Plasma? LCD? What to look for in HDTV


November 23, 2006|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you're shopping for technology this holiday season, you may have reason to celebrate.

Sony has released the hot PlayStation 3 (although it's in short supply). Nintendo has introduced its Wii game console (with a nifty 3D controller), and Microsoft has released its Zune digital music player to compete with Apple's iPod.

But the real excitement this year is in high-definition television.

HDTV sets can produce far more detailed pictures on larger screens than standard TVs. Thanks to competition and better manufacturing, the price of HD has fallen far more quickly than anyone expected.

And the holiday market may become even more favorable if Wal-Mart as rumored slashes prices on popular large-screen models - which would force other retailers to lower prices, too.

So with HDTVs, we've reached the point of diminishing returns on procrastination.

Let's look at a hypothetical, 42-inch plasma TV that sold for $2,400 last year and about $1,200 now.

If you put off your purchase last year, you've already saved $1,200. But the lower the price goes, the slimmer the margin for the manufacturer and retailer. Waiting another year isn't likely to halve the price again - there's a bottom line cost for manufacturing and marketing every piece of equipment.

As a result, procrastinating this time might save only $200 to $300. At some point, the opportunity to enjoy the set during the coming year is worth the relatively small premium for buying now.

Let's assume you've made that decision. Suddenly, you're wandering through a world of incomprehensible jargon, technical specifications and legions of sales people who may not know that much more than you.

HDTVs are far more complicated than older sets (and far more complicated than they should be). So it's wise to learn a bit about the terminology. Today we'll start with the size of the screen and the technology it uses to produce a picture. Next week we'll get into resolution and other technical issues.

The advertised size of an HDTV is misleading if you're accustomed to buying standard sets. As always, TV makers sell the diagonal measurement of the screen, from corner to corner, to make the set seem bigger.

Here's the catch. For more than half a century, traditional TV screens have had an aspect ratio of 4-to-3. That's the ratio of the width to the height. They were built that way to match the movie screens of the 1940s, and stayed that way even when CinemaScope and other wide-screen theater formats appeared during the 1950s.

Not so the latest HD sets. They have a wider, 16-to-9 aspect ratio that's great for action movies and sports, but doesn't bring much to sitcoms and dramas.

Now let's do some geometry (or just trust me with the math). A standard 50-inch diagonal TV screen is 40 inches wide and 30 inches high. That provides a viewing area of 1,200 square inches. But a 50-inch diagonal HD screen with today's wider aspect ratio provides a mere 1,063 square inches of display area.

So HD manufacturers give you 11 percent less TV than you got for the same diagonal measurement in the old days. And they're charging considerably more. This makes TV the only household technology that's becoming more expensive.

True, high-definition sets offer a better picture, but if you're not a sports addict or movie fan, you may not care. In that case, you'll be paying more for exactly the same utility you got from the old set. If that bothers you, hold off for now. Relatively inexpensive digital TVs in standard resolution and format are available now. But you'll have a better selection of basic sets in a year or so, as the industry gets ready to switch from analog to digital broadcasting in February 2009.

The change in aspect ratio of HD sets may pinch your pocketbook in another direction if you're replacing a TV that's in a cabinet, entertainment center, or some other horizontal space limited by walls or furniture.

To fit a wide HD screen into a space designed for a standard set, you'll have to be satisfied with a screen that's smaller overall. Or, you can buy a new cabinet, which any retailer will be delighted to sell you because it carries a higher markup than the TV itself.

Measure the space available for your TV - height, width and depth - before you leave home or start shopping online. Then measure the HD sets you find. Don't go by the advertised screen size - check out the overall width, height and depth of the set. Online, you'll find them in the technical specs.

Some have bezels or frames that extend well beyond the edge of the screen to accommodate speakers or controls. When I checked out 42-inch plasma screens this week, I found sets that varied from 45 to 53 inches wide.

Now for the technology HDTVs employ - which can make a considerable difference in their size, cost and performance.

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