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A Digital TV Could Be in Your Picture

Times Staff Writer

If you bought an LCD flat-panel television last year, you probably paid about $4,000 for a 36-inch model.

And you probably should refrain from reading the next paragraph.

According to research firm ISuppli Corp., which tracks consumer electronics prices, that type and size of TV is now selling, on average, for about $2,700.

That trend is likely to continue for a while: ISuppli predicts that a 36-inch liquid-crystal-display television will go for about $880 in 2008.

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But if you haven’t made the move to digital, this doesn’t mean you should wait three years to buy. As with home computers, whose prices move steadily downward while the technology rapidly improves, you have to pick your moment to plunge in -- and then avoid obsessing about subsequent prices.

Regardless of which way prices are headed, this is a good time to buy. Besides the drop in price -- which has been particularly acute for LCD models but applies to almost all flavors of digital TV -- the technology has improved too. Some of the previous technical problems have been largely eradicated on state-of-the-art models. And there are some relative bargains to be found.

You’ll probably have to make the jump to digital sometime, anyway: Federal Communications Commission regulations require that TVs sold after March 1, 2007, be able to receive digital signals. Also, you can’t take advantage of increasingly available high-definition programming unless you have a digital set. (Keep in mind that not all digital TVs are HD-capable. To qualify as HD, a television must have a widescreen configuration, also known as a 16:9 aspect ratio, and a minimum resolution of 720 “progressively scanned” lines per screen.)

We are now in the prime season for TV purchases -- nearly half of television sales in this country occur from Thanksgiving to the end of the year, analysts say, largely because of holiday buying and football playoffs and bowl games. So here’s a guide to the different types, with prices, pros, cons and subjective views of image quality:

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Picture tube: Sometimes called direct view or CRT (for cathode-ray tube). This is an old-fashioned tube TV configured to process digital signals.

One caution: Plenty of analog-only CRT sets are still being sold, especially in the smaller sizes, so make sure you are buying a digital model if that’s what you want.

Tube TVs are a bargain in that you can get a 30-inch digital widescreen set by a major manufacturer for $800. And the image quality is wonderful, without the visible pixels (causing what’s known in the industry as the screen-door effect) or blurring common on some other digital formats.

Also, CRT is a mature technology that’s highly reliable. Your set is likely to have a long life.

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The downsides are that CRT sets are bulky (the depth can be up to 2 feet) and heavy, and the maximum screen size commonly available is about 34 inches.

LCD flat panel: Of all the digital television formats, this is my favorite.

The image produced by the liquid crystal display is wonderfully bright and crisp -- it comes closest to looking like a window on an adjacent world. Some experts complain that its images do not display as much contrast as on a CRT set, but I didn’t much notice. A former problem was that the image on LCDs appeared distorted if not viewed head-on, but state-of-the-art sets now look good even from sharp angles.

And the flat panels are only a few inches thick, so they can be hung on a wall or placed on a fairly narrow (but sturdy) shelf.

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So, what are the problems? Even with the price reductions, LCD sets are still, generally, the most expensive. And they are commonly available at a maximum size of about 37 inches, although that’s changing. Sharp Electronics Corp., which offers only LCDs in its TV line, recently put a 65-inch set on the market -- for $21,000.

Plasma: This technology is the most common for flat-panel TVs measuring 40 inches and up. A 42-inch set -- one of the most popular sizes -- sells on average for about $1,900, according to ISuppli, although a model from a major brand can cost $3,000 or more.

It’s definitely worth considering the more expensive sets because some of the relatively cheap plasma models produce muddy images that are not worth viewing at any price.

The plasma image on the good sets is terrific, but not under all conditions. At close range, a screen-door effect is apparent on many models. And in bright light, the plasma image tends to wash out.

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In the past, there was a potential of burn-in -- a permanent, ghost-like mark on the screen resulting from near-constant display of the same image (such as the news ticker on an all-news cable station). However, good-quality sets now constantly but imperceptibly shift the picture in tiny amounts to prevent the problem.

Also, plasma TVs used to generate enough heat -- especially out of the top of the units -- to make toast. That problem has been mostly eradicated too.

Rear projection: This technology comes in four types -- CRT-projection, LCD-projection, DLP (digital light processing) and LcOS (liquid crystal on silicon), the least common of rear-projection technologies.

First, you can probably knock CRT-projection off your list. Although the sets are relatively inexpensive (a 50-inch set averages about $940), the image is not great and the sets are huge -- it’s like moving a washing machine into your living room.

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The remaining three sport excellent image quality (on the better models) and come in large screen sizes. They are not flat panels -- a 56-inch DLP set has a depth of about 15 inches, but that’s not bad considering the size of the screen and the cost savings.

A DLP in that size goes for an average of about $2,500 (and the two other types are a bit less), whereas a quality 50-inch plasma is about $4,000 and up.

Reportedly, some people notice a rainbow-like effect on DLP sets, but I’ve never seen it (or know anyone who has). There is a problem with side viewing, however, on rear projection sets -- the image grows dark at sharp angles. But at these sizes, you can usually fit enough people in front of the screen so that everyone has a good look at the game.

What happens if you hold out and don’t buy a digital set? When broadcasters finally switch over to 100% digital signals (a bill now in Congress sets the date for that at April 7, 2009), will your set be worthless?

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Probably not.

If you get your TV through a cable or satellite service, you will still be able to receive all your channels on your analog set. And even if you get broadcast TV over the air, you’ll be able to buy a converter that will allow you to keep watching.

That’s good news for me, because I still have the bulky, 27-inch, analog set I struggled to put in the car and carry home 15 years ago. So far, it shows no sign of faltering and could live well beyond 2009. Maybe well beyond me.

I plan to will it to my least favorite relative.

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David Colker can be reached by e-mail at technopolis@latimes.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Four ways to view it

Picture tube

* Technology: Old-fashioned cathode-ray tube updated to handle digital signals.

* Size: Tops out at about a 34-inch screen.

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* Pros: Relatively inexpensive, proven technology. A CRT set delivers a superb image and is likely to have a long life.

* Cons: Sets are heavy, bulky and can be as much as 2 feet deep. Maximum screen size is relatively small.

LCD flat panel

* Technology: Millions of red, green and blue cells, each filled with liquid crystal material, produce the picture.

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* Size: Tops out at 65 inches, although most liquid-crystal-

display sets are 37 inches or less.

* Pros: Picture is brilliant and sharp, and on state-of-the-art models it can be viewed from acute angles. Thinness allows it to be hung on a wall.

* Cons: Relatively expensive, especially for sets larger than 37 inches.

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Plasma flat panel

* Technology: Screen is made up of millions of tiny glass bubbles filled with neon and xenon and phosphor-covered.

* Size: Generally 40 to 65 inches.

* Pros: Very good image on most brand-name models. Plasma is often the prime choice for those wanting large flat-panel screens.

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* Cons: Picture can be washed out by bright light. Muddy image on some of the cheaper models.

Rear projection

* Technology: A variety of formats -- including DLP, LcOS and LCD-projection -- in which the image is internally projected by a bright light onto the screen.

* Size: Generally 50 to 60 inches.

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* Pros: High-quality images on big-screen sets. Generally costs less than same-size plasma sets. * Cons: Not thin like the flat-panel models. The 56-inch DLP sets have a depth of about 15 inches.

Sources: Times research, Federal Communications Commission

Los Angeles Times


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