Feature Article

Which TV Should I Buy?

March, 2005

Brian Florian


Lately it seems not a day (or at least week) goes by without someone asking me, "Which TV should I buy?".

What's interesting here is that the question inevitably arises shortly after the person has seen a flat panel TV, either Plasma or LCD, on display somewhere.

Well, following is some food for thought about purchasing a new TV, based on the talks I have with people, one on one.

The shape of things to come

First things first. Don't even think about getting a TV in the old 4:3 aspect ratio shape.  Any conversation I have about TVs assumes the newer, widescreen, 16:9 aspect ratio, which is more rectangular than the older TVs (with NTSC TVs, for every 9" of image height, there is 12" of image width, while with HDTVs, for every 9" of image height, there is 16" of image width).

Why?  Well, for one we are talking about home theater, or at least a "prime" display, which means a lot of DVD movies, virtually all of which are widescreen.  HDTV is widescreen, and HDTV is here and now, not yesterday like the old NTSC TVs.  Yet, even if there is a fair amount of "standard definition" watching, today's widescreen displays offer several decent options of how to display it, including centering it inside the wide frame, or my favorite: chopping off the top and bottom.  "Sacrilege!" you say?  Watch a little TV tonight.  Notice anything?  Some shows are actually mildly widescreen/letterboxed, while others clearly avoid putting anything of consequence in the top and bottom of the frame.  They know the direction TV is heading and it most certainly is WIDE!

CRT (a.k.a. tube) is dead . . . as far as I am concerned.

For years I've been hunting for a smallish widescreen direct view CRT TV.  I had a very critical look at what was on the market this past Christmas, and what I found horrified me.  In terms of both direct view TVs and Rear Projection TVs (a.k.a. RPTVs), on the whole, the models being touted as "HD" were WORSE in my eyes than standard definition models sitting right next to them.

What has happened is that manufacturers are trying to make HDTVs as cheap as possible.  Early on, there were some multi-sync HD TVs that would natively display any valid TV signal without up-converting it or down-converting it.   They were really expensive. Now, with but a few exceptions, they all operate at a fixed frequency of 1080i, converting EVERYTHING to that frequency for display (the remaining HDTVs that display multiple resolutions are still really expensive).

There are two problems with this:


- Often they do a pretty bad job converting anything which is not 1080i in the first place, to 1080i.

- More significantly, they can't even do 1080i very well (it requires high bandwidth electronics and in the case of CRT, very tight beam control - things which are not cheap).  What you are left with is a TV which can do neither standard definition nor high definition acceptably well.

If we talk about CRT RPTVs (the kind of RPTV that has three cathode ray tubes with colored filters and lenses on the front), your headaches compound:  As they always have, CRT RPTVs need constant tweaking to keep them converged, are prone to burn-in and CRT wear, and like direct view models, they weigh a TON, and take up massive amounts of real estate.

It's no wonder Flat Panel TVs (LCD and Plasma TVs) are getting so much attention on the showroom floor.  They deliver a big picture without themselves being big, and while they still have to convert everything to a single resolution, they at least resolve that resolution 100%.

So you should go back to the store and buy that flat panel you saw. Right?

As can be expected, its not that simple.  Now we have to ask if a flat panel of any kind is the right choice.

Back in the day . . .

It seems like the distant past now when Plasma first hit the marketplace.  Truth is, it was NOT the first flat display technology:  We already had LCD monitors (for computers) but at the time, 17 inch models were incredibly expensive and did not offer sufficient contrast or response time to do justice to video.  Plasma came on the scene as the one which could "go big".

Unfortunately, by and large, Plasma sucked!  Back then, as we cruised the isles of CES, Colin Miller, Stacey Spears, and I would literally mock them.  Color banding, a total lack of "black", and a generally artifact laden picture was the order of the day.  And oh yes, they were $25,000 for a 30" model.  I suppose we should thank the myriad of wealthy people who bought them despite their terrible picture as without that early market, we probably would not be where we are today.

Fast forward a few years, and sure, things have gotten better.  The prices have come down, the image has improved to the point where I wouldn't mind it if someone gave me one.

In the meantime, LCD displays have also improved and are reasonably priced.  Not only has the technology matured to be viable for video, but sizes are now available which are getting close to those of Plasma and in many cases better it in terms of resolution.  Naturally, being newer, the LCDs are more expensive.  Or are they?

What does your hard earned lettuce buy you these days?

