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Some TV moments you never forget: J.R. getting shot. The space shuttle Challenger exploding. In the world of high-definition TV, there's a more recent one for me: Northwestern University's football upset of then-undefeated University of Wisconsin that I watched Oct. 8 on ESPN HD. On LG's $5,000 50PY2DR, every detail stood out as I enjoyed my alma mater's 51-48 triumph -- from the concern on the Badgers' defensive linemen's faces after a last-minute turnover to the jubilant expressions of Wildcats fans as the clock wound down.
With HDTV, great moments are crystal clear. And thanks to prices that have fallen dramatically over the past year, now's the time to jump feet-first into the market. I've checked out the latest HD sets, 37 inches measured diagonally and larger, looking at plasmas from Hitachi, LG, Panasonic, Pioneer, and Samsung, as well as liquid-crystal-display sets from Dell, Sony, ViewSonic, and Toshiba. I've looked at projection units from RCA and Epson using Texas Instruments' "digital light processing" (DLP) technology. I even considered conventional cathode-ray-tube-based sets from Philips and others that offer great pictures and cost less than $1,000. The good news: Many manufacturers are packing in new goodies such as built-in TV guides, digital video recorders, and processing technology to make even analog pictures look better.
In the world of big TV, you first need to determine which size screen fits best in your room. The HDTV sweet spot is 42 inches, applicable to many living rooms and bedrooms. But some family rooms might comfortably fit a gargantuan 82-in. screen such as Mitsubishi's $11,000 WL-82913 liquid crystal-on-silicon rear-projection display. A rule of thumb: You should be 6 feet to 9 feet away from a normal to midsize set showing an HD broadcast. You'll want to sit a foot or two farther out to watch shows still broadcast in analog form, which makes images appear grainy on a big screen. Some sets, such as Samsung's $4,600 50-inch HP-R5072 plasma TV and Sony's 32-inch $2,700 KDL-V32XBR1 Bravia LCD TV, include technology that "upconverts" analog to make it look less grainy. For sets without that technology, I recommend Belkin's $249 PureAV RazorVision video cable, which performs the same function.
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Don't get hung up on the technologies -- all offer great pictures. And there are fewer technical downsides to choosing one over another. Most plasmas now imperceptibly shift the picture on the screen, lessening the chance of "burn-in," in which static images such as paused game scenes or station logos appear as ghosts that can't be erased. Pay no attention, also, to the myths about their lack of longevity; most plasma sets will live well beyond seven years even if you have them on eight hours a day. The big knock about LCDs -- their hefty price tag -- is no longer as relevant. New ones 37 inches and smaller cost less than $3,000. Bigger ones cost more, but the gap is narrowing. Even tube-based sets offer great pictures, though they take up more room because they're not as svelte as LCDs or plasmas.
While plasmas are known for their brilliant colors, I'm impressed with improvements on the LCD front. Watching the movie Hellboy on Toshiba's 37HL95 LCD TV, the colors looked so vivid and the contrast so bright that I had to check the box to make sure the set wasn't a plasma. The downsides? Plasmas still consume more energy, while pictures on LCDs and rear-projection sets don't look as good when viewed from extreme angles.
Even with much-improved displays, all screens are not the same. Look at the last number in the resolution bracket, usually found next to the TV display in a store. If it's above 720, the set is capable of displaying HD programming. There are two common broadcast formats: 720p or 1080i. One is not necessarily better than the other; 1080i, or interlaced, has more lines and pixels, but 720p is a progressive-scan format that should deliver a sharper image of a subject in motion. Some LCD and DLP sets now offer 1080p resolution -- a good choice if you're thinking of upgrading in the next year or two to the new high-definition DVD players that are expected to hit the market.
One of the more important decisions you'll make in buying an HD-ready set is connectivity to other devices. I always recommend buying a set with at least one, and preferably two, HDMI, or high-definition, multimedia inputs. You can cut down on cable clutter with HDMI, which keeps the image the highest quality by sending uncompressed high-definition video and audio down a single cable. Because HDMI also carries software to make sure content isn't pirated, many future devices, such as Sony's PlayStation 3 and next-generation DVD players, will include HDMI, so it's better to try to future-proof your set now. Some sets with two HDMI connections: Dell's $3,800 50-inch W5001C plasma, as well as models from Pioneer and Hitachi. Gefen also sells a $400 box that lets you plug four HDMI-equipped set-top boxes into one display.
Don't let low price hoodwink you into buying an enhanced definition TV, or EDTV. They're good mainly for playing DVDs and won't show HD content as clearly. What's more, industry leader Panasonic's glitzy TH-42PX50U high-def plasma now costs just $2,800 -- about $2,000 less than a more or less identical set a year ago. So if you're really just looking for something to show DVDs and want a big-screen experience, I recommend Epson's MovieMate 25 or RadioShack's Cinego all-in-one home theater DLP projectors, which retail for about $1,200. These units project the image on a wall or a screen.
A last word of advice: Make sure you know your retailer's return policy and, while I generally recommend an extended warranty, be clear about what yours covers. An early production model of the LG plasma I mentioned earlier, which came with a built-in hard drive, had lots of software problems that caused the glitzy set to turn itself on suddenly. A replacement the company sent worked perfectly, but it was unsettling to learn that LG handles repairs and replacements on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to just taking a set back for any reason.
Whether you choose DLP or plasma, LCD or projection, do your homework. While you won't be hanging out with your new HDTV set for life, you will want it to be around to make many years of digital memories.
By Cliff Edwards