Types of TVs
Direct-view TVs are the conventional sets still found in most households. They offer screen sizes from 13 inches to 40 inches diagonally and produce clear, crisp pictures by displaying images onto a glass picture tube. Direct-view TVs are best for rooms with bright light, such as the kitchen, bedroom or even the family minivan. But not all direct-view TV picture tubes are created equal. Some TVs boasting dark tint or dark glass tubes may seem slightly brighter. Other tubes are flat (or flatter) and square (or more square), offering viewers less distortion on the outer edges of the picture.
Two hybrids of the direct-view TV are the TV/VCR and TV/DVD, which combine two components into one unit. TV/VCRs have caught on with consumers who don't want the hassle of connecting components and who are looking for a second (or third or fourth) set for a bedroom or home office. Though they originally shipped with low-end VCRs, manufacturers are now installing hi-fi stereo decks into TVs as large as 35 inches, making some models contenders for a basic home theatre. TV/VCRs are equipped with either two- or four-head VCRs, and often come with front-panel AV inputs for video games and camcorders. A TV/DVD offers the same convenience as the TV/VCR while utilizing the newer technology of DVD in an all-in-one solution.
While many portable electronic products are shrinking in size, consumer projection TVs can make pictures as large as 300 inches or more (and as small as four inches). Though most can't compare to the sharpness of direct view, projection TV is ideal for capturing the drama of a great movie in a theatre-like setting.
Projection TVs come in two types: rear and front. Inside a rear-projection TV you'll find a projector aimed at a mirror that is reflected onto the back of the display screen. These TVs can be as large as 80 inches diagonally and may also be viewed in a room with light distractions.
If you want a really big picture, have a dedicated room for viewing and a more liberal budget, step up to front-projection TV, which can create pictures of six to seven feet (or more) diagonally. With front-projection TV, a projector positioned in the rear of the room shoots an image onto a screen in the front. Therefore, you'll need a space that can be darkened during the day.
Plasma and LCD monitors
The latest in television technology is the introduction of plasma display screens. This revolutionary visual image technology is adaptive to high definition signals and can produce the clearest and sharpest images. However, a plasma monitor is not for everyone. If you put a premium on space and have a liberal budget, this is the way to go. The plasma monitor hangs on the wall with a specially designed bracket, or sits on a table with a pedestal base. At a mere 4 ½ inches deep, a plasma screen will look like any other picture on your wall, but at a much higher cost.
A slightly less expensive alternate would be to turn to LCD (liquid crystal display). Although not as thin as the plasma screen, an LCD is thinner than a traditional direct-view TV or projection TV and does not weigh nearly as much. LCD is common on most laptop computers and flip-out screens on camcorders. It is widely used for in-flight movie screens as well.
The digital revolution: DTV
DTV stands for digital TV-television signal standards adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in December 1996. North American broadcasters are committed to offering digital signals in the near future. DTV is being hailed as the biggest change in TV technology since the advent of colour.
Most viewers receive their TV signals via cable or by an analog signal sent through the air. Analog signals do an admirable job; however, they can be subject to atmospheric distortions and obstacles (such as mountains), sometimes resulting in a "snowy" picture. Cable connections help avoid most of that. DTV receives a television signal made up of a series of compressed codes that are unscrambled by a decoder (whether built in to the TV or in a separate receiver) to produce a crisper, cleaner image and better sound.
DTV is the umbrella term for both HDTV (high-definition TV), which creates superior pictures using 1,920 vertical lines and 1,080 horizontal lines, and SDTV (standard-definition TV), which has half the vertical and one-third the horizontal lines of HDTV. What's the difference between the two? Picture quality and price.
Besides knowing which kind of DTV set you're buying, smart shoppers should also be aware that two versions are being marketed: DTV and DTV-ready (or DTV-capable). DTV comes with a tuner and decoder built in to unscramble the digital signal; DTV-ready doesn't. With a DTV-ready set, you must purchase a decoder to pass the digital signal to your TV. Though an all-in-one system is convenient and saves you from having to connect yet another component to the TV, electronic pros prefer separates. The consensus is that you get higher quality by buying separate equipment and you prevent TV obsolescence (should a new technology emerge).
With all the fuss over DTV, you may be wondering whether a new analog set will become obsolete when digital rules the airwaves. Fear not. Manufacturers are gearing up to produce low-cost converter boxes to receive digital signals and display them on existing TVs. It is also likely that analog and digital broadcasts will happily coexist for a few years.
Television prices vary from a low of $200 for a 13-inch direct-view colour model to $80,000 or more for a fancy front-projection system. A 13- to 19-inch direct-view TV can sell for $200 to $550. For $280, it is possible to find a 13-inch set with a bundled VCR, or for $650 with a DVD player. Depending on the features, 27-inch direct-view sets range from $430 to $1,300. Move into the big-screen arena (32 to 36 inches), and you can typically pick up a direct-view TV for $550 to $3,000.
Rear-projection TVs, boasting screen sizes of 50- and 60-plus-inches, generally cost in the low four-figure range. You'll also find four-figure horizontal resolutions and possibly more input jacks than a direct-view set.
If you're looking for true widescreen TV, check out the cream of the crop: high-definition (HDTV) starting at $3,000 (excluding digital decoder). As new competitors enter the electronics fray, it is likely that HDTV prices will drop and HD programming will increase.
Consider These Important Features...
The size of the TV is vital to your viewing pleasure. A screen that's too large will tire your eyes. If you buy a set that's too small, you'll miss picture detail. To calculate the correct screen for your space, measure the distance (in inches) from where you'll be seated to where the set will reside. Divide that figure by five to get the ideal diagonal TV screen size. Figure out where you want to put the set before you begin to shop. In addition to calculating screen size, measure the unit's width, height, depth and weight to be sure your space (or wall unit, bookshelf, entertainment centre or armoire) can accommodate it.
