New Screens: The Skinny On Thin T Vs

We've been hearing for years about big-screen televisions so thin and light you can hang them on a wall like a picture. Well, they're finally here. At least two brands are available in the U.S. now, and a dozen models should be on the market by the end of this year. At only four to six inches thick and weighing about 65 pounds apiece, these svelte TVs make conventional large-size television sets seem like space-hogging, back-breaking monstrosities.

Unlike today's big-screen TV units, which project a picture using beams of light, the new flat-panel models rely on plasma display technology. The screen is made up of thousands of tiny pockets filled with gas. When the gas is charged with an electrical signal, it gives off ultraviolet rays, which in turn light up red, green, and blue phosphors printed on the inside surface of the glass screen. A plasma picture is brighter than that of a projection television, so you don't need to dim the lights or draw the drapes to see it. The picture is also visible from virtually any angle.

Flat-panel television sets are digital-ready, meaning they will accept signals from digital set-top converter boxes. But none so far has enough resolution to show high-definition TV signals. These new sets also are costly: Prices start at ten grand and go up fast. Even if you can spring for that kind of money, you might have to do some work to find a set.

Right now, only two retailers in Los Angeles, Paul's TV (562 697-6751) and The Good Guys (310 659-6500), sell Mitsubishi's $9,995 40-inch DiamondPanel TV, which is proportioned like today's standard-TV screens. The company will expand its distribution in March, and introduce a 46-inch wide-screen version in the fall.

You can see and order Philips Electronics' $15,000 42-inch FlatTV at 18 Sears and Circuit City Stores, but you won't be able to get one until March.

PRICE DROP. Your best bet for the moment is probably Fujitsu. Its 42-inch Plasmavision display is widely distributed by specialty dealers listed at the Web site, www.plasmavision. com. At $10,999, Plasmavision's price has dropped $3,000 from just last year. But unlike the other flat-screen models, the Fujitsu product is only a monitor. You'll still have to provide a television tuner and speakers. The easiest way is to plug the panel into a VCR and use the VCR's remote control to tune in TV and cable channels.

Prices should come down rapidly. There will be plenty of competition later this year when such companies as Sony, Panasonic, and RCA plunge into the market. Four years from now, flat-screen TVs should be in the $2,500 range, predicts Stanford Resources, a San Jose (Calif.) market research firm that specializes in electronic displays. That's about the cost of a high-end projection model today. But unlike that huge box taking up half your living room, the flat-panel set will eat up no more space than a large painting on the wall.

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