If you've decided to take the plunge into high-definition television for your home, the most critical decision is the size and type of display you will buy. There are three basic displays available -- cathode ray tubes, flat panels, and rear projection -- and they come in a baffling range of types, sizes, and prices. In this column (the second in a two-part series), I'll try to help you make an informed choice.
The best way to start is by choosing a size range, which is determined by your budget and the room where you will put the TV. As a rule of thumb, you should allow a minimum of a foot and a maximum of two feet of viewing distance for every 8 inches of the diagonal screen measurement. So a 42-in. display is ideal for distances of roughly 5 to 10 feet.
If you're looking for a relatively small display, sets based on picture tubes offer excellent value. The brightness and clarity of flat, widescreen CRTs are the best of any technology. The drawbacks are size and weight. The $2,499, 40-in. Sony (SNE ) WEGA XBR, the biggest CRT made, weighs a staggering 304 lb. and is 26 in. deep.
MOST PEOPLE THINK OF FLAT PANELS, usually 6 in. thick or less, as the essence of HDTV, and they definitely are coming on strong. The two types, plasma and liquid-crystal display (LCD), each has advantages and drawbacks. Plasma displays most closely rival the image quality of a first-rate CRT and go from 32 in. to 61 in., though units up to 80 in. are on the way. Prices range from less than $3,000 for a 32-in. to more than $15,000 for the biggest screens.
Plasma has two big problems, though. One is limited durability. There's debate within the industry about how long such screens can be expected to last, but most experts agree that visible degradation is likely within 10 years. By contrast, LCDs are very long-lived, and CRTs have been known to last more than 20 years, though they lose their brightness over time.
The second problem plaguing plasma is that a static image displayed on the screen for a long time, such as a channel guide, will leave a ghost of itself behind called "burn-in." Sometimes the images fade after a few hours, but severe burn-in can be permanent. This is an especially nasty problem when showing the nearly square picture of conventional TV on a widescreen plasma set. It's preferable to use only the central part of the screen, leaving the edges black. But this would burn in the edges, so the image has to be stretched to fit the screen's dimensions, causing ugly distortion.
LCD doesn't have those issues, and the picture quality is rapidly approaching that of plasma, though the top size is much smaller. High-definition LCD sets range from 17 in. to 40 in., with 50-in. and bigger sets in development. Prices are around $3,000 for a 30-in. and $5,000 or so for a 40-in. screen.
The "most improved" award goes to rear-projection sets, which use an internal system of lenses and mirrors to project an image on a screen. Older CRT projection sets had mediocre image quality. New units create images with either tiny LCD panels or a Texas Instruments (TXN ) Digital Light Processing (DLP) chip. Quality still isn't as good as the flat panels, but it's dramatically better than older projection sets. These TVs are also slimmer: A 42-in. Sony LCD projection unit is 14 1/2 in. deep, and RCA has announced a 61-in. DLP model less than 7 in. deep. Prices range from $2,000 for 42-in. models to $7,000 for Sony's 70-in. monster.
The good news for 2004 is that HDTV prices are likely to keep coming down. New production facilities are bringing down LCD costs, especially for larger sizes. And a new Intel (INTC ) technology called liquid crystal on silicon could help produce cheaper projection sets. Whatever technology you choose, it looks like a great year for big-screen TV.