After watching prices on flat panel TV's fall dramatically the last couple of years, you may be thinking it's time you joined the home theater movement...but the multitude of options available can be daunting. Do you go LCD or Plasma? 720 or 1080? With this guide, I hope to introduce some of the more common HD (high definition) options and give you a bit of a foundation when you finally decide to purchase a new TV.
Does Size Matter?
The first criteria potential buyers face is TV size. This is really dictated by the room size and the distance away you will be viewing the TV. There really doesn't appear to be any hard and fast rules. I was going to post suggestions here, but the guides I've seen vary too widely in their suggestions. I really suggest looking at the sets in person and standing the same viewing distance you would at home. That may seem obvious, but the set-ups at stores may make this difficult to do. Don't scrimp...it's rare to hear someone say they bought too big a TV, but often I hear people say they bought too small a TV.
LCD or Plasma?
The two most popular display types are LCD and Plasma. While DLP is a third option, it isn't as popular as the other two and won't be included here.
In general, LCD's dominate the smaller sizes (the most popular go up to 50"), while Plasmas usually start around 40". The LCD's I saw were brighter than Plasmas and had sharper image quality. However, I found the response time of LCD's were just not fast enough to accurately capture motion in things like football games and action scenes. It's a personal preference, but even the newer 120Hz displays were not quite fast enough. Also, while they were substationally brighter than their Plasma counterparts, LCD's could be a little hard on the eyes...especially in lower ambient light levels. However, if you are viewing you TV in a well-lit room, you may appreciate the brighter LCD picture. Finally, while not quite as bright as the LCD's, I found the colors to be a bit more natural in the Plasma TV's.
720 or 1080?
The next area to consider is level of HD. The "current" standard is 720p. However, 1080p is rapidily becoming the new standard. I did not consider the "i" (interleaved - drawing every other line) technology as this scheme is rapidly fading.
If you just looked at 720p sets, you would be impressed with the HD experience, but when placed side by side with a 1080p set, the difference was amazing. The 1080p image was much crisper...the individual pixels were much smaller on a 1080p set than on a 720p set. Will you notice that eight feet away under normal viewing? Hard to tell. The question you have to ask yourself is whether the increased cost of 1080p is worth it to you.
Other things to look for
I had the fortune of going to a high-end audio/video store who took the time to show me less noticable flaws most consumers might miss. Simple things like rendering water or a spinning propellar blade revealed levels of quality. However, one of the things that really jumped out at me was black level. It was truly amazing the wide range of black levels these TV's demonstrated. On the least expensive sets, black was really gray. Even on the some of the more expensive sets, the best black they could generate was a dark gray. This lack of blackness really affected the perceived level of contrast on the set. One of the easiest tests for black capability is just turning the set off - that is as black as the picture can get. If possible, try visiting a retailer with many HDTV's on display side-by-side and compare the difference in black.
Most of the HD sets now offer HDMI inputs which is critical if you want the best signal you can get from your HD source. Make sure there are enough inputs for your various devices. I ended up using one HDMI, one S-Video and one Component video input.
Finally, which brand to go with really depends on what is important to you. Even in one manufacturer's lineup, I found huge differences in quality. So just don't assume that because brand "A" has a great 42" LCD that they will also make a great 46" LCD or Plasma. I just did not find that to be true. When you finally decide on a set (or sets), do your homework. There are many sites that can give you user reviews of the sets. For example, start with a retailer like Amazon.com. Reading the good (and bad) reviews can usally give you a rounded view of the set and help you make an educated decision.
Next up - Counting the Cost of a HDTV Upgrade