If you’ve shopped for TVs lately, you don’t need me to tell you that thin is in. Those bulky and obscenely-heavy CRT sets of yesteryear are increasingly hard to find and in their place we have an endless parade of slim plasma and LCD flat panels. Short-depth DLP and LCD-based rear-projection televisions (or “microdisplays”) represent an attractive and high-value alternative, but what you gain in savings you lose in floor space since these displays are rarely wall-mountable. Finally there’s the mighty front projector – the ultimate choice for a dedicated home theater but somewhat challenging for casual daytime viewing. Each of these display technologies has their merits, but chances are good that one will be better suited to you and your space than the others.
Contrary to what you may have heard, choosing the right television for your room involves a lot more than just getting something that can handle 1080p. Blu-ray Disc and its high definition resolution will definitely bring out the best in your display, but the quest for the right television begins with a few fundamental questions. How big is your room and how far back will you be sitting? Is it a bright room or a dark room? Are there a lot of windows? When do you most often watch TV? Answering these questions won’t tell you the specific model television to buy, but they will help determine the optimal display technology for your space. Let’s step through each of these concerns and see how the various technologies stack up.
Although the focus of this article is choosing the right display technology for a bright or dark room, room size is a good place to start because it can potentially rule a few things out right off the bat. If you’ve shopped around, you’ve probably noticed that affordable LCD flat panels are hard to find much bigger than 40 inches (diagonal). Similarly, you may have noticed that it’s darned near impossible to find a plasma smaller than 42 inches. If your size requirements are significantly larger than 40 inches, you can probably rule out an LCD flat panel. They are certainly available in larger sizes, but the cost per inch starts to grow exponentially beyond the 40 inch mark.
The proper screen size for your viewing distance may be different than what you have today, so let’s begin with a little math. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your viewing distance from the screen is 1.5 - 2.0 times the diagonal screen size. For example, if you’re watching a 50-in. plasma, you should ideally be sitting 75-100-in. away from the screen. Regardless of the technology you end up with, use this equation to get started and make sure you’re shopping for the right size and comparing apples to apples. With the desired size in hand, you can then start thinking about ambient light and viewing habits.
The number of windows and overall brightness of a room can play a large role in your overall satisfaction with a particular display. Did you ever sit down to watch a traditional CRT set in a brightly-lit room? You end up watching the room’s reflections and little else. When evaluating LCD, plasma and DLP displays, there are definite differences with respect to how each performs in varying degrees of ambient light.
If you have a bright room with a bunch of windows or you like to watch TV with all of the lights on, LCD is probably where you want to focus your search. Whereas plasma panels tend to be highly reflective and prone to glare in a bright room, LCD-based flat panels and microdisplays can often be viewed in the same environment with little difficulty. That said, many plasma manufacturers have started using an anti-reflective coating on their screens to help them behave more like LCD displays under bright conditions. Like plasmas, DLP microdisplays are very bright but many feature protective screens that make them subject to the same glare problems.
Although it may seem as though LCD is the obvious choice, it’s important to remember that the most critical aspect of any display is picture quality. Although LCD is more tolerant of ambient light than plasma or DLP, plasma and DLP can arguably create a richer and more satisfying image – especially in the areas of black level and response time/motion blur. If watching movies on DVD or Blu-ray is your primary goal, a plasma will typically outperform an LCD flat panel. The same goes for microdisplays – DLP typically has an edge over LCD when it comes to generating deep blacks and a rich color palette. There are of course exceptions and these generalizations are but one reviewer’s opinion. In truth, LCD has made significant strides towards leveling the playing field in recent years. However, if a darkened home theater is what you’re planning, LCD is probably not the best choice – not yet at least.
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Greg Robinson is a freelance technology writer whose work has appeared in several national publications. When he's not evaluating Blu-ray Discs or calibrating televisions, you can usually find him thumping volleyballs at his local gym in rural northeast Connecticut.