Avi Greengart is the Research Director for Consumer Devices at Current Analysis (Mobile Phones, Connected Devices, and Digital Home). He also regularly writes for Slashgear, sporadically blogs at Home Theater View and Tweets far too often as @greengartAvi's expertise lies in understanding consumer electronics marketing, consumer behavior, and technology adoption patterns: where new technologies meet the mass market. 

 

 

Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.

Column #9

Big Choices: Big Screen TVs

Question: Avi, I’ve successfully convinced my wife we need a big screen TV. What should I get?

AskAvi responds: (October, 2001)

Choosing a TV today is a lot more complicated than it used to be. I'll take you through the three main things to consider: the size of the TV, the capabilities of the TV, and the shape of the TV.

Size

How big are you looking to go?

bulletTraditional picture tube TVs go up to 40”, with most maxxing out at 36”. There’s nothing wrong with that, but, let’s face it, 36” is not a big screen TV, so we won’t discuss them here.
 
bulletPlasma TVs (the kind that hang on the wall) come in sizes 42” to 61” (rectangles only) and range in price from $6,000 to $30,000. Plasmas blend into room décor nicely, provide extremely bright pictures, and have a very high “cool” factor. However, they are not terribly cost effective, and, for the money, performance is poor - they don't display even gradations in color, and don't display true blacks. For now, for most people, this is still expensive, imperfect technology.
 
bulletFront projectors – a separate projector and screen – can project images as small as 36” and as large as 30 feet across. They cost as little as $3000, or as much as, well, the Ferrari of projectors costs as much as the kind of Ferrari you drive (although the insurance premiums are lower).

Front projectors used to be extremely expensive. With digital technologies trickling down from the business presentation market, the cost of a decent front projector is now competitive with the high end of rear projection HDTV sets. If your budget allows $3500 – 6,000 for an HDTV rear projector TV, you should at least consider a front projector. The sheer size of a huge image is more involving, and the image itself can be breathtaking. However, they a front project does require more planning, professional installation is recommended, and most require a room with little to no ambient light. We’ll cover front projectors in detail in a future column, but if you want to get a head start, head over to projectorcentral.com for unbiased, cost-sensitive advice.

bullet

Rear projection TVs (the kind that look like big boxes) range in size from 40” to 80” (diagonal; in either traditional square shape or movie-like rectangles) and range in price from $1,100 to $10,000. Most have three picture tubes inside and bounce the image off an internal mirror onto the screen. This type of set is what most people think about when they say "big screen TV," and it generally provides the best combination of size, performance, and cost.

Capabilities

Even among rear projection sets, there are three types of TVs – analog, digital (also called HDTV-ready), and really HDTV ready.

An analog set lets you watch regular TV, VHS tapes, and DVDs (though not with all the resolution on discs that are “enhanced for widescreen TVs”). They are the least expensive, starting at $1,100 (for a slightly fuzzy picture) and topping out around $2,500. I can no longer recommend buying an analog set. Even if you’ll never watch HDTV or even a DVD, digital sets typically convert analog TV sources to something that looks like it has higher resolution. Of course, some sets do this better than others. But since a digital rear projection TV costs only a couple hundred dollars more than a really good analog rear projection TV, go with the digital model. Digital TVs will also let you watch HDTV if a) you add a separate decoder box (currently $600, sure to come way down in price) and b) there’s any HDTV to watch (currently not much is out there – more on this in another column).

What’s a really HDTV-ready TV? Well, most digital TVs claim that they’ll show you HDTV. And it’s true. Sort of. The best HDTVs with the best HDTV programming can appear as if you’re looking out a window – it’s absolutely breathtaking. But to do this, the TV must be able to resolve a LOT of detail, and nearly all HDTV-ready TVs fail this test. Don’t misunderstand, they still look I’m-never-going-back-to-regular-TV-fabulous, but not Oh-my!-It's-like-I'm-looking-out-the-window!-fabulous. The exceptions? Some models costing $7,500 to $15,000 using 9” CRTs or fixed pixel display technologies (like LCD, D-ILA, or DLP) – the same technologies available in front projectors.*

Currently there isn’t much HDTV to watch, and the prices on these really HDTV-ready sets are sure to come down to Earth sooner or later. Otherwise, you can buy a rear projector HDTV-ready set today, and be happy with the only-slightly-less-fabulous HDTV picture it can display, should you ever watch any HDTV on it. Note that today's DVDs are not "High Definition." Any digital TV can display all the resolution on a DVD, and some can display the extra image information on discs "enhanced for widescreen TVs," too.

