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: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.

Column #51 (10/09/03)

In this column:

bulletPlasma vs. DLP TV
bulletAutomating Lights - Custom, X10, or Timers?
bulletMore On In-ear Headphones
bulletBasic PDA Functionality
bulletMoving Video Around the House 
bulletSmall TVs, Combo Units

Plasma vs. DLP TV

Question:

I am a fan of your web site and I need some guidance. I am ready to make the big purchase and I am not sure what to do. The more research I do the more issues I found. I find it hard to believe there could be these many problems if I am willing to spend between $5,000 - $10,000. I have been looking at the high end 50 inch Plasma's and thought that was the way to go. Then I started to view the DLP's, especially the 50 inch from Samsung and I liked that picture even more. Of course there are different issues I hear from all the stores; burn in, rainbows, etc. Could you give me the Pros and Cons of each so I can make a choice based on my usage. Also, should a wait, will things clear up 6-12 months out? I appreciate any help you can supply.

AskAvi Replies:

Technology will march on, and in 6 Ė 12 months youíll face a different set of tradeoffs.  I donít see the technology settling down any time soon, so the best time to buy is really when you feel comfortable with the tradeoffs and budget.  I'll cover the two types of technologies you asked about:

Plasma

Plasmas are so cool right now, I can just hear Homer Simpson drooling, "plas ma... arrrrrgggghhlll."  But plasmas have drawbacks.  First, there's the possibility of burn in; static images can get ďburned intoĒ your screen Ė think of an ATM with a ghostly image of the bankís logo).  This can be mitigated by software (screensavers), content (have a widescreen plasma? Only watch widescreen content) and common sense (donít run MSNBC 24 hours a day, or the logo and ticker bar will burn in).  Plasmas also tend to have lousy black levels, image contouring problems (no smooth gradients between colors), and noise in solid color areas.  There are actually very few panel manufacturers in the world, so the real difference between sets within price levels is often the software, processing, and input capabilities the manufacturer adds to it. Color rendition is usually pretty good nowadays, but not up to the best CRT (traditional TV technology) sets. A good 50Ē plasma set with high definition resolution and good black level/contrast still starts in the $6,000 - 8,000 range (and goes up from there), but with plasma you get what you pay for.  One more thing - pay for professional installation.  Holding the panel in the wrong way (the boxes are usually well labeled, but not hard to do) will break the set.

Plasmas do have certain advantages that can make them worth the high cost Ė theyíre 4Ē thin and are only as vertically tall as the screen itself (plus a small bevel), so they don't dominate the room's decor the way a large, deep box does.  They're also extremely bright; you can use them for both regular TV, HDTV, and DVD movies with the lights on full or completely off.

DLP

DLP is incapable of burn in because at its heart itís just a chip with millions of tiny mirrors that move 12 degrees up or down.  Remarkably, the mirrors donít appear to get stuck (I interviewed the product manager at a major projector manufacturer and he acknowledged that it does happen, but they donít get too many units returned because of it).  However, to generate a colorful image from a single chip, DLP products rely on an optical illusion Ė light passes through a color wheel to create full color images.  Remember, traditional TV also relies on a (different) optical illusion Ė it draws images a line at a time faster than your eye can see.  Thereís nothing inherently wrong with optical illusions Ė except when they donít work.  On many business projectors, the color wheel (and accompanying DLP chip) simply isnít fast enough to fool the eye on high contrast or motion video.  Instead, your eye catches a bit of the color wheel effect and you see rainbows.  In home theater products, this problem generally doesnít occur, but there do seem to be some people who are sensitive to it, particularly with front projectors.  And some percentage of those people get headaches and never want to look at a DLP again.  Obviously, youíll want to ensure you arenít one of those people before buying a DLP product, but, overall, I think the issue is horribly overblown.  I have now heard of someone who sees rainbows on the Samsung DLP sets if he sits off-axis, but it doesnít really bother this individual.  Another problem with color wheels is that it is more difficult to create accurate, saturated colors.  Difficult, but not impossible - recent products Iíve seen (notably, the InFocus 5700 front projector) have incredibly rich color.

Advantages to DLP based rear projection TVs (RPTVs): theyíre generally only 18Ē or so deep, and don't weigh very much.  They're still big boxes (and they need a stand to get to eye level), but for basements or other hard to get to places, they're a nice compromise.  Like all RPTVs, you can watch them with the lights on or off. Compared to plasma or LCD panels, theyíre priced within reason.

Automating Lights - Custom, X10, or Timers?

Question:

I need some timers to turn lights on or off automatically.  I looked around, and donít know what to do Ė one friend suggested getting an installer to come in and set things up, another friend suggested an X10 system (which uses your electrical wiring and computer), and I thought perhaps simple timers would do the trick.  Help!

AskAvi Replies:

The best lighting system is one thatís custom designed and installed by people who know what they're doing.  At the high end, Lutronís Grafik Eye system is well respected; I have a lower end Lutron Spacer system for my home theater lighting.  It works quite well, but we had to go through three electricians before I found one who knew how to install it properly.

X10 systems can be extremely flaky, though youíll find a whole cult of people who swear by them.  An X10 system starts out inexpensive, but youíll quickly find the costs adding up if you actually try to integrate it into your home (suddenly you need a lot more than just the starter kit).  If you like to tinker with electrical things, you'll probably find X10 an enjoyable hobby.  Otherwise, I recommend avoiding it.