We all want a nice big picture.  But a picture can be too big, especially if the resolution of the device is low.
Panasonic 50" Plasma

All of the digital displays (Plasma, LCD, DLP, LCoS, DiLA) have a fixed resolution to which everything must be mapped (referred to as its "native resolution").  If your media source is of a lower resolution than the display device, it is possible to sniff out models which do a good job "upsizing" it (or you can even do that externally), but if the source is of a higher resolution than the display device, you'll only realize as much of it as the device's native resolution.  Instinctively, a higher resolution is desirable.

The "highest" HD resolution is quoted as 1080i.  To fully resolve that with a fixed pixel technology such as LCD, Plasma, DLP, etc., you need a native resolution of 1920x1080, and that means 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high, or 2,073,600 actual pixels in the screen.  There are a few LCD and Plasma panel TVs now that have this resolution, but much more common is the HD resolution quoted as 720p.  To fully resolve that we need a native resolution of 1280x720, or 921,600 actual pixels in the screen.  DVDs (which are 480i, or 720x480) look great on a 1280x720 device, and even 1080i content still looks pretty good on this same. Within a couple of years, 1080x1920 LCD and Plasma TVs will be more common, but right now, they are rare and extremely costly.

Like everything, you get what you pay for.  When it comes to flat panel TVs, if the price seems low, one of two things must be true:

- It's small

- It's resolution is low

Let's look at what is available today from FlatTVPeople.com.  This is not meant to be a definitive comparison of products as we are not delving into their exact feature sets and specs, but rather just a broad view of the market.

Brand Model Size (16:9 diag) Native Resolution Price
Panasonic TH-37PWD7UY 37" 852x480 1 $2,099
NEC 42VP5 42" 853x480 1 $2,295
JVC GM-V42UG 42" 853x480 1 $2,999
Panasonic TH-42PHD7UY 42" 1024x768 2 $3,750
Pioneer PDP-504CMX 50" 1280x720 $5,549
NEC 50XR4 50" 1366x768 $8,995

1 These are usually called EDTVs for Extended Definition. They are not High Definition.

2 Many Plasma models, despite a physical 16:9 widescreen shape, have odd resolutions which don't actually "fit".  Their ability to map an image to their native resolution should be a critical performance point when considering any such model. For a 42" 1024x768 TV, the pixels are rectangular in shape, 0.897mm x 0.767mm in size. For a 42" 1024x1024 TV, the rectangular pixels are 0.90mm x 0.51mm in size. For most panels, where the pixel count is true 16:9, (1280 divided by 720 is 1.78 or 16:9), the pixels are square.

Brand Model Size (16:9 diag) Native Resolution Price
BenQ DV3070 30" 1280x768 $1,799
Mitsubishi MLM300 30" 1280x768 $2,899
Sharp LC-32GD-4U 32" 1366x768 $3,799
Sharp LC-M3700 37" 1366x768 $4,995
Mitsubishi MLM400 40" 1280x768 $5,495
Sharp LC-45GD-4U 45" 1920x1080 $7,999

BenQ 30" LCD

Clearly we cannot say that Plasma is categorically less expensive than LCD or vice versa because at a given price point LCD is generally smaller, but offers a higher native resolution.  At $3,700 for example, you can have a 37" HD (720p) display from LCD.  For the same price in Plasma you get a bigger panel, but one which cannot claim the same 1280x720 resolution.  At $2,000, the LCD is only 30" but still offers a high resolution, whereas the Plasma is delivering only standard definition.

It would seem then that at the lower price points at least, all else being equal (such as similarly competent electronics and image processing), LCD is probably a better buy, even if it means going one size smaller than you might have liked.

That doesn't mean you should all run out and buy the biggest LCD your budget will allow.  Models within either technology can vary dramatically in terms of brightness, contrast, and color fidelity, and many people still advocate Plasma over LCD despite their lack of resolution, citing things like "better color rendering" (at the same time LCD advocates love to point out the ever present danger of image burn-in/phosphor wear on Plasmas).  Yet before you even bother to try and sift through all that, did you think about where you are going to put it?

