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Clearing the Static on HDTV Types

When you're trying to pick out the right HDTV for your needs, the available products break down into three major product groups distinguished from each other by their display technology and cabinet type. By comparing display technology and cabinet type to your needs, you can easily rule out a whole bunch of different TVs, and home in on the likely best ones for you.

Size and shape

HDTVs come in all sorts of different sizes and shapes. Some are flat-panels that you can hang on the wall; others are projection systems like what you'd find in a movie theater. And, of course, there are HDTVs based on tubes that look just the way TVs have for decades (only with a better picture).

Each form of HDTV has some advantages and disadvantages, and this article is just a quick overview to help you on your way.

Flat-panel HDTVs

Flat-panel TVs — the super-thin models that you can literally hang on the wall — are the sexiest HDTVs available. These are the ones you see on MTV Cribs and that you might install in your tricked-out Escalade (yeah right). They're also good HDTVs. There are two main display technologies for flat-panel HDTVs:

  • Plasma: These are the biggest flat-screens available, using a layer of gas trapped between two glass screens to create their images.

Pros: thin, sexy, good picture, good color, big

Cons: not all are HDTV, less-than-perfect black, screen burn-in, costly

• You'll see the term "blacks" mentioned here. It refers to how well an HDTV screen can reproduce dark tones and scenes on-screen — how well it creates black rather than gray colors.

  • LCD: These flat-panel TVs use liquid crystal displays, just like those used in laptop computers.

Pros: same as plasma, no burn-in

Cons: black is poorest, costly, angle of view

Projection HDTVs

These are the TVs that project their picture from a smaller image source (either three small picture tubes, or a digital system known as a microprojector) onto a screen. The screen can be either part of the HDTV itself (rear projection) or a separate screen hung on your wall (front projection).

  • Front-Projection HDTVs: These are the HDTV equivalents to movie theater projectors, with a big screen on the wall, and a separate projector mounted somewhere across the room.

Pros: biggest screen, potentially best picture, can be portable

Con: expensive, complicated, requires setup/focus/maintenance

  • Rear projection HDTVs: The picture is projected on the back of a screen that is built into the HDTV itself.

Pros: best bargain, no burn-in with microprojectors, near flat-panel thinness for microprojector

Cons: burn-in for CRT, expense for microprojector, bulky size for CRT

CRT HDTVs

The final category of HDTVs is based on the good old-fashioned picture tube — also known as the CRT, or cathode-ray tube.

  • Pros: cheapest, great color, great blacks
  • Cons: smallest screen, bulky, lower resolution than digital displays

What's important in an HDTV

When looking at HDTVs, the following are the most important buying criteria for your purchase:

  • What's your budget? Consider the cost of the TV set, plus the money you'll spend on any attached home theater surround-sound system, special remote controls, automated drapes, lighting controls, popcorn poppers, and the like. It makes a big difference if you're building a home HDTV theater or just putting a TV on the bureau in the bedroom.
  • What size do you need? No, bigger is not always better. You can have a TV that's too large for your space or too small for your usage. There is an optimal range based on where you intend to place the TV and where you intend to sit.
    These first two items — size and budget — will do a lot to narrow your choices before you get to any of the technical or usage criteria, so they are important to nail down first. If you want to fill an 8-foot wall with an image, unless you have a bank account the size of Bill Gates' you're not going to do that with anything but a front projection system.
  • What do you plan to do with it? Are you going to be watching a lot of sports events? Movies? Video games? Believe it or not, certain types of HDTVs are better with certain types of content. Sports fanatics will find a big, bright DLP projection system better for their tastes, everything else being equal, while people who watch CNN all day long will want to avoid plasma screen displays in a big way, due to the burn-in effects of static images.
  • What will you hook up to it? If you already have a decent investment in A/V gear, then that gear might dictate certain types (and numbers!) of interfaces or ports on your HDTV system, like these:

• If you have an entertainment system designed around centralized video switching — using a receiver to switch among video sources and destinations — then you're going to need a receiver that can switch HDTV content. That might mean a new receiver, which can be pricey and cut into your budget.

• Do you need a tuner or just an HDTV-ready display — meaning you'll get your HDTV tuner from your cable or satellite company?

  • What neat features do you want? It's easy to be swayed by neat features, but in lots of implementations, you can't access them for various reasons. For instance, if you set up your system so all your signals come in over one cable connection, you might not be able to use your TV's dual-channel features — you could rely on your cable or satellite box for that.

One thing is for sure: Prices become lower as time passes. In deciding how much to spend overall, remember this: Your home entertainment system is probably one of the most-used parts of your home. It helps define your family, social life, business relationships, and so on. These are the places where you personally make a substantial investment because it gets the most use.

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