Common HDTV questions answered

LCD or plasma? HDMI or component? Read on for answers to the most common HDTV questions

From the moment you decide to buy a new HDTV, you face a series of potential pitfalls that can set you back in your quest to choose a television and enjoy it. Problems can crop up throughout the process, whether you're just beginning to determine which television technology better suits your needs or you're dealing with unsatisfactory picture quality once you've set up your new TV in your living room.

Fortunately, many of the issues facing prospective or current HDTV owners are quite easy to address — you just have to do your homework before you break out your credit card. Here are some common HDTV problems, and how you can solve them in a matter of minutes.

Should I choose LCD or plasma?

LCD sets are typically thinner and use less energy than their plasma counterparts. If you've made the decision to shop for an HDTV, you're probably wondering whether you should select an LCD set or a plasma model. Admittedly, both technologies are nice and should deliver desirable picture quality. But you want the one that's better for you — and they're not created equal.

Nowadays, the vast majority of HDTVs on store shelves are LCD (liquid crystal display) sets. The technology has been improving dramatically over the years, thanks in part to the introduction of LED backlighting.

With the help of LEDs, current LCD sets tend to be a bit brighter than their predecessors, which use cold cathode fluorescent lamps. Even better, LED-backlit LCDs are usually thinner than traditional LCDs (and plasmas, for that matter), and they consume less power.

However, LED-backlit HDTV sets tend to be more expensive than traditional LCDs. TV manufacturers typically have a similar price gap between LED-backlit and CCFL-backlit sets — and some manufacturers aren't even making CCFL-backlit sets on the high end at all.

Aside from price considerations, LCDs are typically quite thin — good for people who want to mount their set to the wall. And with screen sizes up to 46in, they deliver outstanding picture quality.

If you're looking for a larger display, though, you should be aware that LCD picture quality tends to break down on larger screen sizes. In most cases opting for a 50in LCD isn't necessarily the best idea unless the set has LED back-lighting.

Beyond that, LCDs sometimes offer less-appealing picture quality when viewed at off angles. LCD HDTVs have been improving in this respect over the years, but they still fall short compared with plasmas. If you anticipate watching your set from several different angles, keep that in mind.

LCD cheat sheet

• LED backlighting improves picture quality in most cases

• Better for smaller screen sizes

• Affordable

• Off-angle viewing can be a concern

Plasma sets are cheaper than LCDs and can provide solid picture quality. If you're considering buying a plasma HDTV, don't expect to see any that are smaller than about 42in in size. The reason for that is simple: Manufacturing plasma televisions smaller than 42in would be too costly for vendors, and they wouldn't be able to keep up with LCD pricing. So plasma makers have successfully kept to the higher end of the market.

As a result, plasma is probably the better way to go if you're looking for a large screen of, say, 50in or more. On large screens, fast action looks better on a plasma HDTV. Picture quality is usually superior, as well. Since LED-backlit LCDs (which are trying to encroach on the plasma market) are somewhat expensive, you should find a competitive price from plasma TV makers. Note, too, that plasmas deliver excellent picture quality at all viewing angles.

Plasmas have some drawbacks, however. For one, they're bulky, so putting a plasma set over the fireplace, while possible, may not be as aesthetically pleasing as you might like. And since the majority of companies are making LCDs, finding a suitable plasma set might be a bit more difficult than choosing an appropriate LCD TV.

Plasma cheat sheet:

• Great for large screen sizes, but not small displays

• Competitive pricing against high-end LCDs

• Excellent off-angle viewing

• Tend to be bulky

What size TV is right for me?

Before you make up your mind about an LCD or plasma, you need to determine the size of the HDTV you want to buy.

To determine the right size for your living room, get a tape measure and figure out how far away you plan to sit from your television once you have it in place. If you have multiple locations for people to sit, you might also take the measurements for all those other spots.

You can find several tools on the Web, including a table on Amazon's site, that show how to translate that distance into the correct screen size. Amazon's table, for example, says that if you're sitting up to 4 feet away from the set, you probably don't want anything bigger than a 32-inch display. If you're sitting around 6 feet away, choose nothing bigger than a 46-inch set. If you're sitting between 8 and 10 feet away, selecting a television that's no larger than 80 inches in size is your best bet.

However, choosing the right HDTV size isn't an exact science, and everyone's viewing preferences are different. Keep Amazon's tool in mind, but go to a local store and stand the same distance away from your desired television as you would be when you're home. Wikipedia has a good entry on the optimum HDTV viewing distance as recommended by several different TV and entertainment organisations.

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Don Reisinger

PC World (US online)
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