Shopping for a television used to be easy. You’d go to the store, find one that looked nice and that might fit in your living room, point to it and then proceed to hire a crew of movers to get that humongous thing into your house. (We said the shopping part was easy, not the getting it into your house part.)
Today, things are different. Thanks to technology, getting a new TV into your house may no longer require a work crew and union contracts. But also thanks to technology, the shopping isn’t so easy. There are so many choices! Today when you walk into an electronics store, you’re likely to hear, “We have front projectors, rear projectors, direct-view, HDTV, EDTV and SDTV, flat-panel monitors and microdisplays, DLP, LCD, plasma, and something called LCoS.”
“What was that?” you ask. “How much does it cost?”
“Oh, we haven’t even gotten into that yet,” replies Mr. Smiley.
So how can you tell all these types of TVs apart? What’s the bleepin’ difference, and what will work best for you?
There is no way to know, of course. Okay, just kidding. We’ll tell you the differences between them all. Better yet, we’ll enlist a homeowner couple who has experience with several different kinds of TVs to tell you what they’ve learned about front projectors, rearprojection sets, flat-panels and traditional direct-view TVs. Don’t worry too much about the difference between DLP and LCD and all that HDTV hullabaloo. But if you must, see the sidebars and “The ABCs of HDTV”.
TVs For the Family
Want to know the real-world difference between flat-panels, rear-projection sets, direct-view TVs and front projectors? Just ask Paul and Marsha Navar of southern Utah. They’re not technical experts, but they own each of these kinds of TVs in their 7,400-square-foot home.
Paul and Marsha moved into their contemporary home a little over a year ago, and while it was being built, they enlisted nearby Custom Installation and Design to help them with the electronics. They ended up with a whole house control system that operates the lighting, motorized drapes, heating and ventilation, and whole house audio. And along the way, they got several different kinds of TVs. There are flat-panel monitors in the living room and bedroom, rear-projection sets in Paul’s office and a playroom, a front projector in the home theater and a traditional directview TV in the kitchen area. Their choices, Paul says, “basically had to do with what we wanted to use the TVs for.”
Paul and Marsha agree that their favorite TVs are the flat-panel Sharp AQUOS LCDs in the living room and bedroom. The 37-inch set in the living room hangs on the wall and is encased in a custom-made contemporary frame, so it appears as a piece of art. “We wanted something to be flat and against the wall,” Paul explains. “When we’re not using it as a TV, it’s like an art frame.”
“I always have an aquarium scene playing on the screen and pretty music going,” says Marsha. “I also do a slide show of our family. I make my own on the disc [from digital photos] and show it on the TV.” The aquarium scene is played from a DVD.
The 20-inch set in the master bedroom pops up on a motorized lift from the footboard. “I like the picture,” says Paul. “Its size made the cost reasonable, and since it’s right at the foot of the bed, we have a nice view, and it doesn’t seem small.”
“It’s wonderful,” adds Marsha. “We’ll watch a [digital video recording] of The Amazing Race or The Biggest Loser there, and my husband will record CSI or the Fox News program to watch there.”
The couple can also use it to keep tabs on their three teenagers. “We press the SECURITY button and can flip from one camera at the front door to the other at the pool and barbecue area, so we know who’s here and what’s going on,” says Marsha. Video from the security cameras are routed to all the TVs in the house through the AMX control system.
So why didn’t they go with flat-panel plasma screens? One of the main concerns was the burn-in problem sometimes associated with plasmas when an image is left on the screen for a long time, Paul explains. “Overall, I’m happy with the LCDs and the way they function.”
In addition to the LCDs, Paul bought a couple of Samsung 50-inch rear-projection DLP (digital light processing) TVs, one of which is in his office and the other in a game room. “I saw it and thought the picture quality was good,” Paul says. “And they don’t stick out too much [like older rear-projection sets]. In comparison to the LCDs and flat-screens, these were cheaper, and I thought the picture was just as good.”
“They wanted a bigger picture, something that didn’t need to be hidden,” adds Jeremy Zesigner of Custom Installation and Design. “But [they] didn’t want it to be the focal point, either.” The DLP sets are slender compared to most traditional CRT-based rear-projection TVs.
“I do a lot of work in my office at home, so I’ll have the DLP on to a financial station while I work,” says Paul. The other DLP is in a game room, and the teenagers often use it to play Xbox games.
Paul has noticed a difference in the way the various display technologies produce images. “On the DLPs, I’ve found that the picture is superb if it’s an HDTV transmission,” he says. “But in the non-HD pictures, I’m a bit disappointed in it. It doesn’t show those really well.”
In the kitchen area sits something that is almost a relic. It’s a 27-inch JVC direct-view CRT (cathode ray tube) TV, exactly like all those sets we’d known up until just a few years ago.
Why opt for a direct-view TV over a flat panel? Cost, for one. Direct-view CRTs are still considerably cheaper than flat-panel LCDs, plasma screens, rear-projection sets or front projectors. They are still the TV workhorses of the world. And pound for pound, CRTs still provide the best picture quality. So don’t automatically discount these from your buying lists.
