If the new Media Center PCs are cool enough to convince you to shell out for a new computer, keep your wallet open. Chances are you're going to want a new TV, too. Most sets more than a couple of years old aren't designed for connecting a computer, much less the snazzy digital-entertainment features of Microsoft's upgraded Media Center software. And a traditional computer monitor, even a sleek flat panel, isn't big enough to anchor your home theater, much less your living room.
But before you head back to the big-box store, do your homework. Major PC makers like Hewlett-Packard (HP ) and Dell (DELL ) are pushing their own brand of TVs to go with their Media Centers, but the best bet is to stick with longtime industry leaders such as Sony (SNE ), Sharp, or Panasonic (MC ) (). And you should decide early on what size set is right for the space where you'll watch it. That way, you won't jump at an inexpensive LCD that can't be seen from the couch or a big-screen projection model that takes up half the room.
Another big question to resolve before buying: to HD, or not to HD. With its ultrasharp, lifelike picture, high-definition TV is coming of age. More and more content is available, and the prices of HD sets are falling fast. If you can afford the premium over regular TVs, you'd be crazy not to consider one.
Take it from someone who watched the Boston Red Sox vanquish the New York Yankees in HD: There's no comparison. One caveat. For now, Media Center PCs -- and just those equipped for it -- can handle only over-the-air HD broadcasts, and you'll need to get a tabletop or rooftop antenna to bring them in. If your HD signals come from a satellite or cable-TV company, you'll have to wait until next year before Media Centers will be able to display and record them.
Make sure that the TV is PC-friendly. First, you'll want to avoid traditional tube-based models, known as direct-view TVs in industry lingo. While the picture quality on a direct-view is unbeatable, the set can't produce a high-resolution picture when it's connected to a computer.
And while TVs today come with an array of input jacks for connecting everything from digital cameras to game consoles, two types are ideal for hooking up a PC. The best is DVI, for digital visual interface, which will give you the highest resolution picture. But before paying extra for a TV that's equipped with it, make sure your PC supports it, too. If it doesn't, look for a VGA jack, the connector found on most PC monitors.
For most TV buyers, size matters. That's why the jumbo rear-projection sets based on digital light processing technology, or DLP, have become so popular. Not as skinny as plasmas but a heck of a lot cheaper by the inch, DLPs offer great features and outstanding picture quality for anyone with more living room space than disposable cash.
Our top pick in this category: Mitsubishi's $3,600 WD-52525 HDTV. At 52 inches diagonally and 132 pounds, it's every bit a big screen, but the slim black frame and matte gray finish give it a low profile that make it almost inconspicuous. A front flap hides scads of useful input jacks, including slots for four different kinds of camera memory cards and a FireWire port for connecting camcorders.
THE ROLLS ROYCE.
Further up the price ladder are the flat-panel displays, liquid-crystal, and plasma sets that, at six or seven inches deep, will fit many rooms that can't house a big projection or tube TV, and they look great hanging on a wall. They come at a steep price, though. Sharp's sleek 32-inch Aquos LC-32GD6U HDTV, with the crisp, vibrant LCD screen that PC owners are accustomed to with their desktop monitors, will set you back $3,500.
The Aquos is one of a number of new models that bill themselves as "Digital Cable Ready," which means you won't need a set-top box to get premium cable TV. But without one box, this TV has to switch between analog and digital modes to tune in all of the channels, which can be a hassle. And unless your Media Center PC has multiple inputs for cable TV, you'll be able to record only the analog channels. If you go this route, expect your cable company to push you to keep the box because it can't offer you video-on-demand or program guides without it.
Plasmas remain the Rolls Royce of TVs. After all, how many hip-hop artists do you hear rapping about their DLPs? Pioneer's 4340-HD is the classiest example in the 43-inch category, with a wide black frame as shiny as patent-leather shoes, a pair of speakers protruding from the sides, and only two buttons on the front. A separate box the size of a hardback novel holds all of the TV's controls. It goes for about $4,300, and Pioneer has matching models with bigger screens for more money.
WORDS TO REMEMBER.
If you decided to not to get a high-def set, a less expensive plasma pick is Panasonic's 42-inch TH-42PD25U. Its looks are as simple as the Pioneer's are sexy, but you can pick it up for as much as two grand less than the same-size Pioneer. While the matte black and silver frame isn't an attention-getter, Panasonic deserves credit for the large readable type it used to label the array of controls on the front and, even at its lower enhanced-definition resolution, its picture quality bests that of TVs costing much more.
The key to picking a TV to go with your PC is the same as for picking a mate: Beauty isn't only skin deep. At these prices, you don't want to end up with set that looks better off than on.
Monitors for the Digital Living Room
Forget tiny screens. Now that your PC is the heart of your home theater, you need a big, PC-capable TV to match
Model: Mitsubishi WD-52525
Screen size: 52 inches
Price: $3,385 to $4,000
The good, the bad, the bottom line: If you have the space, this 132-lb. giant has an excellent picture and a complete array of input jacks, making it the best of the rear-projection HDTVs.
Model: Pioneer PDP 4340 HD
Screen size: 43 inches
Price: $3,589 to $7,999
The good, the bad, the bottom line: Pioneer's sleek and sexy high-def plasma model produces lifelike color and sharpness, and a built-in tuner lets you pick up over-the-air HDTV signals, too.
Model: Panasonic TH-42PD25U
Screen size: 42 inches
Price: $2,299 to $3,630
The good, the bad, the bottom line: Despite its lower resolution, this inexpensive plasma boasts one of the best pictures around, and it can handle HDTV and digital cable signals without a set-top box.
Model: Sharp Aquos LC-32GD6U
Screen size: 32 inches
Price: $2,980 to $3,800
The good, the bad, the bottom line: Unbeatable looks, best-in-class image quality, and a built-in HDTV tuner make the Aquos the cream of the LCD crop, but it comes at a steep price.
By Andrew Park