Shape

Digital rear projection TVs come in one of two shapes: nearly square (4:3 aspect ratio, or approximately 1.33:1) or rectangular (16:9 aspect ratio, or approximately 1.77:1). Let’s see how this compares to what you’ll be watching:

bulletRegular TV is square (4:3)
bulletAll HDTV programming is rectangular (16:9).
bulletDVDs usually have movies in the original shape they were projected at in the movie theater (not “modified to fit your screen”). All movies made up until the 1950’s were square. The most common formats since then range from the slightly rectangular 1.66:1 ratio (many foreign films and most Disney animation), the quite rectangular 1.85:1 ratio (most standard Hollywood fare), and the extremely rectangular 2.35:1 (most epics, most films by Spielberg or Lucas).

When watching a DVD on a normal TV, you’ll see black bars on top and bottom of the image – that’s the way you get a rectangle inside a square. This seems to bother some people so much that they immediately think they should get a widescreen (16:9) set. This isn’t crazy, but you should keep in mind that even on a widescreen (16:9) TV, you’ll still get thin black bars on top and bottom when watching a 1.85:1 film, and thicker black bars for a 2.35:1 movie.

There’s one other thing to keep in mind – when watching regular (4:3) TV material on a widescreen TV, you need to make a square into a rectangle. There are a bunch of ways to do this – none of them perfect. You can put gray bars on the sides of the picture, stretch the picture out by the sides, or lop off the top and bottom of the picture. Any of these methods might be satisfactory for watching a sitcom, but none work all that well for sports.

An important note about the shape...

Any tube-based TV (which includes the rear projection sets we’re discussing here) needs to be used primarily in the aspect ratio it was designed for, or you'll suffer burn-in. This is quite serious. Basically, if you buy a 16:9 set, and use it mostly for 4:3 material with gray bars on the sides, you unevenly wear the tubes in the middle of the picture. When you then go to watch 16:9 program material, the side areas of the picture will not have the same color or contrast as the middle of the picture. The same holds true for watching mostly widescreen material on a 4:3 set.

Therefore, you have to choose the shape of your TV based on what you’ll watch most on it:

bulletIf you have another set for watching the news, dramas, sports, and sitcoms, and this set is mostly for watching DVDs on home theater night, get a 16:9 TV. The best 16:9 TVs are made by Pioneer (their "Elite" line), but they are rather pricey. For sets priced below $4000, look to Toshiba, Sony, Mitsubishi, or Philips; Panasonic seems to sell the least expensive HDTV-ready sets starting at $2000, with Samsung not far behind.
bulletIf the set isn’t being dedicated solely to movies, you’ll end up watching a lot of “regular TV” (broadcast, cable, digital satellite) on the set, and you should get a 4:3 HDTV-ready TV. I’ve made this suggestion to people in the past, and there’s always some resistance – apparently, the rectangular shape is seductive. If the threat of burn-in isn't enough, just keep in mind that you’ll get a much bigger image for the same money with a 4:3 set. Even the rectangular portion of the image for movies will be close to the same size – if not bigger – than a comparable 16:9 set.

But if you’re a DVD fan, there is one special feature to look for – raster compression (also known as anamorphic squeeze mode). This “smooshes” the electron gun so that instead of painting electrons evenly across the whole screen, the rectangular area within the square (the part used for the movie, not the black bars) gets extra detail. This works for both HDTV program material and DVDs – and provides the extra resolution on DVDs “enhanced for widescreen TVs.” With raster compression, for all intents and purposes, you have a widescreen TV – in fact, you have to set up your DVD player that way. Available on many Sony and Toshiba models.

Conclusion

My current TV is a 53” rear projection analog TV. It’s fine, if a bit fuzzy - you can clearly see the scan lines that make up the picture. A digital TV would eliminate this, and a set with raster compression can provide all the resolution on "enhanced for widescreen TV" DVDs. When I replace my current TV, I will either get a front projector, or another 53” (the largest size I can fit in my basement) 4:3 Sony** rear projection digital TV with raster compression (HS or XBR series). Best Buy is currently selling the 53" HS model for around $2,500. The 61" model is larger but otherwise identical.

-avi

*Another option is to buy a front projector using high resolution fixed pixel technologies; they start in the $5,000 range and will provide pixel for pixel HDTV in the 720p format - the kind ABC uses. It will be good but not perfect for the 1080i format used by CBS, NBC, HBO, and Showtime.

**A similar Toshiba model would perform at least as well as the Sony, but the Sony will work better with my Philips Pronto remote control. Toshiba does not use discrete codes for their remotes, Sony does. This means that I can program a button on my remote to turn the Sony TV on and jump to the DVD input – even if the TV is already on. The same macro on the Toshiba would actually turn the TV off (if it was on).

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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart