The Big Picture Ever wanted a wide-screen TV? Now's your chance
By Ted C. Fishman

(MONEY Magazine) – You just gotta have one of those big-screen TVs. We understand. As with sports cars and designer handbags, the lure of luxury can turn the most prudent shopper into a slobbering impulse buyer.

That said, there are many reasons to splurge on a wide-screen now. For one, cable and satellite providers are aggressively rolling out high-definition television channels. HDTV is a life-altering experience--like seeing the first color broadcasts after years of black and white--and it works best on screens 30 inches or larger. Sets capable of receiving HDTV signals (including all of our picks over the next few pages) offer mesmerizing images that seem more vivid than real life. Watching a sports broadcast in HDTV is in many ways better than having front-row seats; view your favorite prime-time show or movie, and you'll never want to go back to standard TV again.

Then there's the wide-screen appeal of the new sets. We're used to box-shaped TVs that display squarish images in what's known as a 4:3 aspect ratio. A wide-screen, which is shaped like a theater screen (16:9 aspect ratio), when coupled with a progressive-scan DVD player (see "Must-Have Accessories" on page 92), will give your local movie house a run for its money.

You get the picture. And now the price of all this eye candy is falling. Sets that recently cost $30,000 now go for $10,000, and those that went for $10,000 now sell for $2,500. (Of course, that's still pricey compared with the 27-inch standard sets that chains are hawking for $300 or less.)

As screens have grown, so have your options. On the following pages, we present our favorites among glass-tube TVs and rear-projection sets (the best values). We also pick two flat-panel TVs slim enough to hang on a wall--a liquid crystal display model (best for those who like their movie watching, game playing and Web surfing on one screen) and a plasma version (the ultimate in film viewing). So tune in--and turn the page.

Key to ratings 5 stars = best *****

The bargain box

Samsung TXP3075WHD $999 30-inch screen

Size/Design *** Image quality ***** Ease of use ****

Dimensions: 35 inches (w) by 23 inches (h) by 23 inches (d) Weight: 123 pounds

Even with the arrival of sexy new flat-panel televisions, there are excellent reasons for sticking to glass-tube TVs--the kind still built around cathode-ray technology. These sets look and feel ancient when it comes to size and weight; the 30-inch (measured diagonally, as all TV screens are) Samsung TXP3075WHD is one dense box. But as with many other late-model glass-tube TVs, it is state of the art, delivering the best, brightest and warmest picture on the market. What's more, the buzz for flat-panel monitors is pressuring prices of tube TVs, so that this year's models cost less than half of what comparable ones sold for a couple of years ago. This Samsung rings in at $999 and comes with many easily accessible connections, so you don't have to reach in the back every time you want to plug in a digital photo or video camera. It also comes with an HD tuner--so you won't need a set-top box to get HD signals--and its girth allows for superb built-in speakers.

About glass-tube TVs

1 THEY COME IN TWO SHAPES, or aspect ratios. Avoid squarish standard models, called 4:3 sets, which are built for traditional television programming. We recommend going with a 16:9 wide-screen set that will showcase DVDs and the growing number of HDTV broadcasts to come.

2 ALSO KNOWN AS DIRECT-VIEW TVS, wide-screen glass-tube TVs that are HDTV-ready produce the best picture in all of TV Land and have proven technology that is reliable and long lasting. But these sets max out at a screen size of 34 inches (Sony's $2,500 XBR FD).

3 WIDE-SCREEN MODELS can be heavy--more than 120 pounds on average. Some models require you to heave the TV away from the wall to reach in the back to swap components. Look for those that have front connections for easy access to plug in a digital camera or camcorder.

Family-room theater

Scenium HDLP61W151 $3,999 61-inch screen

Size/Design *** Image quality ***** Ease of use *****

Dimensions: 47 inches (w) by 57 inches (h) by 19 inches (d) Weight: 132 pounds

This is the TV that family rooms are built for. At 61 inches, the screen of the RCA Scenium HDLP61W151 is gigantic and bright. (There's also a 50-inch version.) And for its size, it's a veritable bantamweight, weighing 132 pounds. The new rear-projection TVs are nothing like their forebears, those old tavern staples that relied on three cathode-ray guns beaming blue, green and red to form images on the screen--often so skewed that they produced rainbow effects. The best new sets rely on a technology called digital-light processing (DLP). With it, hundreds of thousands of mirrors built onto a microchip flip and rotate for each tiny picture element, or pixel, that's projected to the screen. And unlike the old projection TVs that approximated the size of refrigerators, RCA's Scenium is only 19 inches deep and does not require a giant base. That means you can set it on a solid table or television stand and put your components under it. Most important, however, is the picture, which nears the quality of glass-tube sets, only much bigger. The effect is staggering. If you based your decision solely on the greatest number of people standing around a set at your local electronics retailer, the Scenium would win easily. Plus, priced at $3,999, it is far more family-friendly than flat-panels, which at this super size start north of $15,000.

About rear projection

1 TODAY'S REAR-PROJECTION TVs take up less space than the older cathode-ray-tube projection sets and have better picture quality.

2 THERE ARE TWO COMPETING STANDARDS in high-definition rear-projection sets. Both produce exquisitely detailed pictures, but we prefer DLP, which is the technology used in digital projectors in movie theaters. DLP produces the brightest picture and offers the widest range of view. It's supported by Samsung and RCA, among others.

3 THE OTHER STANDARD for projection sets uses liquid crystal display (or LCD) technology, the same stuff used in flat-panel computer displays. These sets (by Sony, Hitachi and others) tend to produce more saturated color, which some find tiring on the eyes. (See the next page for flat-screen LCDs.)

Entertainment hub

Samsung LTN406W $5,999 40-inch screen

Size/Design ***** Image quality **** Ease of use ***

Dimensions: 38 inches (w) by 28 inches (h) by 3.4 inches (d) Weight: 83 pounds

If you intend to use your new wide-screen monitor for lots of video games or Net surfing, or as a display for a computer that doubles as a home entertainment hub, an LCD screen will give you the clearest presentation in each instance. Flat-panel LCD screens offer all of the enticements of plasmas--including sleekness--while generating images in which colors appear lusher and with higher contrast. The effect is that pictures have a finely carved, 3-D quality that some buyers will find beautiful but others may find harsh and artificial. Samsung, which makes its own LCD screens as well as those for several big brands, produces one of the largest LCD monitors on the market. Because the 40-inch wide, 3.4-inch thick Samsung LTN406W automatically adjusts what you're viewing to match the screen's resolution, this set is great for watching TV, exploring the Internet or playing video games. Plus, its picture-in-picture feature lets you watch Lara Croft--the movie and the game--simultaneously.

About LCD flat-panels

1 LIQUID CRYSTAL DISPLAY flat-panels are the most expensive sets when measured by cost per square inch. Yet LCDs have the sharpest picture and are the only TVs that can workably double as high-resolution computer screens.

2 LCDS ARE GROWING IN SIZE. Unlike flat-screen plasma TVs, which are easier to manufacture in large sizes, LCDs are easier to make small. LCD screen size, however, is creeping up, with a 45-inch one on the horizon. But figure on an equally steep price increase--expect the larger-size LCDs to start at $20,000 full retail.

3 AS WITH THE SCREENS OF LAPTOPS, images on LCD TVs can differ depending on your viewing angle--direct is best. That makes them ideal for long rooms rather than wide ones.

Movie lovers' paradise

Pioneer PRO-1110HD Size/design

Size/Design ***** Image quality **** Ease of use ***

Dimensions: 50 inches (w) by 29 inches (h) by 4 inches (d) Weight: 84 pounds

Most manufacturers have taken sides in one of two flat-panel camps, plasma or lcd. Pioneer is one of the standard-bearers for the plasma side, and its 50-inch Pioneer pro-1110hd screen makes a nearly irrefutable case for its commitment. While it costs more than other screens its size (list price is $11,500, but many retailers sell it for under $9,000), the Pioneer has one of the most luminous displays around. That means you'll get a great image no matter what the lighting conditions are in the room. Indeed, image brightness, a warm picture and a wide viewing angle are plasma's main advantages over LCD. The Pioneer is also beautiful--a fine set of speakers fit seamlessly with the monitor, finished in an elegant black lacquer. Its picture is dazzling, thanks to a unique feature that lets you adjust every color individually, rather than all at once, like most sets. So cinephiles can watch Technicolor the way Vincente Minnelli intended it.

About plasma screens

1 THESE SCREENS ARE BRIGHT enough to watch in a well-lit room. Plasma is an emissive technology (unlike LCD), which means a plasma screen actually lights up, rather than reflects light from another source. Images are softer than LCDs, which makes plasma great for movie watching.

2 NOT ALL PLASMAS ARE HIGH-DEFINITION. Lower-priced plasmas (in the $2,500 range), support only the enhanced-definition transmission standard, which is fine for most of today's broadcasts but will not display HDTV. To get the best available picture, look for HDTV-capable sets.

3 THEY FADE OVER TIME. After about 10,000 hours (some makers claim as long as 20,000, or 10 years of six-hour-a-day use), the screen could lose half of its brightness. Flat-screen LCDs aren't prone to such deterioration.