LCD or plasma? Consider size, weight, glare
Over this year, one of
the biggest obstacles to buying a high-definition TV
crumbled into dust. Even if you're looking for a big,
flat-panel plasma or a liquid-crystal display screen, you no
longer have to spend more than the cost of a good laptop
But as flat-panel TV prices have deflated by anywhere from a
third to half, choosing the proper set hasn't gotten much
easier. Depending on whom you talk to, either plasma is the
sole sensible choice, or only a fool would pick that over
True, there are real differences behind the techno-zealotry.
That became clear during lengthy trials of four televisions
selling for no more than $2,000 and change.
Two were 40-inch LCDs:
Sony's KDL-V40XBR1 and Samsung's LN-S4041D. The other two
were 42-inch plasmas: Panasonic's TH-42PX600U and Philips's
None of these issues emerged as a tragic flaw in the test
runs. They're just things to weigh against your priorities
Start with where that new HDTV will go. If the area won't
accommodate a set above a certain size, that alone could
drive the decision. LCD is the only flat-screen option that
comes in sizes smaller than 37 inches across, but it gets
prohibitively expensive for anything bigger than 46 inches.
Flat-panel alternatives have their own size limits.
Conventional tube TVs max out at 34 inches, while "microdisplay"
sets - the projection sets that measure a foot or more thick
and go by names like "DLP," "rear-projection LCD" and "LCOS"
- usually can't be had under 46 inches.
With a TV size in mind, see how much light comes into the
room. If a houseplant thrives on the windowsill, an LCD is
probably best. LCDs are generally brighter and less prone to
glare than plasma.
Then, consider the spots from which people might watch TV.
Plasma sets offer the widest viewing angles, followed by
LCDs; once you move past 45 degrees or so from straight on,
an LCD can start to look a little pale. Most microdisplays,
meanwhile, have more limited viewing angles than either
plasma or LCD.
Next question: Will a
computer or video game console be plugged into the HDTV? If
so, avoid plasma TVs unless you can accept "temporary image
retention." On both plasmas, keeping a static image on the
screen - for instance, the Windows desktop or a TV
programming guide - for an hour left a faint afterimage that
lingered for maybe another hour before fading away.
Finally, will the TV hang on a wall or from a ceiling - or
will it just get lugged up the stairs? LCDs are a lot
lighter than plasmas: The Samsung LCD, at 46.5 pounds, was
less than half as hefty as the Philips plasma.
If all those factors still allow you to pick either plasma
or LCD, plasma should offer slightly better picture quality.
It allows for greater contrast, a deeper range of blacks and
faster "refresh rates" (for instance, a fast-moving ticker
on ESPN was clear on the Philips plasma but smeared slightly
on the Samsung LCD).
To minimize those disadvantages on an LCD, look for a set
with the highest possible "dynamic contrast ratio" - 4,000:1
or higher - and the quickest refresh rate - 8 ms or less.
Plasma has a reputation for being less efficient, but tests
with a power meter didn't bear that out: The Panasonic used
about the same amount of electricity over an hour as either
LCD - though the Philips plasma drew about 25 percent more
With any HDTV, keep a few features on your shopping list.
Make sure the TV has a digital tuner and is not just a
monitor. With an antenna, that tuner will offer crisp,
clear, high-definition broadcasts for free - if nothing
else, a fantastic backup for cable or satellite. This is the
biggest secret of HDTV: It makes over-the-air broadcasts
Unfortunately, not all digital tuners are equally capable.
The Sony, Samsung and Panasonic sets delivered good to
excellent reception, but the Philips would lose the signal
if I looked at it the wrong way.
Equally important: a full set of video inputs.
High-definition video comes in via two connectors: digital
HDMI - high definition multimedia interface - and analog
component video. Get a TV with two of each kind, plus a VGA
- analog - or DVI - digital - port if a computer will be
Some HDTVs include a convenient extra - a memory-card reader
or USB port to show off digital photos.
Lastly, don't pay a cent extra for "1080p" resolution. Ads
calling it "true" or "full" high-definition overlook two
inconvenient facts: No broadcast, cable or satellite service
offers that resolution, and you probably won't see the
difference from your couch on a screen smaller than 50