Big Screens That Don't Vex Viewers

Remember the first big-screen TVs? Thrown by a boxlike projector onto a separate curved screen, the picture was grainy--and almost invisible if you viewed it from an angle or the room wasn't dark. Well, it's time to take another look. "Not one technological breakthrough, but five years of evolutionary development has produced a quantum improvement in big-screen," says David Lachenbruch, editor of the newsletter Television Digest.

LIKE HOTCAKES. Today's oversize one-piece sets from Mitsubishi, Sony, RCA, Toshiba, and most of the other big names have striking clarity and brightness. And, despite a soft consumer-electronics market and the recession's lingering effects, sales of the not-inexpensive sets are up 15% this year, vs. 5% for all TVs. They're selling at a faster pace than camcorders or VCRs.

The big-screen category includes two types of sets: direct-view models with picture tubes that measure 27 to 35 inches diagonally and projection sets with screens of 40 inches and larger. Instead of one big picture tube, the cabinet of a projection set holds separate small red, blue, and green tubes in its base. Their beams pass through enlarging lenses and mirrors to combine in a big picture on the rear surface of a translucent screen.

Expect suggested retail prices of about $750 for a basic 27-in. direct-view model, $1,650 for a 35-in. picture. Features such as stereo and picture-in-picture add to the cost. On projection TVs, prices run from $1,400 for a 40-in. screen to about $5,000 for a full-featured 60-in. model. Philips makes a $3,800, 61-in. "Wallvisggest projection set has a 70-in. screen for $6,400.

Manufacturers have eliminated early problems with both kinds of sets. The new projection models produce crisp, high-resolution pictures that can be viewed from almost anywhere in a room, even in daylight. And the picture on direct-view sets no longer loses focus, even at the tube's curved corners. In stores by Christmas, 31-in. "Prism" sets from Panasonic will boast a Matsushita-developed "superflat" tube with less vertical curve. And rival Sony promises to bring out a flatter Super Trinitron in 27-in. and 32-in. sizes.

When choosing from a showroom full of big-screen TVs, keep this in mind: A Mitsubishi survey found most consumers prefer a 33-in. set for the clear picture and living-room fit. Go too large, and you might have to do some costly remodeling. And if you shop, do it well before the Super Bowl. That's when dealer stocks run low.

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