Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Finding the Right Big-Screen Television Set

Long after the Christmas trees have been taken down and the menorahs packed away, that television set you purchased as a holiday gift will still be around, looming over your family room for years. It’s likely to long outlast all those iPods and digital cameras and game consoles flying off the store shelves right now. So you want to get the right TV set this time around. Do-overs are expensive if you don’t.

Unfortunately, shopping for a television set is much, much harder than it used to be. The TV aisles in your local electronics store are like exotic galleries packed with confusing acronyms — LCD, HDTV, DLP — and staffed by clerks who often are either clueless, or so geeky, that they can’t help much. This is not a great situation when you’re spending thousands of dollars on a TV, not the hundreds people used to spend.

So, here’s a rough, quick guide to buying a television this holiday season. Our aim is to provide a very basic cheat sheet so you can at least wade through the basics and talk to the salespeople intelligently. For greater detail, we suggest buying one of those glossy magazines that covers new TVs in depth. Even if you don’t actually purchase the set at a store and instead opt to buy it online, we suggest visiting the store to see the TV so that you can judge its performance in person.

There are two basic types of big-screen TVs — flat panels, where much of the technology that creates the image is actually embedded in the glass screen itself; and projection sets, also called microdisplay sets, where the front screen is just a sheet of plastic and the key technology that creates the image is in the back of the set.

sony
42″ Samsung HP-R4252 Plasma TV. Price: $3,499.99. For more info: www.samsung.com.

Within these two broad categories, competing technologies are slugging it out. There are two main types of flat-panel sets — LCD and plasma — and three main types of projection sets. Most new TVs are “digital,” meaning they can deal directly with the computerlike signals produced by newer TV transmissions. Older sets are considered “analog,” and were designed for older TV transmissions. Digital sets can display analog TV signals, but not always very well. All U.S. TV transmissions are due to convert to digital signals in the next few years.

HDTV versus ED and SD

Many big-screen TVs are capable of receiving high-definition television signals, or HDTV — the most detailed, and best-looking, television available. But some cheaper digital models can only display lesser-quality pictures called Enhanced Definition, or ED. Others are stuck at standard definition, or SD, which is even worse.

So, just because you have a big-screen, digital TV, that doesn’t mean it’s an HDTV. Make sure any set you choose can handle HD signals. Also, many HD sets don’t actually contain an HD receiver, or tuner — the component that actually pulls in the HD programming. They are merely “HD-ready,” meaning they can display HDTV if you connect them to an HD receiver, like a cable or satellite set-top box that is able to receive HD signals. Others have an HD receiver built in, though it’s usually limited to over-the-air HD broadcasts, which require an antenna, and can’t pick up cable or satellite transmissions.

Flat Panel Screens — LCD and Plasma

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) and plasma screens allow for large TVs that are very thin. If aesthetics are your biggest concern and you’re interested in buying a TV that can be attached to a wall, you should buy one of these two types of screens. They also offer some of the best-quality pictures available.

The actual technology in these two screens is quite different. LCD TVs are like the screens on laptops or flat-panel computer monitors. They work by passing current through tiny liquid crystals. Plasma TVs work by stimulating a captive gas with an electrical charge.

samsung
45″ Sharp AQUOS LCD TV, LC-GD7U. Price: $5,499.99. For more info: www.sharpusa.com

Both technologies are rapidly becoming cheaper, but they are still mainly distinguished by how much they cost at certain sizes. LCD TVs are a bit thinner and much lighter than plasmas, but, at large-screen sizes, they are prohibitively expensive. By contrast, plasmas aren’t efficient to make at small-screen sizes.

So, for people with typical budgets this holiday season, the only affordable flat-panel TVs today more than 40 inches in size will almost certainly be plasmas. Buyers of flat-panel TVs under 40 inches will very likely wind up with an LCD.

In general, both technologies deliver vivid, intense pictures. There are differences, but these have been narrowing, as the competition drives improvements in both camps. For instance, plasmas were long superior in viewing angle — the ability to see the picture well from the side — but some LCDs have caught up and even passed plasmas on this score.

Early plasmas had a risk of “burn-in,” a situation where a logo or fixed text might remain visible even after you change channels. But this has been almost eliminated in new sets. Early LCDs showed ghosting during fast-action shots, but, again, this has been greatly eased in newer sets.

TV geeks will see differences among the two technologies in areas such as contrast, color saturation and brightness. But these things vary among manufacturers and models, and most viewers won’t notice fine distinctions. The best way to choose is to go to a store and compare with your own eyes, without worrying about techie jargon.

These two types of TVs will definitely set you back; LCDs come in prices ranging from $450 for 13 inches to $5,500 for 46-inchers to $21,000 for a 65-inch set. Plasmas go for about $2,200 for a 42-inch set and $12,000 for a 63-inch plasma screen. Yes, we’re still just talking about televisions here.

Projection TVs

If you’re shocked by the prices of the LCD and plasma sets, you might find projection televisions a little more your speed. They tend to cost less than the flat-panel models, but still deliver a handsome picture.

These sets aren’t nearly as thin as the flat panels, because they need depth internally to project the image they create in the back of the set. But if you don’t mind sacrificing aesthetics, you’ll find some good options in this grouping.

Projection TVs can be divided into three main categories: CRT (cathode ray tube) rear projection; LCD rear projection; and DLP (Digital Light Projection) rear projection. The first two are also called “microdisplays,” because they use tiny display chips to create the image in the rear of the set.

Samsung HL
50″ Samsung HL-R5087W DLP Rear Projection TV. Price: $3,699.99. For more info: www.samsung.com.

CRT sets use the oldest and least advanced of the projection technologies, though they still offer good color and sharp pictures. Their screens range from about 42 to 65 inches, but their cabinets are notably deeper than the other types of projection sets, taking up a lot of space. They are, however, the least expensive of the projection TVs, costing about $1,800 for a 51-inch CRT.

LCD rear projection uses a rather slim cabinet; for example, a 55-inch screen only has a 20-inch deep cabinet. They range in size from about 42 to 62 inches. These sets use tiny LCD screens and project the picture they create onto the large, front screen. A 55-inch LCD rear-projection set will run you about $3,000.

DLP rear projection comes in screens measuring 42 inches and up while still boasting relatively shallow cabinet sizes. For example, a 61-inch DLP can have a cabinet of 19 inches. This technology uses a chip packed with tiny mirrors to create and project a TV picture. It generally costs more than a CRT, but is still less expensive than a plasma or flat-panel LCD TV. The images produced on a DLP are noted for their sharp blacks and grayscales. We found a 50-inch DLP for $2,200.

More Confusion

Like computers and cellphones, digital TVs are improving rapidly, so that a cheap model on sale may use last year’s technology. Also, some regular old analog TV sets are being touted as “flat screen,” because they use a flat piece of glass to encase old technology. But they are not “flat-panel.”

The connectors on all these TVs can be horribly confusing. But you may want to get two new types of connectors — HDMI, which supposedly simplifies connecting components without any loss of quality; and CableCard, which allows you to get some, but not all, cable networks without a bulky set-top box.

Our best advice is to shop around, and to buy the set that matches your budget and looks good to you in the store. All the jargon and expert opinions in the world matter less than your own taste.


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