The Navars had the space for this type of set near a cabinet in the kitchen area. “I’ll use it to watch news program, cooking programs or something that I’ve previously recorded,” says Marsha. Sometimes she will even cook along to a cooking show.
This set isn’t HD, but for now it suits the Navars’ needs just fine.
In the Navar’s home theater is a DWIN DLP projector. The Transvision3 uses Texas Instruments’ DarkChip3 digital micromirror device to produce improved contrast ratios and better clarity in dark scenes.
Everyone in the family enjoys the home theater and loves the large picture on the 100- inch Vutec screen. “We like to use the home theater for big viewing events, like the World Series or a football game, or [for watching] a DVD,” Paul says. “And the kids like to use the Xboxes on this, too.”
“On Sundays, we’ll usually watch movies together,” Marsha adds.
“The thing I like the best about it is that it’s a great gathering place for the family,” Paul says. “My kids are in college, except for one in high school. It’s great to have everyone in there, and pretty much everyone will stay in the room. Because of this, we don’t go out to the movies anymore.”
- STANDS FOR: Liquid crystal display
- WHAT THE &#!!?: It’s what you have in your flat-panel computer display.
- AVAILABLE IN: Flat-panel TVs, rear-projection sets, some front projectors. HOW IT WORKS: Crystals in a liquid are activated by an electrical current.
- WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT IT: Provides a bright, high-contrast image.
- WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD: Viewing lower resolution images can sometimes be like looking through a screen door.
- STANDS FOR: Um ... plasma?
- WHAT THE &#!!?: Think flat.
- AVAILABLE IN: Flat-panel displays.
- HOW IT WORKS: Electrical impulses excite cells of plasma gas.
- WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT IT: Your TV can hang on the wall.
- WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD: They run hot, and some have loud fans. Images left on the screen for a long time can “burn in” to the display.
- STANDS FOR: Digital light processing
- WHAT THE &#!!?: It’s a technology by Texas Instruments.
- AVAILABLE IN: Most lightweight video projectors and some rear-projection sets.
- HOW IT WORKS: Light reflects off a tiny chip containing millions of tilting mirrors.
- WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT IT: Produces bright images with high contrast; projectors are lightweight and portable; rear-projection sets are thin.
- WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD: Some people can see artifacts or harshness around the edges of images.
- STANDS FOR: Liquid crystal on silicon
- WHAT THE &#!!?: Used in Sony’s SXRD, JVC’s HD-ILA and others.
- AVAILABLE IN: Front projectors, rear-projection sets.
- HOW IT WORKS: Light reflects off a chip encrusted with liquid crystals.
- WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT IT: Produces a smooth, high-contrast image.
- WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD: Early sets did not meet the technology’s promise.
- STANDS FOR: Cathode ray tube
- WHAT THE &#!!?: They’re the big, bulky TVs we all grew up with.
- AVAILABLE IN: Traditional direct-view sets, some rear-projection sets, a few front projectors.
- HOW IT WORKS: A huge tube focuses a beam of electrons on a phosphorescent screen.
- WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT IT: Produces smooth, filmlike images; pictures on direct-view sets and images on rear-projection sets can be seen in well-lit areas.
- WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD: They’re big and heavy. Front projectors need low lighting, or the picture will wash out. Front and rear projectors require periodic lens alignments.
- STANDS FOR: Surfaceconduction electron-emitter display
- WHAT THE &#!!?: It’s a technology to watch for. AVAILABLE IN: Flat-panels to come.
- HOW IT WORKS: There are three tiny CRT-like emitters for every pixel.
- WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT IT: The great image of a CRT in a flat-panel display.
- WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD: It’s not here yet, and it’s going to be expensive.
The ABCs of HDTV
High-definition television is a form of digital TV. Other forms of digital TV are enhanced-definition TV (EDTV), and standard-definition TV (SDTV). All these sets can receive digital TV channels, which will become the standard in the next few years. But only HDTVs can receive high-definition programming.
HDTV has a resolution of at least 720p. Other resolutions include 1080i and 1080p (the letters stand for “interlaced,” and “progressive,” which are ways the image is shown on the screen). Most sets will convert a higher or lower resolution to their formats.
Resolutions expressed in numbers like 1280 x 768 refer to the number of pixels across by the number of pixels top to bottom on a screen. The second number must be 720 or higher for the set to be an HD.
EDTV has a resolution of 480 to 720. SDTV is below 480. Do yourself a favor: Spend more and buy the HDTV.
All HDTV images are widescreen, or 16:9, meaning the shape of the screen is 16 units across to 9 units high. We don’t know why they have to make this so complicated.
Many HDTVs are “integrated,” meaning the digital tuner required to receive a digital broadcast is built in. Some even have cable tuners built in, and some “digital-cable ready” sets accept digital CableCARDs that slide into a slot to act as a cable tuner. Sets without integrated tuners may be marketed as HDTV ready, HDTV compatible, or HDTV monitor. If you’re going to get HDTV off a separate cable or satellite box, you won’t need a built-in tuner.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates