Consumer Information on TVs

Published: 07th February 2007
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There's never been more variety in TV types, sizes, and shapes than there is right now. If you'd love a flat-panel set that's only a few inches thick, an LCD or plasma TV might be right for you. Want a really big picture? You can get a 60-inch or larger screen on a rear-projection TV. And a front projector can fill screens stretching 100 inches or more. Meanwhile, conventional TVs with picture tubes, the kind of set you've been watching for years, are still big sellers, and many offer outstanding performance. No matter which type of TV you choose, it's likely to cost less than it did just a few months ago.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

In most TV categories, high-definition (HD) TVs using digital technology represent the majority of new models. The analog TVs that have been the standard since the 1950s are becoming scarcer as manufacturers shift their focus to HDTVs, and broadcasters move toward digital broadcasts.

HD offers the best video experience you can get at home, with noticeably clear, sharp, lifelike images. That's because these digital sets are designed to display the visual detail contained in HD signals. Most HD signals have resolution of 1080i (1,080 lines scanned in two passes then interlaced to form an image) or 720p (720 lines scanned progressively, in one sweep). New, high-priced TVs designed for an even more detailed HD format--1080p, for 1,080 lines scanned progressively--have started to hit the market. They could raise the bar for picture quality, but they're not likely to become mainstream until there's enough TV programming that uses this high resolution.

Enhanced-definition (ED) TVs are a step down from HD. These sets display 480p resolution (480 lines scanned progressively). Most are LCD or plasma. Many, but not all, ED sets can convert HD signals to a format they can handle, but picture quality won't match that of true HD.

The standard-definition signals that are still used for most TV broadcasts contain up to 480 lines that are drawn onscreen in two passes, odd and even, then interlaced to make a complete image. This resolution is called 480i.

To receive high-quality HD signals, digital TVs need a digital tuner. Some models, called integrated HD sets or HDTVs, have a built-in digital tuner that can decode HD signals pulled in off-air via antenna. But the built-in tuner can't unscramble HD signals sent via cable or satellite. For that, they need an external device: an HD-capable cable or satellite box, or a smart card that replaces a cable box.

Sets with no built-in digital tuner, called HD-ready TVs or HDTV monitors, also require an HD-capable cable box or satellite receiver. The main difference from an integrated set is that they need a set-top box to receive over-the-air broadcast signals via antenna. They also cost less than integrated sets. EDTVs also come with and without digital tuners. The days of HD-ready and ED-ready TVs are numbered, though. TVs with larger screen sizes must now have built-in tuners to comply with government regulations, and smaller sets must begin offering tuners within the next year or two.

Here are the types:

Picture-tube sets. Conventional TVs that use picture tubes called CRTs (cathode-ray tubes) still offer the best combination of performance and value, and they've established a good track record for reliability. Most picture-tube TVs have a screen that measures 13 to 36 inches diagonally, so they're not big by today's standards. On analog sets, the screens are squarish, with an aspect ratio of 4:3, meaning they're four units wide for every three units high. HD sets of this type have either a 16:9 wide screen with proportions similar to that of a movie-theater screen or a 4:3 screen.

Generally, the larger the screen, the higher the price, and the more features and inputs for other video devices. Slimmer sets are arriving as manufacturers address a major objection to picture-tube TVs--their roughly 2-foot depth. The thinner models are about 16 inches deep. Price range: 13-inch sets start at $75 or so; 27-inch sets start at about $250; 32-inch sets start at about $400; 36-inch sets start at $500. HD sets cost about $200 more than analog models.

LCD flat panels. LCD TVs are lightweight and only a few inches thick. Most have screens that measure between 13 and 37 inches diagonally, although there are some 45-inch sets coming on the market. These TVs can stand on a table or be wall-mounted; small sets can be suspended under a cabinet. LCD TVs come in both 4:3 and 16:9 screen shapes and in conventional analog (typically only the smaller sizes), ED, and HD models. All LCD TVs use the same technology as flat-panel computer monitors. The best can display very good picture quality. A bright, smooth image is created by a combination of a white backlight and thousands of LCD pixels that open and close like shutters. Slow pixel response may make fast-moving images appear fuzzy, and the image may dim somewhat as you angle away from the center of the screen.

Some new models have improved on both counts. Many LCD models have inputs enabling them to serve as both a computer monitor and a TV. In the largest sizes, LCD sets are more expensive than other types of TVs. Because LCD TVs haven't been in widespread use for very long, long-term reliability is still a question. Preliminary data are encouraging, showing a low repair rate during the first year of use. Price range: about $600 and up for 14-inch or 15-inch models, $1,000 and up for 20-inch models, and up to $2,000 or more for a 32-inch model.

