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Big Screen Technology Buying Guide

Aug 17, 2007
If you are a TV lover and have spent any time at all walking past the displays of big screen TV's in your local stores, I can fully understand what happens -- your remote control finger starts to twitch, your rear end starts to long for that comfortable spot in your favorite recliner, and you have a sudden urge to take your shoes off. At least that's what happens to me. I admit it, I am a TV junkie. Not that I spend a lot of time in front of the TV but when I am there, I require quality, and the more quality in video and audio, the happier I am.

But with the technology available today to the consumer, the choices almost boggle the mind. And Joe Average doesn't follow the technology closely enough to be able to understand which technology is best for his needs. In fact, Joe's only gauge of quality is the unit's price tag, which is probably about the LEAST reliable gauge of them all. So let's take a quick look at the various technologies available for big screen TV so that you better understand what you are looking AT, as well as understanding what you are shopping FOR.

Regular tube TV: Yes, depending on your budget, this needs to be mentioned as a viable option, although unless you've been living in a cave for the past 50 years, there is little new that you need to know about it. It's a TV, plain and simple. Tube TV's are typically limited to about 36 inch pictures, with a couple top-end brands even getting to the 40 inch mark. The picture is good, and most of today's upper-end sets also allow the viewing of HDTV on the same unit. My only word of caution here is that I cannot recommend a set that has a built-in VCR and/or DVD player. The built-in units are typically not high quality with limited functionality, and for the additional money you would pay for such a combo unit, you can get an external VCR or DVD player for far less money.

Now on to the big stuff. But first, since I already mentioned it, a word about HDTV. HDTV is great, providing an incredible picture quality, provided of course that you have the screen that can display that quality. With HDTV, without getting all techie about it, the digital signal contains much more information, and the picture is created in PROGRESSIVE mode rather than INTERLACED mode, meaning that the ENTIRE picture is refreshed with every scan instead of just every other line as is done with interlaced.

I would also recommend a unit with the wide aspect ratio, like 16:9 or sometimes 16:10. This is the ratio of width versus height of the display, and the wide aspect ratio is the one you see when you go to the movie theatre. You can still watch broadcasts on the wide aspect ratio that are designed for the old traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, but it is much harder to watch something designed for 16:9 on a 4:3 display.

Another word of warning: there are big screen units that cannot do HDTV but they can do EDTV. Be aware that these are not the same. In fact, with the next step (SDTV) right around the corner, I don't see a long lifespan for EDTV. EDTV provides better quality than standard analog TV, but not as sharp and crisp as HDTV.

The different types of big screen TVs are discussed below.

Plasma TV

Advantages: long life (30,000 to 40,000 hours from brand names, significantly less with noname brands), very bright - up to 4-5 times a standard TV, viewing angle is huge - you can be 75-80 degrees off center and still see a clear picture, instant-on feature - there is virtually no warm-up time required, small footprint - since these units are very thin and could even be wall-mounted.

Disadvantages: possible burn-in or "image retention" if the same image is left displayed on the screen for an extended period of time (although when used as a TV this is probably not a concern), can be very pricey at the largest sizes possible (currently around a 50 inch display), very few have a tuner/amplifier built in so you will be required to get an external tuner, pixel failure - where a single pixel just remains white all the time although this is much more common on noname brands and may (check!) be covered under your warranty.

LCD TV

Advantages: Great brightness levels, also very thin and could be mounted on the wall, long life (about 40,000 hours on brand names, substantially less on noname brands), viewing angle is about 45 to 50 degrees from straight on.

Disadvantages: Ghosting - where there may be "artifacts" left on the display during a fast-action movie scene because the LCD cannot keep up with it that fast, viewing angle is not as good as plasma, very expensive technology today, not as good at reproducing accurate color as plasma.

DLP Rear Projection

Advantages: Low purchase cost although this is typically offset by higher operating costs. At the sizes above 42 inches, the DLP big screen is approximately the same price as plasma.

Disadvantages: high operational cost (the single bulb in the projector can cost upwards of $300 to replace), large footprint - you will need to allocate about 15-18 inches from the wall to accommodate the unit, not wall-mountable, poor viewing angle - not much more than 20-25 degrees from straight on, gradually decreasing bulb brightness over time which means your picture is not as sharp or bright.

Understanding the various display technologies available should help you, but keep in mind that this is not the whole story. Also know that as technology advances, prices will continue to fall and there may be more options in the future. There are many other factors to be considered which are discussed at my web sites below. But at least now you have a good feel for the type of technology that will work with both your desires and your budget.
About the Author
Jon Arnold is an author and computer engineer who provides tips and information on a variety of topics. More info on this topic can be found at his Home Theatre Web Site site at http://jag-info-resources.com/home-theatre/
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