Image clarity and quality is determined by the size of the screen, your programming source and the TV's horizontal resolution, which ranges from 270 or more vertical lines to 480, 720 or 1,080 horizontal lines. The more lines, the sharper the image, but it's not just numbers. How lines are scanned into the video frame also affects picture quality. On a 480 vertical line DTV, for instance, you can buy either 480i ("i" for interlaced) or 480p ("p" for progressive). Interlaced systems scan in 240 odd picture lines and then 240 even picture lines every 1/30th of a second. Progressive systems simultaneously scan in all 480 picture lines every 1/60th of a second, giving you a full frame of video twice as often as 480i and a sharper image.
If you're looking for an analog TV, the comb filter is critical to picture clarity. The job of the comb filter is to separate black and white, or brightness, information from colour information. This prevents images from looking jagged or blurred. When shopping, scout for a TV with at least a digital comb filter (3D digital filters offer the sharpest image). Small and low-end TVs may not have a comb filter.
Sound varies in TVs, and manufacturers are always looking for new ways to enhance the viewer's audio experience. Bare-bones models come with one speaker, known as mono, creating one-dimensional sound. Nowadays, though, most TVs priced at $300 and above (and newer TV/VCRs) are stereo since most major programs are broadcast in at least stereo, if not Dolby®. In order to receive sound in stereo, the TV will include an MTS (multichannel TV sound) tuner. Thrown into the MTS package will be a second audio program (SAP), which lets you receive multilingual soundtracks.
Since consumers often install direct-view TVs in entertainment centres, manufacturers are now placing speakers in front or near the front of the set to better protect sound. If you plan to park your TV in a cabinet or wall unit, make sure the speakers are front firing.
If sound is very important to you and you don't want to build a full-blown home theatre with speakers positioned around the room, check out TVs that boast virtual surround sound. This special effect feature will help simulate three-dimensional sound.
While the mere mention of wires makes the eyes of some TV shoppers glaze over, they're an important consideration when deciding on a set. If you plan to surf the Internet from your TV or hook up a high-end VCR, DVD player or certain camcorders, then you will need a unit with at least one S-video input for each component. If you want to play a video game or view a camcorder through the TV, shop for a model with front-panel A/V inputs that will help you avoid the wire spaghetti around back. If home theatre is your goal, look for a TV with two (or more) S-video inputs. That way, as you add digital formats such as DVD and digital satellite, you'll get the best signal. Also consider a model with a component input that will help prevent your new TV from becoming obsolete as future technologies develop.
The more inputs you get with your new TV, the more design flexibility you will have. There are three types of input jacks: RCA (or composite) for VCRs, video games and the set-top boxes that connect the TV to the Web; S-video for DVD players, high-end VCRs and certain camcorders; and component video for DVD players. Component video inputs are found in a wide selection of TVs and allow you to display the best possible picture from high-performance devices.
A key feature TV shoppers often overlook is the remote control. It's your audio/video command centre. Some devices are unified, meaning one remote will operate the primary functions (on/off, channel surfing, etc.) of same-brand components, putting and end to coffee table clutter. Universal remotes are most common and offer the same benefits as unified remotes, except they're not limited to the same brands. Learning remotes (or smart remotes) can pick up the primary functions of other remotes, helping to consolidate your devices. There are also more and more illuminated remotes or glow-in-the-dark keys for channel surfing in darkened home-theatre environments.
Other TV features worth considering:
- Dolby® surround. Gives you four- or five-speaker surround sound. However, if you plan to run your acoustics through a dedicated Dolby® Surround, Dolby® Pro Logic® or Dolby® Digital receiver, this is unnecessary.
- Favourite channels: Let's you pre-set channels the way you pre-set radio stations in the car.
- Multilingual onscreen menus: A very useful feature if someone in your home speaks a foreign language, such as Spanish or French (some units offer more language choices).
- Parental lock: Allows parents to block certain off-limits TV channels by entering a code. Some TVs also let you block out the VCR and video game inputs. How and what you deem appropriate is up to you. By law, all TVs 13 inches or larger, and in the market by January 1, 2000, must include a V-chip (for violence) that lets you censor programs you feel have too much violence or sexual content.
- PIP (picture in picture): Lets you watch two programs at once by displaying a small picture frame within the larger picture frame. Advanced PIP displays multiple channels onscreen at the same time, though only the one you're scrolling through will have a moving frame.
- Programmable timer: Turns the TV on at a pre-set time to a pre-set channel.
- Sleep timer: Shuts the set off at a designated time (ideal for those who nod off to the pale-blue light of the tube).
- Lifespan: Since the lifespan of your TV will be roughly 10 years, pick one that suits your future needs as well as your immediate needs.
All TVs consume electricity, even after you think you turn them off. But some TVs conserve more energy than others. Energy Star®-compliant sets generally consume less energy than standard sets so you may want to shop for a TV that touts the Energy Star® label.
As technology converges, your TV will take centre stage and your entertainment choices and information sources will expand. Here's a sampling of what can already be piped through your new TV (just make sure you buy a TV with an S-video input jack for each source that you'll likely have within the next few years).
Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS)
Brings digital video and quality sound to your TV using a satellite dish and set-top box. More than 200 channels are offered.
The familiar monthly service, cable is now delivering high-definition digital broadcasts via wire or through wireless sources. Prices vary for this service.
These players let you watch DVD films and listen to CDs. Although DVDs look like CDs, they have greater storage capacity (a two-hour movie fits on one side) and come packed with extra features, such as foreign language tracks, subtitles and unedited versions.