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1/3/2008
02:01 PM
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HDTV Buyer's Guide 2008

A roundup of the most popular high-definition televisions from Sharp, Samsung, Sony, Hitachi, and more, along with a guide to HDTV technology basics.



High-definition television is taking center stage at the 2008 International CES. The consumer-electronics show will spotlight innovations such as Pioneer's self-proclaimed "world thinnest" plasma HTDV (it's only 9-mm thick), a fully integrated wireless set from Westinghouse, where the power cord is the only tethered connection, and even the first laser televisions.


Sony Bravia S

(click image for larger view)


Sony's 26-inch Bravia S LCD HDTV sells for $900.

View the entire HTDV directory

The pervasiveness of high-def at CES emphasizes the arrival of a technology which is finally taking off, after numerous false starts and failed predictions that its ubiquity was imminent. Now, that moment is indeed upon us. HDTVs flew off store shelves during the recent Christmas shopping season, and the U.S. installed base now estimated at 30 million sets, according to TVPredictions.com.

Notwithstanding its rising profile, the fine points of HDTV shopping are still a mystery to most consumers. There are questions of screen size, resolution, scanning method (interlaced or progressive), and how the picture is created (LCD, plasma, or projection). Most importantly, there's price, with sets ranging from as little as $500 up to many thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, there's no longer the dearth of programming, which formerly caused many consumers to defer their HDTV purchasing decisions. All the major networks offer high-def sports and news, as well as dramas such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and even many sit-coms. PBS's The News Hour with Jim Lehrer went high-def in December. On the delivery side, satellite-provider DirectTV is among the most aggressive marketers of HD, and traditional cable providers also offer the service to their customers.

Still, separating supporters' expectations for HDTV from today's reality isn't always easy. Many proponents of the technology continue to conflate high definition with digital TV (DTV). For example, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) recently pegged the number of households owning a digital TV at 50 percent. However, it didn't say what proportion are true high-def sets and how many are older, standard-resolution digital TVs. (Also in the mix, but rarely discussed, are standard-def models fitted with digital tuners. These are widely deployed; for example, all customers of Time-Warner Cable in New York City who don't have HDTV are using digital cable boxes.)

The CEA gave some harder data in its 2008 predictions, forecasting 32-million total DTV shipments and then stating that "high definition [is] expected to account for 79 percent of total DTV shipments." This would place the 2008 HDTV forecast at 25.3-million units.

Which means that now might be an ideal time to purchase yours. Accordingly, we've assembled this guide, which points you to some of the most popular options in the different screen-size and price-point categories. Before we get to the HDTV models themselves, let's go over some basic terminology.



What is high definition?

HDTVs come in several different resolutions, but the best is called 1080p. This means a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, with progressive scanning. Also available are HDTVs with the 720p display format, equating to a resolution which maxes out at 1,366 x 768 pixels.


Sharp AQUOS

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Sharp's AQUOS HDTV line uses liquid-crystal displays.

View the entire HTDV directory

Finally, there are 1080i sets. These have the maximum number of horizontal lines, but they're interlaced (hence the "i"). This means that all the odd-numbered lines are painted, followed by the even ones, resulting in a less well-formed image than can be obtained via progressive scan. (To fully explain this stuff gets into very arcane technical issues, such as vertical jitter.) The upshot is that 1080p is preferred, with lower-cost sets sporting the 720p resolution as a secondary option, if price is the primary consideration. Note that 720p isn't second-class, in that the picture is still light-years ahead of standard sets. However, it's expected that 720p will ultimately fade in favor of its high-pixel-count cousin.

How is the picture formed?

Far and away the most popular display technologies used to paint a high-definition picture are liquid-crystal (LCD) and plasma. The former are familiar to everyone who owns a Casio watch. LCDs work via a voltage that's passed within a sandwich of liquid crystals between glass. Colors are created using subpixels of red, green, and blue. LCDs are used on low-cost and mid-level HDTVs.

Larger and more expensive sets are fitted with plasma displays. In these, an inert gas trapped between glass gets zapped with current, creating a plasma which in turn gets phosphors on the inside of the front piece of glass to glow. This creates a picture, in a manner not all that dissimilar from an old-fashioned cathode-ray tube, which used a beam of electronics to excited phosphors deposited on the back of the TV screen. The early rap on plasma HDTVs was that they went bad after a few years; this problem has largely been overcome.

A third technology, called rear projection, was once a mainstay of larger sets, but no appears to be waning in popularity. Sony recent decided to quit the rear-projection market; Hitachi has also thrown in the towel on this technology. However, several vendors, including Panasonic and Mitsubishi, still sell rear-projection sets built using Texas Instrument's impressive digital-light processing (DLP) technology. TI's Web site accurately describes its DLP chip, which powers the sets by Panasonic and others, as "the world's most sophisticated light switch. It contains a rectangular array of up to 2 million hinge-mounted microscopic mirrors; each of [which] measures less than one-fifth the width of a human hair." Digital video is passed to the DLP and reflected by its mirrors, from when the image goes through a projection lens and onto the HDTV screen.

On the down side, the DLP projection lamps, which have to be replaced after about 6,000 hours, cost around $250.



How much will it cost?


TV Guide


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Just about whatever you want to spend. You can get a 19-inch starter set for $500, and there are even decent 26-inch units for as little as $700. Stepping up a notch, 40- to 46-inch HDTVs range as widely as from $1,200 to $3,000. If that's too pedestrian, the sky's the limit. For example, Sony has a 70-inch Bravia XBR that'll set you back a cool $33,000.

Who makes HTDV sets?

For starters, there's Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba.

What are the best deals?

This is a constantly shifting landscape. There are several places to turn for information, and for hard pricing information. As to the former, Consumer Reports operates an HDTV blog, which stays abreast of both tech trends and buyer-oriented information. (Consumer Reports' actual ratings are behind a paid-subscriber firewall.)

CNNMoney.com discusses some of the pitfalls of the HDTV purchasing process.

Both CNET and PCMag.com have posted reviews of their top-rated sets.

Prices can be scouted out at the comparison-shopping sites Nextag and its competitor Pricegrabber. The two are often better used to get a feel for the market than for actual purchases; while many of the retailers they link to are reputable, a few have a distinctly fly by night aura.


Samsung

(click image for larger view)


Samsung fields a full line of LCD and plasma models.

View the entire HTDV directory

Better to stick to major retailers, such as:

  • Circuit City;

  • Best Buy;

  • Crutchfield; and

  • Target (yes, Target).

    Vendor Sites

  • Sony Bravia

  • Sharp AQUOS

  • Panasonic plasma, LCD, and projection HDTVs

  • Samsung's HDTV Guide

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