Plasma flat panels. Also renowned for their thin profile, plasma displays tend to be bigger than LCD models, with 42-inch and 50-inch sets among the more popular sizes. They're not as light as LCDs, but you can get special hardware that enables them to be wall-mounted. All plasmas are widescreen models; both HD and ED versions are available. Images are created by thousands of pixels containing gas that is converted into plasma by an electrical charge. That results in a bright, colorful display, even in light-filled rooms. The best plasma TVs are capable of excellent picture quality. The shiny surface can produce annoying reflections in bright lighting. Most plasma displays come with a TV tuner and speakers, but with some sets these components must be purchased separately.

Because plasma TVs are fairly new, long-term reliability is still a question. Preliminary data are encouraging, showing a low repair rate during the first year of use. Price range: about $2,300 and up.

Rear-projection TVs. Rear-projection TVs using CRT technology are the most affordable jumbo TVs on the market. Screens typically measure 42 to 60-plus inches diagonally, though there are a few sets with even larger screens. HD sets are becoming the norm as analog models are being phased out. Most rear-projection TVs have 16:9 screens. These sets use three small CRTs, which makes them big (24 to 30 inches deep) and heavy (sometimes more than 200 pounds).

Picture quality in most rear-projection TVs can be good and occasionally is very good, but it falls short of most other types of TVs, even with HD programming. Also, the image appears dimmer as your position angles away from the center of the screen. Survey data indicates a higher rate of repair than for conventional TVs. Price range: HD-capable sets start at about $1,800.

Micro displays. A newer class of rear-projection set creates images using LCD, DLP (digital light processing), or LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) technology. These sets are much slimmer and lighter than CRTs, as well as more expensive. All are HD-capable digital sets with wide screens measuring 40 to 70 inches or so; LCoS sets are as large as 82 inches. The best are capable of very good picture quality. But LCD- and LCoS-based models often can't render deep black. With DLP sets, some viewers perceive flashes of color called the rainbow effect, which can be troubling. Microdisplays will become even more dominant before long, as manufacturers stop making CRT-based rear-projection TVs. Because these TVs are fairly new, long-term reliability is still a question. Preliminary data shows a higher repair rate during the first year of use for these sets than for LCD and plasma TVs. Price range: $2,500 and up.

Front projectors. Technically display devices rather than TVs, front projectors can give you by far the largest images--up to 200 inches, measured diagonally. These units require a separate screen (or a smooth wall) as a display surface, and you can vary the picture size by moving the projector closer to the screen or farther back and using the zoom control. Consequently, you're not locked into a specific screen size, as you are with every other type of TV. You also need a tuner (such as a cable or satellite box) and generally have to provide speakers as well. These are best viewed in dark rooms, and usually require some sort of installation.

Front projectors use the same microdisplay technologies as their rear-projection cousins: LCD, DLP, and LCoS. While they're not the best choice for typical everyday viewing, front projectors are the best way to get top-quality images in a size that brings the movie-theater experience home. Price range: $1,500 to $5,000.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

Practically all new TVs have a flat screen, which reduces reflections, and picture-in-picture (PIP), which lets you watch two shows simultaneously, or keep a program playing in a small box while exploring the onscreen program guide. Motion compensation is a useful feature that can improve the smoothness of movies played on standard (not progressive-scan) DVD players. This feature is sometimes referred to as 3:2 pulldown compensation or by brand-specific names such as CineMotion.

The aspect ratio, or width-to-height ratio, is of special importance when choosing an HD set. Some have a squarish 4:3 aspect ratio like that of a conventional TV. Wide-screen sets have a rectangular 16:9 (or 15:9) shape that more closely resembles a movie-theater screen. TV programming is usually formatted for a 4:3 screen, but more programmers are adopting the 16:9 format. Many cinematic movies are 16:9; some have an even wider format.

Content formatted for one type of screen has to be modified to fit the other, so you may see dark bars to the left and right or top and bottom unless you use a stretch or zoom control. Most HDTVs are wide-screen models. You'll find 4:3 screens only on some picture-tube and LCD HDTVs.

Stretch and zoom modes will adjust the image size to better fill the screen shape. This helps to reduce the dark bands that can appear above, below, or on the sides of the image if you watch content formatted for one screen shape on a TV that has the other shape. (The picture may be distorted or cut off a bit in the process of stretching and zooming.) Those bars make the picture slightly smaller and over time can leave ghosted images on the screens of plasma sets and CRT-based rear-projection TVs. This "burn-in" is also a risk with any images left on the screen for long periods--say, from a stock ticker or a channel logo.

