Navigating The HDTV Jungle

Toshiba flat-panel televisions at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, 1-2-06
AP (file)
As prices for high definition television finally begin to descend from the stratosphere, the question for many people this year - rather than whether to buy one - is which one to buy.

That's not an easy question to answer because, along with many brands, there are many types of high-def technology from which to choose. There are high-def versions of traditional cathode ray tube sets, rear-screen projectors, front screen projection systems, plasma flat panels and LCD flat panels.

As if that's not enough, you also have a choice of resolutions. The two most popular are 720p and 1080p. The numbers refer to the number of lines embedded within the signal.

The higher number is better. But before you get too hung up on that point, consider two things. First, 720p is already spectacular compared to regular (standard definition) TVs and second, a 1080p set can only strut its stuff if it gets a 1080p signal.

The vast majority of programs today are not available in that high a resolution and, unless you're one of the few people to have taken the plunge for either a Blu-ray or HD-DVD high-definition DVD player, your DVDs are not yet up to 720p, let alone 1080p. But even regular old DVDs look better on any high-definition TV.

Screen Size

Size does matter but don't assume that bigger is necessarily better. If the size is too big relative to where you're sitting, the picture will look grainier than if you had a smaller set.

A general rule of thumb is that the distance between the viewer and the screen should be between 1.5 and 2.5 times the diagonal size of the screen. So, if your couch is between 5 and 9 feet from the TV, you probably want about a 42-inch screen. If you're sitting 8 to 13 feet away, a 62-inch screen would be optimal.

The higher the resolution, the closer you can get without seeing the imperfections, but there is still the risk of being so close to a big screen that you don't see the whole picture – kind of like being in the front row at a movie theater.

If you had asked about getting a high-definition TV last holiday season, my advice would have been pretty simple. If you wanted a 37-inch or smaller set, I would have pointed you to LCD. If you wanted between 42 and 50 inches, I would have suggested plasma and for anything over 50, I would have pointed you to a rear-screen set using either LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) or DLP (digital light processing) technology.

I would have recommended (and still do suggest) a front screen projector only if you wanted to create a home theater-like atmosphere. And, unless you were going for a pretty small set, anything I would have recommended would have set you back at least $3,000. I also would have warned you that high-definition programming was somewhat hard to come by.

But that was last year. This year I'm happy to report that all of the technologies (except perhaps CRTs) are getting cheaper and more affordable. LCDs are getting bigger and high-definition programming is more abundant. In other words, this might finally be the year that high-definition TVs go mainstream.

CRTs, LCDs & Plasma

High definition CRTs are still around but are probably the least attractive option for most users. If you're looking for a relatively small screen size and don't care about that bulky cabinet, you can get a nice picture. Still, with the price of other technology coming down, I think it's best for most people to pass on CRTs unless you're going for a very inexpensive standard definition set.

LCD sets are coming on fast. Until this year, most affordable LCD screens were 37 inches (diagonally) or smaller because anything larger was generally too expensive for the consumer market. But efficiencies in production have changed the equation. Today you can get 42- and 46-inch LCD TVs and monitors for under $2,000.

Plasma TVs have been the mainstream for high-definition for years because they provided a relatively affordable way to get a 42 inch or larger set. That's still somewhat true, but for sets 47 inches and below, plasma is beginning to be elbowed out by LCD.

Plasma screens have a nice warm feeling and do a great job displaying very impressive high-definition images. They have a somewhat undeserved reputation of burning out over a period of time.

It is true that a plasma TV will lose its luminance eventually but it's kind of a non-issue. Plasma sets are generally rated for a half-life of about 60,000 hours, which means it will take that long before the set loses half of its brightness. If you watch TV for six hours a day, that means a plasma set will be serviceable for 27 years.