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Understanding a Display's Contrast Ratio

The contrast ratio of a display measures how well a display can show both bright brights and nuanced darks. The contrast ratio may not be evident on TVs on a showroom floor (because the displays have their brightness cranked up), but displays should be capable of showing both dark and light scenes.

For example, with a good contrast ratio, you'll be able to see the flash of the artillery in Saving Private Ryan — as well as the soldiers seeking cover in the shadows.

Keep the following tips (regarding contrast ratio) in mind when shopping for a display:

  • You’ll see the contrast ratio listed as a numeric ratio, something like 1000:1, representing the whitest white compared to the blackest black.

  • Typically, direct-view (tube) displays and projector systems that use CRTs have the highest contrast ratios, whereas systems that use plasma or LCD technologies have the lowest.

  • When it comes to contrast ratio, a higher ratio is better.

There isn’t a standardized, approved way of measuring contrast ratios, so one manufacturer’s 800:1 may not be the same as another’s. You need to rely on magazine and online reviews and use your own eyes in a thorough test drive at a dealer’s showroom. You might want to look for reviews that include a professional calibration of the display, because that shows the display’s true capabilities. When you do a test drive, use some of your own DVDs that you know well.

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