The facts about widescreen TV

28 Sep

September 28, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

Last week, I told you about some of the myths that have evolved around widescreen TV, plasma in particular. This week, it’s the straight facts on widescreen, for those who may be contemplating such a purchase.

My findings are based on Internet research, as well as an interview with Dave Budden, Sales Manager with West End Electronics.

There are three different formats – flat panel, rear projection and front projection – and a variety of technologies that drive them. You need to think hard about which is right for you, then factor in how much you are willing to spend, before making a decision to purchase.

One quick note: all screen sizes are diagonal, which means a 50” TV measures 50” from the upper corner to the lower corner.

Flat panel

Let’s start with the coolest first. Flat panel TV’s are those super-thin models that you can hang on your wall, pretty as a picture. In addition to saving space, they also deliver better image quality than front and rear projection. This is because the picture forms directly on the panel itself – it isn’t fired through a lamp and reflected off mirrors – so you get a first generation image. It also means better viewing angles – that is, no washed out image – when you are seated at the far end of the sofa.

Within flat panel, there are two types of technology: plasma and liquid crystal diode (LCD). According to Budden, it is more cost effective to manufacture large plasma TV’s, so they own the market in screens that are 42” and up, while LCD dominates in the smaller sizes.

And which of the two are better? “One of the things that we look for is black level or contrast,” Budden said. “When you have deep dark blacks, all the other colours will look more vivid and more natural… and plasma has better contrast than rear projection and even LCD flat panel.”

Prices for flat panel widescreen TV’s start around $2,000, but you can get smaller screens and generic brands for as low as $1,000. But if you are looking to maximize the viewing experience, you can easily pay $5,000 to $10,000 and more.

Rear projection

Rear projection TV’s have come a long way from those enormous boxes that dominated half the family room, with a picture that was grainy and angle-sensitive. They are now much thinner – just 15” deep – and the image quality is superb.

The two types of rear projection – LCD and digital light processing (DLP) – have much in common. They both have bulbs that fire light which is magnified by mirrors, but the colour and image are generated in different ways with each system. They cost less than flat panel – starting as low as $1000 for cheapies but quickly rising to $1500 and up – but you are getting a big screen and very good image quality for the money. Both require a special bulb that is rated at 8,000 hours, and costs about $300 to replace.

Of the two, Budden says that DLP has marginally better image quality. “DLP generally has better contrast ratio than LCD, so your blacks are going to be better on a DLP. LCD has always had trouble reproducing black – though they are getting better.”

Front projection

This is ‘home theatre’ all the way, with a projector that mounts on the ceiling and fires the image at a giant screen, much like what you’d experience at the local cinema. The projectors are small, reasonably priced (starting at $1000 but expect to pay more for quality) and the images are true high definition. The big advantage is screen size, the most popular being about 100” (the cheap screens start at about $700). Don’t forget, a 100” screen has four times as much image area as a 50”, so it is an affordable option for those looking for a super-big screen.

You will need to sit at least 15 feet back from the screen, so a large room is essential. “You also need a dark room, because ambient light deteriorates the image,” Budden said. “However, home theatre is used generally at night, to watch movies and big TV events, so this is usually not an issue.”

The last word

“If people are shopping for a TV, I tell them to let their eye be the judge,” Budden said. “If you prefer one technology over the other, then go with what your gut tells you. It doesn’t matter what the salesman says. Our job is to point out the differences; your job is to decide what’s best for you.”

And of course, look at the price tag.

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