in 1080p.

Those DVDs aren't particularly popular yet.

But some shoppers prefer to "future-proof" themselves by buying a 1080p set that will be able to play those movies at their highest resolution.

It's worth going to the store and seeing the TVs to make up your own mind. But if you settle on 1080p, you're setting yourself up for a conundrum.

Right now, among large 1080p TVs, rear-projection models are thousands of dollars cheaper than flat-panel models. If you want flat and 1080p, in other words, you're going to have to increase your budget.

How big do I want my TV to be?

A couple of years ago, if you wanted a really large HDTV, you almost certainly had to buy a rear-projection model. But it's now possible to get a flat-panel TV measuring about 50 inches for just a few hundred dollars more than a rear-projection TV of the same size.

As noted above, the HDTV format may differ.

If you're going to get 42 inches or less, a flat-panel TV offers a very competitive price. But at 50 inches, rear-projection TVs are a little bit cheaper. In bigger sizes, the disparity is even wider.

Which display looks best?

Beauty is most assuredly in the eye of the beholder.

HDTV enthusiasts bicker constantly about whether DLP is better than plasma, whether SXRD is better than LCD.

Some people feel that plasma and LCD flat panels offer richer colors. Others argue that the brightness is better on a rear-projection display. You're not likely to buy one of these sets and be disappointed with the image.

"It is a very individual thing," said Kovsky, of Current Analysis.

"But for the average person, you're splitting hairs, because they all look pretty darn good."

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