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How to Buy a Flat Screen Television

By Mia KimSHOP.COM Gadget Review Guru

If you're in the market for a television today, it can be a confusing time, what with the coming conversion to digital television in February 2009, and the continuing debate between LCD vs. Plasma technology. The good news is no matter what you decide to buy, you're unlikely to have any issues with the coming change in broadcast technology and you're going to get the brightest, clearest picture you've ever experienced in an energy efficient, lightweight package. The best news? If you haven't been flat-screen shopping in a while, you'll be pleased to see how far prices have dropped since LCD and plasma televisions first hit the market. Just a few years ago, a 32" flat screen television would have cost thousands of dollars. Today, you can pick up a 32" widescreen LCD TV with full 1080p resolution for under $500.

The Basics

Step 1Plasma or LCD: There will always be proponents of each of these competing technologies, but the bottom line is that in picture quality and performance, longevity, and price, plasma and LCD are so close it's impossible to say either one has the clear advantage. Plasma screens tend to display black more accurately, so there's less graying of dark scenes in movies, with deeper contrast. In general, though, there's very little quality difference just because of the flat screen technology- the overall picture and quality of the television has more to do with the individual television components. LCD screens do last longer though, as they're guaranteed to last for at least 60,000 hours of viewing. Plasma screens can lose some of their brightness after 30,000-60,000 hours.
Step 2Size: Television screen size is measured diagonally, so that's what the 19", 22", 24", 32" measurements on televisions are referencing. However, when you are buying a widescreen HDTV (just about all plasma and LCD TVs will be in widescreen), you'll actually be getting a bit less total screen space since widescreen is, in fact, shorter and wider than a standard definition TV. When you are watching content which is presented in widescreen on a standard set, you get the letterboxing which mimics the shape of the widescreen. With a widescreen television, you get the opposite effect when watching standard television: there are bars on the sides of the picture so your actual viewing area mimics standard definition. Keep this in mind, because if you are still watching a lot of standard definition programming, you'll need to get a bigger screen in widescreen to get the same size viewing area. In other words, on a 20" standard TV set, watching standard programming, the entire screen is filled with the picture, while on a 20" widescreen, you'll have the bars on the right and left sides which make the picture smaller.
Step 3Resolution: The resolution of a screen is the number of rows of horizontal and vertical pixels that produce the picture. The higher the numbers, the clearer the picture. You'll want a screen resolution of at least 1280 x 720 for watching high-definition content.
Step 4HDTV: If standard screens actually provide more viewing area, then why would anyone want a widescreen? Most television shows and movies are filmed in a widescreen format, so when you see something in full screen, there is actually a bit of picture missing since it's been magnified to fill the entire screen at a different proportion than it was filmed in. Getting a widescreen television will not convert a full screen picture to widescreen (you'll be getting those bars on the sides) but when you watch content that is presented in widescreen, you'll be seeing it the way it was meant to be seen. Increasingly, television programming and movies are being presented in the widescreen format, so you won't have to see those side bars that often. Remember, movie screens are rectangular, so if your television set is too, you're getting a much more cinematic experience.
Step 5Contrast Ratio: These numbers represent the brightest and darkest bits of picture a television can display at the same time. Plasmas usually out-perform LCDs in this area, but there is no standard way of measuring contrast ratio, and companies have gone out of their way to measure the highest ratios which don't necessarily translate to a better picture. LCD televisions start at about 600:1 and plasmas 1000:1, and while you want this number to be high, there's no reason to base your entire decision on this number alone.

The Lingo

1080p: This is shorthand for Full High-Definition, or 1920 horizontal and 1080 vertical resolution. While this term is used liberally, there's actually very little content that is available at this resolution, so paying a premium for a television capable of displaying 1080p really isn't necessary today, but getting it now assures that your television will still be current if 1080p programming becomes the standard. Interlacing: Older televisions have 576 lines of resolution going down the screen horizontally, and interlacing refreshes the images in these lines alternately between odd and even numbered lines. Because there is a slight delay during refreshing, you can sometimes see the lines which can make for a jagged looking picture. Progressive Scan: Newer televisions, which use plasma or LCD technology, use progressive scanning, which scans the lines of the picture in order- without switching between odd and even numbered lines- so the images are smoother and sharper. The lines are refreshed more quickly too, so there's almost no discernible flicker.
Plasma: As alien as it sounds, plasma displays are just hundreds of thousands of cells of inert gas which light up when there is an electrical charge. The charged cells then make up the pixels on the screen.
LCD (Liquid crystal display): Electrically sensitive crystals suspended in liquid create the image in this type of flat panel technology. Unlike plasma screens, LCD screens require a backlighting element to make the pixels visible.
DTV: Digital television or Digital Signal Television- the new standard of television broadcasting that is replacing the standard analog broadcast. While the required legal transition is likely to be delayed until mid-2009, the change is coming. DTV is capable of broadcasting in high-definition and widescreen mode. Almost all flat panel televisions will come with built-in digital tuners so generally speaking, there won't be a need to acquire additional converters, but definitely do check as occasionally there are models with analog tuners only. Remember too, that if you subscribe to cable or satellite television, this isn't an issue, as the DTV signal change only affects the free, over-the-air broadcasts.

The Experts

PC World "1080p is the best picture you can get on a home screen. You may not own a Blu-ray or HD DVD player yet, but you won't want your television to seem out of date when you finally do buy one."
Consumer Reports Blog "In general, we advise getting the biggest HDTV that fits your room and budget. Further, consider a model with 1080p resolution, which can offer noticeably better picture detail in 50-plus-inch screen sizes. Each of the flat-panel technologies, LCD and plasma, have their advantages for sports and other content."

The Brands

Samsung Samsung is the market leader worldwide, for LCD televisions. Samsung dominates the field by making everything from low-price portable LCDs to giant 63" plasma screens
Sony Sony remains one of the biggest brands in electronics because of continued innovation. While their Bravia televisions are state-of-the-art right now, Sony doesn't rest on their laurels. They have already put the first next-generation technology OLED television on the market, the Sony XEL-1
Panasonic Panasonic is the world market leader in plasma screen production and sales. They also lead in innovation, making more 1080p televisions than any other company.
Vizio An upstart company- Vizio may be new, but their low-cost LCD televisions can compete with the big boys, and at a much lower price. Vizio can be credited with some of the dramatic price drop in LCD televisions in general, as the larger companies have had to lower prices in order to keep up.

The Price

$: It's difficult to find plasma screens under 42" so for a smaller, low-cost option, you're probably going to have to go with LCD. You can get an LCD screen as small as 10" that can cost as little as $100, but for a television the whole family can watch, you won't want to go any smaller than 20". A 20" LCD television starts at about $300, depending on the brand. If you want something a little bit bigger but still moderately priced, a 26" LCD TV starts at about $400
$$: When you hit the range of about $500- you start to get lots of options in terms of size, specs, and the choice between plasma or LCD. You can get a 42" plasma screen from a less well-known brand for about $500. A plasma from one of the big companies like Panasonic generally starts at about $700, but for about $800 you can upgrade to the 50" screen. In this same price range, you can get a 32" or 37" LCD television.
$$$: If you want to splurge on the neighbor-envying giant screen, the sky is the limit, but an awe-inspiring 61" screen will start at about $2000. A 50" will be pretty impressive too, and you can get your choice of plasma or LCD, starting at about $1000.