Timers in each room are simple to install yourself, inexpensive, and reasonably reliable -- though, for whatever reason, Iíve yet to find one that keeps consistent time. They tend to have limited programmability, and despite their simplicity, most make it a chore to program them.  But if you canít go with a professionally installed lighting system, putting in timers can get the job done for only $6 to $30 per light.

More On In-ear Headphones

Question/Comment:

For people who like in-ear noise blocking [discussed in Column 50; -avi], the Etymotics are awesome.  Are those the same ones  Shure sells?  After several months' use, some tips:

1.  there are ones designed to sound better with the small amps built into walkmen, etc, and ones that need a headphone amp (like headroom, see them at http://headroom.headphone.com).  To me, the separate amp sounds better...but it's as big as an Ipod, just by itself

2.  the etymotics have replaceable filters and tips (the parts that are in contact with your ears and, therefore, earwax...).  Stock up.

3.  it seems to me that sound blocking headphones let you keep the volume turned down, which is a good thing for protecting your hearing, there is something about headphones that just draw people into cranking them up

4.  your kids, spouse, etc will NOT want to borrow your in-ear headphones.  to me, that's a feature...others would find it a bug.

AskAvi Replies:

Shure sells its own line of in-ear headphones which grew out of their professional stage microphone/in-ear headphone monitor system.  I have not tried any of Etymotics products, but Iím quite certain they are not the same as Shureís line. 

#2 - The Shure products ship with several different sizes and varieties of sleeves in noise-absorbing foam and various rubber incarnations; I prefer foam.  However, to my ears, the latest softer rubber sleeves (which should reach the market in the next few months) are a big improvement over the stock rubber sleeves that shipped in the past. 

#3 Ė Thatís correct; by blocking out all other noise, the headphones donít need to be turned up as loud for you to hear the music.  Maintaining my hearing is important for my job (never mind everything else in my life), so I appreciate the lower absolute volume settings.  But noise cancellation has its place, too.

As to your #4, Shure has given me what amounts to a lifetime supply of these things, so I can and do offer them to others for listening sessions.  Never mind the noise blocking capabilities and sound quality; Iíve found that iPod owners tired of having their earbuds fall out tend to understand the value proposition of in-ear headphones fairly quickly.

Basic PDA Functionality

Question:

My Palm IIIE has breathed its last...need recommendations for a new compatible PDA. I don't need any bells/whistles, only phone/addresses. No need for wireless capability. Also pricing & where I could buy one quickly, would be helpful.

AskAvi Replies:

Palmís low end Zire models ($99 just about anywhere) will meet your basic needs fine.  However, there are two catches: 1) to save cost, thereís no backlighting.  If you frequently use your Palm in the dark, this could be worth paying more for, 2) they arenít compatible with any accessories you bought for the IIIE (ex: keyboards, styli, etc.).

Moving Video Around the House 

Question:

I would like to connect 2 televisions to my dvd. One television is directly above the player the other in an upstairs bedroom, any suggestions?

AskAvi replies:

The best way to watch the same video on both TVs is using a video distribution amplifier and a long run of cable; custom installers have a variety of systems to do this, but all are relatively expensive.  If video quality doesnít matter too much, you could try a wireless solution; Radio Shack sell this 2.4Ghz system for $99 Ė just donít make microwave popcorn while watching the movie, as youíre likely to get interference.  If you do value video quality but donít need simultaneous video, spend the same $99 on another DVD player for your TV upstairs.  Bring the movie upstairs with you.  Press play.  Enjoy.

Small TVs, Combo Units

Question:

Hi Avi, my son suggested that we ask for your help regarding major electronic purchases. We are in need of a 13-14 inch television as well as a DVD, VCR. We'd like to know what model set to purchase and whether we want the VCR and DVD to be combined with or separate from the TV. Many thanks for your help.

AskAvi Replies:

Generally speaking, there's little difference in quality among small TVs, and if there were, would you care enough to pay for them?  (If you really do care, then you might get a small bump in quality with a Sony Trinitron, but in that size range the only way to get really good picture quality is to get a professional monitor).  That said, I usually recommend going with name brand Japanese or Korean companies who build their TVs in China or Taiwan over companies that are based in China or Taiwan and build their TVs in the same factories but may or may not be as concerned about build quality and components.  Buy a Panasonic or Toshiba or Sony or Sharp or Samsung or LG or... and you'll be fine.  Set it up properly when you get home (lower the brightness setting, mostly), and pay attention to the remote control - that will dictate whether you enjoy using it or not.

The same holds true for DVD players and VCRs - they're so inexpensive even from Sony and Toshiba and Panasonic that it's silly to save $20 and get something from NoNameO.

In terms of whether to get everything in one box vs. separates, I wrote a column about this a while back (Column 26).  It boils down to:

bulletGo with separates if your priorities are:
bulletperformance, choice of features, price, no single point of failure (if something breaks, just that component needs to be fixed/replaced, not the whole unit, and in the meantime everything else still works).
bulletGo with combination units if your priorities are:
bulletspace, ease of setup (fewer wires), possible ease of use Ė or not (combo units typically come with a single remote that controls everything; this can be a blessing or a horrible curse).

-avi

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