- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The bigger and brighter television screens get, the fuzzier the purchasing picture becomes for the average homeowner who wants the movie-theater experience at home.

LCD (liquid crystal display) or not LCD. Plasma versus DLP (digital light processing). Rear projection or front projection.

It’s enough to make even a tech-savvy elf woozy this time of year — but falling prices and rising levels of interest mean more than a few good girls and boys may find new televisions under the Christmas tree next month.

Bahman Shojae, manager of the Big Screen Store in Rockville, says the main television duel is between LCD and plasma flat-panel sets. Both offer clear images and can be mounted on the wall. Both promise sets that are roughly 4 inches deep and feature the kind of picture-size ratios (16:9) that mirror the screen dimensions at the local movie house.

Size matters to many of Mr. Shojae’s customers, which gives plasma a slight edge because plasma sets tend to run larger than LCD models, although the gap is shrinking slowly. The largest LCD flat-screen model, Mr. Shojae says, is 45 inches, but 50-inch plasma sets are commonplace.

Plasma set prices have slowed their eye-popping descent, but prices for LCD models are still sliding downward. Mr. Shojae puts the LCD price plummet at roughly 50 percent over the past 12 months.

The sets are still expensive compared to traditional sets. A 42-inch plasma set can run anywhere from $1,800 to $3,000, while a 37-inch LCD model might run around between $2,700 and $3,000.

Consumers need to do their homework before reaching for the remote.

“There’s a lot of misinformation in the stores. Most consumers are buried in different people’s opinions,” says Stephen Atwood, director of engineering at Aydin Displays in Massachusetts.

He lays some of the blame on a 40-year-old invention that set an impossibly high standard for the medium. The cathode-ray-tube television created beautifully precise images that don’t burn onto the screen as some older plasma sets have done, and it doesn’t blur out fast-moving images as some LCD sets still do.

The modern LCD set struggles with motion because of the slow manner in which it flashes lights onto its screen, Mr. Atwood says. Simply put, old-model televisions perform the same task more quickly, roughly 100 times faster, Mr. Atwood says. LCD viewers watching a NASCAR race, for example, could see the letters on the cars’ doors blurred when they whiz past the camera.

That said, LCD sets provide much less glare than their plasma counterparts and offer the kind of high contrast normally seen in movie theaters, says Mr. Atwood, who adds that the next generation of LCD sets likely will clear up the blurry motion.

“The sets you buy two or three years from now will look much better,” he predicts.

Plasma flat-panel sets, by comparison, capture moving images with far more fidelity and work better in a room with dim lighting.

LCD sets, in some cases, provide more lines of resolution than their plasma peers.

While the prices for large-screen sets are encouraging homeowners to take the plunge, another factor is the medium’s switch to digital feeds.

“The drive toward digital television is real and here, and people are recognizing it,” says Rey Roque, vice president of marketing for Westinghouse Digital.

The government, via Federal Communications Commission regulations, plans to require that all televisions sold after March 1, 2007, be able to accept digital signals. Most existing sets work on analog signals, the standard used since television began.

The fact that you can hang an LCD or plasma set on the wall remains a key selling point, Mr. Roque says.

“Traditional TVs had been very bulky. You had to hide it in an armoire or make it decorative friendly. Flat-panel sets have removed that requirement of TV as furniture,” he says.

A compromise between bulky cathode-ray sets and sleek flat-panel models are rear-projection sets. These televisions, which today mostly use DLP technology, offer big-screen perks and, though slimmer than old televisions, are too thick to hang on any wall.

Mr. Roque recommends “future proofing” one’s television purchase, meaning buyers should consider how the television might be used over the next few years. Some homeowners might want to use their television as a backup computer monitor, an option some of today’s televisions offer.

Content sources such as slide-show presentations and jpeg digital photos that originally were offered in the PC format soon could be viewable on flat-panel sets, Mr. Roque says. The most popular flat-panel size this season is 32 inches, he adds.

Some hard-core movie fans bypass flat-panel sets.

Brandon Edwards, service manager with Belmont TV in Arlington, says some homeowners are turning to front-projection sets to create a movie-theater environment.

“You have to have a fairly large room that’s very dark, like a basement,” Mr. Edwards says. The room in question also must be able to accommodate a movie screen to capture the images broadcast by the device, which typically is installed on the ceiling.

No matter the size of the set or the format, many homeowners want the sharpest image possible. That means investing in an HDTV-capable set. The high-definition demarcation means more lines of resolution per set, yielding the sharpest visuals ever seen on television.

“A lot of [customers] are confused by the terminology and anagrams,” Mr. Edwards says. One label is EDTV, which stands for enhanced definition television. These sets use digital signals but offer less resolution than an HD set.

Potential television buyers should understand that HDTV technology is available in all the existing formats, from cathode-ray to plasma, Mr. Edwards says. More than 80 percent of his store’s merchandise is HD-capable, he says.

Further, he says first-time HD buyers should pick a set in the 16:9 widescreen format because that’s the way the majority of HD programs are broadcast.

For those considering a big-screen purchase, Mr. Edwards recommends that homeowners ask themselves how big their viewing room is and how large a screen can it handle. Buyers also should tell the sales staff at their local electronics store whether they have cable or satellite service so the employees will know what models to recommend.

“It’s best to give the salesman the vision of what you want your home to look like,” he says.

Gary Yacoubian, president of the local home-entertainment chain Myer Emco, says his customers haven’t raised much concern over the reliability of the new television sets. What they have told him, he says, is how much the flat-panel look has an impact on their decor.

“They’re thrilled about the concept of flat panels … people are buying something for how it looks when it’s turned off. That’s new to me,” Mr. Yacoubian says.

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