HDTV Update: Flat-Panel TV Buyer’s Guide

Aug 22, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Shopping for a television set has gone from simply choosing a size and brand to having to calculate several technology options against an ever-shifting marketplace. Here are some starting points.

Flat-Panel or Big-Box?

It may seem as though television prices have skyrocketed, but traditional cathode-ray tube sets are better and cheaper than ever. A solid-performing and dependable 27-inch Toshiba, for example, is a Consumer Reports Best Buy and only about $250. CRT high-definition units start at $500.

Moving up, rear-projection units have evolved from giant gray crates to foot-deep tabletop “microscreen” displays, thanks to technology such as liquid crystal display rear projection (not to be confused with flat-panel LCDs) and digital light processing. Though bulkier and dimmer than flat-panels, rear-projection units still offer the most screen inches per dollar and some, such as the Sony Grand WEGA line, have impressed critics.

LCD or Plasma?

Among the flat-panels, LCDs are typically under 40 inches while most plasmas are over 40 inches. LCDs are brighter, often have higher resolution and have sharper picture quality if the panel is used for computer display. Plasmas have faster response time for displaying action sequences and superior black levels for a more naturalistic image.

Inch for inch, LCDs are generally more expensive, but that gap is narrowing. Plasma used to suffer from “burn in,” where static images (such as a paused videogame, or letterbox bars) left too long on the screen could result in a permanent fixed ghost on the screen. The problem has been mostly eliminated in newer models, though manufacturers still recommend an initial 100-hour “burn-in period” during which static images are avoided.

Another onetime plasma and LCD downside was life expectancy. But both technologies now last about 60,000 hours per unit, about the same as traditional CRTs.

Enhanced Definition or High Definition?

Affordable enhanced-definition sets-which can display only 480 lines of resolution compared with a minimum of 720 for bona fide HD units-are being phased out. Though such models can sometimes display DVD and standard-definition television signals more smoothly than their HD cousins, experts recommend the future-proofing of an HD set.

Upstart or Big Brand?

Among LCDs, Sharp gets high marks from videophiles. Among plasmas, there are many more choices, but only three companies actually make their own units: Pioneer, Panasonic and Hitachi. They are also, not coincidentally, considered to have the highest quality.

Other companies get at least some of their components from one of the “big three.” Panasonic is the market leader and is typically the least expensive of the big brands. Of the budget companies, Maxent has received some early praise.

Buy Now or Wait?

Wait … but not too long. As with computers, there are always cheaper and better models right around the corner. But prices have come down more than 35 percent this year. Televisions tend to be discounted right before the holiday season, meaning September and October should see some significant price drops.

Record-breaking Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving Day) and post-Christmas deals are also expected.

Buy Online or Bricks-and-Mortar?

A few years ago the idea of buying a big-screen television online would have seemed ludicrous, with any reduction in price offset by enormous shipping costs. But the combination of flat-panel’s high profit margins and low profiles has made for a burgeoning online marketplace. Online merchants routinely sell units for hundreds less than bricks-and-mortar competitors.

The catch is that many do not accept exchanges or returns, requiring customers to take up any problems directly with the manufacturer.