Despite how they are portrayed in the advertisements, by and large you DON'T just hang these things on a wall like a picture.  Unless you have Bob Villa's construction and renovation crew at your disposal, hanging a flat panel is difficult.  Does no one ever ask where the wires are?  At bare minimum you'll have two cables, or as many as five, dangling down from the TV, scurrying off in every which direction when they hit the floor.  Sure they can be buried in the wall, or some clever (but still, in my opinion, ugly) PVC raceway can be used to contain them, but the point here is that 99% of flat panel TVs I've seen in actual homes end up on some sort of stand, sitting on a cabinet, taking up just about the same amount of space as a conventional TV would.  So what is the point of getting a thin TV, and setting it on a cabinet, when there is a another alternative?


"Near-Flat" TVs

I am of course talking about DLP or LCD Rear Projection TVs (RPTV for short).  Unlike the CRT based RPTVs of old, these new breeds are very light weight with a very shallow depth to their cabinet, making them nearly flat.  They don't ever need to be converged like the old ones, and there is no issue of burn in or tube wear.  In fact the only thing they need beyond proper setup and calibration (which ALL displays need!) is a new projection bulb every few years.  Their technology is a trickle down of the immense strides which have been made in front projectors, so in a sense this is not something new, but a reinterpretation of something already well known.

For a given picture size and resolution, these new RPTVs are considerably less expensive than flat panel TVs.  I took a look at sites like Best Buy for these figures:

    DLP RPTVs    
Brand Model Size (16:9 diag) Native Resolution Price
LG RU-44SZ51D 44" 1280x720 $2,299
Samsung HL-P4663W 46" 1280x720 $2,499
Samsung HL-P5063W 50" 1280x720 $2,799
Toshiba 62HM84 62" 1280x720 $3,499

Wow!  We have have a 44" image with the full 720p resolution for $2,299, probably under $2k if you catch a sale.  That LG is only 14" deep, substantially less than most old 27" tube TVs.  While not as light as the flat panels, it comes in at an entirely manageable 79lb (no more than a decent subwoofer).

I know what's going to be on my wish list next Christmas.

Other Considerations

As enthusiastic as I am about the DLP/LCD RPTVs, a "buy" recommendation could only come from an examination of the whole.  There are circumstances where a flat panel Plasma or LCD would be an excellent choice.  A small one in the bedroom would be more than welcome in my home for example.  If you are in the military or any other job where you get moved around a lot, LCD's feather weight makes a great deal of sense!

Also, don't forget about what I said regarding the quality of the cheap products. Look at the image carefully, and compare it to other models in the store. Look at how sharp the picture is in the center compared to the sharpness at the edges. A cheap quality lens will have a poor focus at the edges. Look at the picture from an angle off to the side. Does the brightness fall off? If it does, this means you, family members, or guests will not see a nice bright picture if they are sitting on the side.

The feature set is important as well.  Are there enough connectors?  At very least there should be the usual legacy jacks (composite and S-Video) in addition to component video and HDMI inputs.  Personally I would like a PC compatible RGB jack.  Flat Panel TVs don't usually have a TV Tuner and assume you have a set-top box or Dish receiver, so you need to watch out for those sorts of little details.

As we already mentioned, there can be a dramatic variable in pure image fidelity from one model to the next within a technology and we hope that moving forward this year we can bring you more reviews of these types of displays.

Size and resolution are often overlooked as we instinctively grab the largest we can afford.  Indeed, the larger the image the more "involved" one can be in the presentation, but if you are going to be relatively close to the device, some judicious consideration is called for.  A smaller, high resolution display will always look better than an oversized low resolution model as you won't spend the program preoccupied with all the image structure you would see in the latter.

Panasonic LCD Projector

Of course if you want, and can genuinely use, a REALLY large screen, let us not forget DLP and LCD front projectors.  While light years ahead of the old three-gun CRT projectors in terms of cost and ease of use, they still require a great deal more effort and commitment to implement as compared to a TV (be it flat panel or DLP/LCD RPTV).  At very least, the installation of a proper screen is to be considered (painted white walls do not qualify here), and while some people are happy to place them on the coffee table, they do much better installed out of the way on the ceiling.  Still, they should always be kept in mind as an option:  One can get an entry level 1280x720 projector with an 80 or 100 inch screen for less than $3,000!


I'm not trying to steer everyone towards a certain TV, or even a certain technology.  Rather, I simply want to call your bluff on why you keep asking me if you should buy that flat panel TV you saw.  Is it just because it "looked cool" in the store?  Are you prepared to deal with the headache of mounting it on a wall?  Will you be happy with a standard definition Plasma when your friend ends up with a 720p High Definition LCD? Happy shopping!

- Brian Florian - 

Copyright 2005 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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