On CRT-based projection sets, auto convergence provides a one-touch adjustment to automatically align the three CRTs for a sharp, accurate image. It's much more convenient but perhaps not as thorough as manual convergence, which can be time-consuming.

Most TVs have a number of different inputs for connecting other components. Antenna/cable, or radio frequency (RF) inputs are the most basic; the next step up is composite video. S-video inputs let you take advantage of the superior picture quality from a satellite system, a DVD player, or a digital camcorder. Component-video inputs offer even better quality, useful with equipment such as most DVD players, high-definition satellite receivers, and cable boxes.

In addition to those TV connections, most HD-capable sets have a Digital Visual Interface (DVI) or High-Definition Multimedia Input (HDMI). These provide a digital connection to digital devices and may allow content providers to control your ability to record certain content. DVI inputs carry only video; HDMI inputs carry audio and video on one cable.

VGA input lets the TV accept signals from a computer. For a camcorder or video game, a front-mounted A/V input is helpful. Audio outputs let you direct a stereo TV's audio signal to a receiver or self-powered speakers. A headphone jack lets you watch (and listen) without disturbing others.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Strongly consider HD. Digital HDTVs can display sharper, finer images than conventional analog TVs, especially with HDTV programming, but even with standard TV programming or DVD movies. Even with standard (non-HD) signals from a good cable connection, a satellite signal, or a DVD player, the picture quality can be better than a conventional set's. But with a poor signal, like the worst channels from cable, an HDTV can make the images look worse. The digital circuitry can't always know how to interpret the noise from the real signal.

If you're at all serious about TV or DVD viewing, we strongly recommend you consider an HDTV--especially if you're looking at a big-screen set. Even if there isn't yet enough HD programming to suit you, it's likely there will be during the life of the TV.

Decide on a screen size. TVs with small screens (less than 27 inches) are more likely to come without all the bells and whistles of larger sets. A notable exception: Most LCD sets fall into this size range, and they may be more fully featured. Medium screens--27 to 36 inches--are the best sellers, so the category has a large number of choices in terms of features, price, and brand. Large screens--40 to 82 inches--are generally plasma or rear-projection models; there are some LCDs in the 40- to 50-inch range, but they're very expensive.

Most big-screen sets are HDTVs. Keep in mind that a jumbo set is likely to look even larger and more overwhelming in your home than it did on a spacious showroom floor. In the same vein, consider whether you want thick or thin. LCD and plasma flat-panel TVs are the trimmest and the priciest; rear-projection and picture-tube TVs are the bulkiest and cheapest. Rear-projection microdisplays, using the new technologies, are a middle ground on size and price.

Lean toward a wide screen. Most HDTVs have wide screens, but some picture-tube and LCD models have squarish 4:3 screens. Our advice: Go wide. Most DVD movies and some HDTV programs are formatted for a 16:9 wide screen, and they'll look better on this type of screen. With more TV content going wide-screen, a 16:9 set will make even more sense as time goes on. A regular screen with the familiar 4:3 aspect ratio is the only choice for analog TVs.

Choose the technology. TVs using the familiar picture-tube technology are the least-expensive option, and these still offer the best picture quality, but the maximum screen size is limited to 36 inches. The best LCD, plasma, and rear-projection sets are capable of displaying very good HD images, but you have to be selective. Consider the pros and cons outlined above in making your choice. Be sure to view the sets for yourself to see which you prefer.

Decide between an HD-ready set and an integrated HDTV. HD-ready sets cost less than integrated HDTVs, and there's no reason to pass them by. The only plus to an integrated HDTV is that it can get broadcast HD signals via antenna; with cable or satellite, you need a box with either type.

Digital-cable-ready, or DCR, TVs are a newer type of HDTV. These can receive some digital-cable programming with no additional devices. To get premium cable and HD, you must get a CableCard from the cable company and put it in a slot on the TV. DCR sets command a premium, but don't pay extra just to lose the cable box. Current CableCard setups are one-way and don't provide an interactive program guide, video-on-demand, or pay-per view ordering via the remote. For those, you'll still need a cable box. Second-generation DCR TVs and CableCards offering two-way capability should be here soon.

Consider an analog TV for casual use. While standard-definition TVs can't match HD for picture quality, some offer fine picture quality that may suit you fine. Only firsthand experience will enable you to decide whether the HD improvement is worth the extra cost. Though HD sets cost less than they used to, they still command a premium--usually hundreds more than a comparable analog set. If you're a casual viewer and top quality isn't a must, a low-priced analog picture-tube set would be the best choice for a midsized set, while a small LCD would be a good choice for a kitchen or bedroom.


Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.
For the latest information on this and many other products and services, visit www.ConsumerReports.org.
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