The World is Flat

Prices continue to shrink, screen sizes continue to grow--yes, it's finally time to buy a flat-panel TV. But you'd better read this first.

Wilson Rothman

(MONEY Magazine) -- See the flat-panel gallery

You've been waiting for the high sign for years, so here it is: If you want to buy a flat-panel TV, now's the time to do it. Thanks to competition and overproduction, prices have dropped like a rock: Models that were priced at more than $8,000 a couple of years ago now go for less than $2,000. At the same time, picture quality has continued to improve, and most of the bugaboos you had to worry about (screen burn-in, for example) have been fixed.

That doesn't mean they're any easier to shop for. In a store, many look and sound alike (thanks to retailers displaying footage that makes any TV look fantastic) and when you ask about the differences, you get confusing, jargon-riddled replies. That's where this primer comes in: It'll answer your questions, bone you up on some jargon and recommend TVs that are stellar buys. Keep this copy close by at the electronics store: It'll make your flat-panel choices crystal clear.

[Q+A]

Flat Panels Explained

Q. Why should I buy a flat panel instead of a tube TV or a rear-projection TV?

A. Tube TVs are comparatively cheap and their image quality is good, but they take up way too much space and weigh a ton. Rear-projection TVs deliver the most picture for your dollar, but they are sensitive to the angle at which you view them (too many degrees up or down and the screen goes dim), so they don't work very well in living rooms and bedrooms, where people watch TV in assorted positions or while moving around.

Q. Okay, I know there are two kinds of flat panels, LCD and plasma. Are there any big differences?

A. There are a couple, but fewer and fewer as the technologies advance. Generally speaking, LCDs are brighter than plasmas. That means LCDs can look better in rooms with lots of sunlight (you need a bright monitor to outshine all the light in a room). The trade-off is that they might suffer poor contrast in dimmer lighting, where plasmas tend to fare well. LCDs weigh significantly less than plasmas and can be thinner--both issues to keep in mind if you plan to mount your flat panel on the wall.

Q. But I can hang one of these flat-panel TVs on the wall like a picture, right?

A. Well, not quite like a picture. You need to mount brackets to the wall and have enough clearance so that the TV gets proper ventilation (another issue for plasma buyers, since those monitors run hotter than LCDs). Unless you're really handy, get a pro to install it.

Q. Some say plasma wears out or suffers screen burn. Is that true?

A. If you pause an image on a plasma screen for too long, there's a risk that the image could be burned into the screen, but most TVs and even cable boxes and DVD players have automatic screen savers to prevent that. LCD fans say plasma screens wear out, but the truth is, new plasma screens last longer than you're likely to own them (we're talking decades), so the issue is moot.

Q. Do LCD TVs have any problems?

A. For a while, big LCDs simply weren't as good as plasmas. They took more time to generate an image (milliseconds, but it makes a difference), which meant that scenes with a lot of fast-moving action could become distorted. Now the better Japanese- and Korean-made LCDs are much speedier and have relegated that problem to bargain-basement models that may still have difficulty keeping up with, say Luke's X-Wing as it heads toward that vulnerable spot on the Death Star.

Q. I keep hearing about HDTV. Are all flat panels high definition?

A. No, but most are. For starters, here's a thing or two you should know about TV resolution: The television images you've come to know and love are called standard definition (SD). They are made up of 300,000 pixels in a 640-by-480 configuration. Some smaller LCDs (less than 30 inches) still use this arrangement and are therefore not high-definition sets. High-definition TVs must have a screen with a lot more pixels--nearly 1 million in a 1,280-by-720 configuration (which is called 720p). But it doesn't stop there: Newer, more expensive models have around 2 million pixels, double the resolution of 720p (they're called 1080p TVs). Although eventually all TVs will be 1080p, only people with the latest video-game machines (a few people) and high-definition movie players (almost no one) will get the most out of them now, and it's going to take a while. You can still enjoy incredible clarity viewing television shows and DVDs with 720p.

