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Flat Panel TV Buying Guide

By: Oliver Amnuayphol - Home Theater Guru

Who could’ve imagined just a little over ten years ago those bulky, heavy, and big-boxed TVs that were once the dominating force in home theater viewing would rapidly slim down into lean, mean, sexy flat panel machines? While CRTs (the technology behind traditional tube, rear projection, and front projection TVs) are still capable of deep, rich blacks and jaw-dropping pictures, these have completely gone the way of VHS and dinosaurs—making way for displays that are much more room and décor friendly. And while you can still get rear-projection sets (based on newer fixed-pixel technologies) that are much lighter and slimmer than the behemoths of yesteryear, nearly all consumers have indeed opted for the oh-so-cool, hang-on-the-wall, flat panel TVs that have taken home theater viewing by storm.

Given all of the different choices available today—and the fact that almost all currently available sets 30 inches and above are capable of varying levels of HDTV picture quality—it’s easy to be confused by the dizzying array of technology, terminology, and features prevalent in the veritable plethora of flat panel TVs. So then, how do you pick the one that’s right for you? Have no fear, O seeker of flat panel wisdom! This buyer’s guide is here to help you find that perfect flat panel big screen you’ve been lusting for.

When to Choose Plasma

The first thing to do is to figure out how, where, and when you’ll be using your TV so you can decide which of the two currently available flat panel technologies is right for you: plasma or LCD. Generally, if you’re mostly watching movies at night, in a darkened room, or in a dedicated home theater, plasma is the way to go. Today’s plasmas are capable of rich, deep black levels and well-developed contrast, competing toe to toe with the best tube CRTs and rear projection sets of yesteryear. This means dark movie scenes can stay as gloomy as the director intended with no loss of brightness; and no longer will you have to artificially bump up the brightness to see what’s going on in your favorite creepy horror flick. Plasmas also tend to have better off-axis (non-dead-center) viewing than LCDs, so if you’re inclined to have a small gathering over for popcorn and movies, most people will be able to enjoy a very good picture without having to fight for that spot directly in front of the screen. Lastly, at larger screen sizes (55 inches and above), plasmas tend to have a noticeable edge in picture quality when compared to similar-size LCD displays, but this performance gap is closing fast.  So to sum up: if you’re looking for the most cinematic experience plus great picture for all in the largest size screen possible, a plasma is what you’ll need.

When to Choose LCD

If however you plan on watching a lot of everyday television programs during the day or in a normally-lit room, consider LCD displays. Generally these sets are capable of higher brightness levels than their plasma counterparts and are less sensitive to ambient and reflected light while still retaining excellent color saturation and detail—images tend to “pop” from the screen, even in daylight, making sports programs and such look very lively and detailed. If you also plan on using your set for video games, looking over pictures from your camera or PC, or viewing anything with lots of static or stationary images (such as news and home shopping channels), LCDs may be preferable since they are not susceptible to burn-in. What’s more, LCDs are available in smaller sizes (down to 17inches) whereas plasmas are not; so if you’re also looking for the best value flat screen, have a smaller room or will be sitting fairly close to the screen, making the choice between plasma and LCD just got a whole lot simpler. In short, if you’re a watch whatever, whenever kind of person and are looking for the best value, LCDs may be just what the home theater doctor ordered.

Important Considerations

However, there are some drawbacks to all of this fancy new technology: not everything is sunshine and roses in flat panel land, and there are some important considerations to keep in mind with either plasma or LCD. On one hand, plasmas are susceptible to burn-in of stationary images, especially within the first 100 hours of usage. Exercising caution during this period will help avoid this, and many of the latest plasmas will have a feature that will momentarily flood the screen with white to get rid of most of the burned-in images. Nevertheless, an ounce of prevention is sure to go a long way. On the other hand, LCD sets can have their own problems: early models were notorious for high levels of motion-blur, leaving wacky tracers on any images that even attempted to crawl across the screen—making sports viewing extremely excruciating. Thanks to new developments in doubling frame refresh rates from 60 Hz to 120 Hz and picture smoothing “de-judder” circuitry, this is almost non-existent in today’s LCD displays; nevertheless, some blur still exists and can be noticeable to certain viewers. Look for a “response time” spec of 8 milliseconds or less to help minimize motion blur if you’re leaning towards LCDs.

The Resolution Spec

Regardless of whether you’ve decided to go the plasma or LCD route, there are a couple of features and specs to look for that are common to both types of displays. Perhaps the most important spec is the one that makes nearly every flat panel display of today look much better than nearly every TV of yesterday: resolution. Thanks to the development of HDTV, displays are capable of much higher resolution than ever before, boasting numbers such as 720p, 1080i, and 1080p (as opposed to the maximum of 480i in those pre-HDTV days—see our Aperion University course, TV Jargon Demystified). In most cases, higher resolution numbers mean finer grained images for a smoother picture and better detail capability; however, general expert consensus is that it’s very difficult for most viewers to tell the difference between 720p and 1080p in displays smaller than 50 inches at normal viewing distances, so 1080p in smaller displays will be less of a concern. Nevertheless, having 1080p resolution (not always possible in smaller sizes) does mean your set will be compatible with any hi-def formats available now and years down the pike; so if you plan on making the most of your flat panel for years to come this spec will be important.

…That HDMI Thing…

The other important feature to look for is whether your display has HDMI 1.4 connectivity. While earlier versions of HDMI went a long way towards maximizing quality and convenience, version 1.3 guarantees that you’ll be able to make the most of emerging hi-def technologies (such as HD DVD and Blu Ray) capable of delivering 1080p picture quality to your chosen display. Moreover, HDMI 1.3 is the only connection standard that allows your hi-def DVD player to pass Deep Color (the ability to display billions of colors instead of millions) and support for x.v.Color (broader color space), so if you want that eye-popping, jaw-dropping experience that hi-def can deliver, HDMI 1.4 is a must. Flat screen displays + HDMI 1.4 = a very good thing!

In Conclusion

So to recap, here are the things to consider when choosing your flat panel display:

Choose plasma if:

-You watch mostly movies in lower-light to completely dark rooms or at night;

-There are multiple viewers who will want to enjoy the picture from angles not directly in front of the screen;

-You want the largest flat screen possible with the best picture quality.

Choose LCD if:

-You watch mostly TV programs or play video games during the day or in room with reflected or ambient light;

-You watch a lot of sports or other high brightness programming;

-You have a smaller room or plan on sitting closer to the TV so a smaller size is necessary.

-Resolution and HDMI 1.3 connectivity are important to any HDTV—whether plasma or LCD. These will allow you to get the best picture possible and will prepare your display for future home theater developments.

Once you’ve decided which type of flat panel is right for you, all that’s left is to get one home, adjust for the best picture, sit back, relax, and enjoy!

Tags: Guru Tips and Tricks, Home Theater, Home Theater Buying Guides

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