SO HOW BIG A TV SHOULD I BUY?

It's a matter of how far away from it you intend to regularly be. The rule of thumb: The shorter the space between you and the screen, the smaller the TV (just remember what your mother said about sitting too close). Below, the best TVs you can buy for a number of viewing distances.

6 FEET 32-inch LCD

SHARP LC-32D41U LIST PRICE $1,300 STREET PRICE Less than $1,000 WHY BUY With superior image quality and an attractive design, the Sharp is perfect for smaller rooms such as bedrooms.

7 FEET 37-inch LCD

TOSHIBA 37HLV66 LIST PRICE $1,900 STREET PRICE $1,500 WHY BUY This medium-size flat panel cuts down on component clutter by featuring a built-in DVD player, so you have one less box to hook up.

8 FEET 42-inch plasma

SAMSUNG HP-S4253 LIST PRICE $2,000 STREET PRICE $1,600 WHY BUY Samsung is one of the leading flat-panel manufacturers. That expertise shows in this larger set, which is perfect for the living room.

10 FEET 50-inch plasma

PANASONIC TH-50PX60U LIST PRICE $2,800 STREET PRICE $2,300 WHY BUY Want a big, crowd-pleasing TV? Go for a 50-incher. This Panasonic's deep contrasts and bright colors give it a leg up over other models.

BEST FOR GAMERS

40-inch LCD SONY KDL-40XBR2 BRAVIA LIST PRICE $3,100 STREET PRICE $2,700 WHY BUY The new PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 display games in the highest of high def: 1080p. This model handles that with aplomb and also brings out the best in DVDs and broadcast TV.

SOURCE: Calculations provided by hdguru.com.

THE PRICE IS FINALLY RIGHT

When they first appeared, some flat panels cost as much as a small car, but a flood of new models over the past couple of years has led to a precipitous fall in price.

42" LCD

2004 $8,743

2006 $1,999

42" PLASMA

2004 $3,514

2006 $1,967

SOURCE: Price information provided by NPD Group.

Need to Know

A Flat-Panel Glossary

Flat panel

A term describing LCD and plasma TVs that generally have a five-inch or less thickness

High definition

A television screen or video source made up of at least 1 million tiny dots, or pixels. The most common form is 720p, though 1080p is another compatible standard that promises even greater resolution. (See below.)

720p

A screen or video source with a picture resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels. (Some LCD TVs have a screen resolution of 1,366 x 768, which is still essentially 720p.)

1080p

A television screen or video source with a picture resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels

Screen size

A display is measured diagonally, from top corner to the opposite bottom corner. Common flat-panel screen sizes are 32 inches, 37 inches, 40 inches, 42 inches and 50 inches.

Wide screen

A TV screen that's in the shape of a movie screen, with a width-to-height ratio of 16:9. Older standard TVs (and some inexpensive LCDs) are more square, with a width-to-height ratio of 4:3.

High-definition multimedia interface (HDMI)

A convenient, single cable that pipes both video and audio from your DVD player or cable box to your TV. HDMI cables cost anywhere from $30 to more than $100. Get the cheap one.

Watching High-Definition TV

There's a lot more programming in HD than just a year ago. Here's what's out there:

THE BIG NETWORKS All of the major networks now broadcast their prime-time and late-night lineups on a dedicated HD channel that mirrors your regular local station.

PREMIUM CABLE HBO, Showtime and others have dedicated HD channels that also mirror each network's flagship channel.

ESPN AND DISCOVERY CHANNEL Both networks have special HD channels that take full advantage of high definition's enhanced clarity (think: more nature docs and big games, fewer reality shows and bowling).

VIDEO GAMES Both Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 support HD games.

DVDs There are two competing (and incompatible) HD formats: HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Since no one knows which side will win, it's best to take a wait-and-see position on this one. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.