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Big HDTV for the big game?

TODAY Tech Editor Paul Hochman spotlights the top three HDTV technologies — plasma, LCD and DLP
/ Source: TODAY

An estimated 2.5 million Americans plan to buy a new HDTV set to watch this Sunday's Super Bowl, according to the National Retail Federation. But which one should you get?

TODAY Tech Editor Paul Hochman helps you make the right play by analyzing three different HDTVs representing the three major technologies:  plasma, LCD (liquid crystal display) and DLP (digital light processor).  All three of the sets highlighted below show the same image but have different attributes that make them attractive.

First things first

Before you pick your new TV, you need to look at the room it's going in. What room features are important?

Size does matter.  You don't want a TV that's too big for the room.  Take the TVs size and multiply it by 1.5.  That's how many inches away you should sit from it to appreciate the picture.  (i.e., 75 inches away from a 50 inch screen)

Windows matter, too.  The brighter the room, the less you'll want a plasma set because their screens have a sheet of glass over them that can cause glare.

Finally, the type of shows you watch matter.  The more action you have on the screen, such as games or sports, the faster your TV has to be.  Plasma and DLP are faster than LCD.

So basically you have three choices: plasma, LCD or DLP. Using three examples, here's a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Philips Ambilight 42" Flat Panel Plasma HDTV
Plasma screens are best for low-light, low-glare rooms that are specifically laid out for viewing TV. In other words, a room with few windows.  Plasma screens have the highest "contrast ratio," which makes the colors seem truer and crisper.

Contrast ratio is what engineers call the difference between black and white.  With a low contrast ratio, all the colors would look muddy. The Philips Ambilight has a very high contrast ratio of 10,000:1, meaning the whites are 10,000 times more bright than the blacks.

This Philips set is unique because it has a backlight system called "Ambilight," as in Ambient Light.  The system projects colors backward onto the wall around the TV, from bulbs mounted on the side of the screen. The effect: It "softens" the difference in brightness between the edge of the video image and the rest of the room.

$1,699 ($1,499 on sale at Best Buy).

Plasma is supposed to be the best, but when would an LCD be better? Here's an example:

Toshiba 47" LZ196 LCD Television
LCD is the best solution for brighter rooms, since there is almost no glare off the slightly textured screen — unlike plasma, which is covered in glass.

The phrase "LCD" stands for Liquid Crystal Display. It's the same technology you have in your laptop computer screen.

LCD screens are nothing more than fluorescent bulbs shining out at you. The only reason you're not seeing all-white all the time is because the liquid in the display is covered by tiny silicon crystals, which act like window blinds. When the "blinds" pop open, you see white.  When they're shut, you see black (the light can't get through).  In between, you get millions of shades of gray.  The color in an LCD screen comes from "sub-pixels" that shine the right combination of primary colors — red, green or blue — through them.

LCD's only drawback is that it takes a little time for each crystal to "open" or "close," so if you're watching sports, you want that "lag-time" to be very, very short.  Toshiba's 47" LCD TV has a response speed of 8 milliseconds or less, which is virtually invisible to the eye.

Last, but not least, this particular TV has a new "SoundStrip" Speaker system, which eliminates the big round speakers of standard TVs, without losing any of the big home theater sound.


So, now for a look at DLP. How does it give you the biggest band for the buck?

Samsung HL-S5679W 56" Widescreen LED DLP HDTV
Of the three main flat-screen technologies, DLP is often the best value. It costs less per inch than the others, partly because of the main compromise you make by having a DLP set: It takes up more room. While most flat-screens are only about 4 inches deep, DLP screens are between 8 inches and 12 inches deep. That's because the picture you see on the screen is actually being projected from the back of the set from a tiny "digital light processor" chip (hence DLP). This Texas Instruments-invented chip is covered in over 2 million tiny mirrors.

While it's tough to hang a DLP set on the wall, there are big advantages. The system is incredibly bright and true, producing a beautiful "1080p" (ultra high definition) picture with over 16 million colors. The Samsung unit we're showing is the world's first rear projection HDTV to use a new LED light source (instead of a standard bulb).  LED bulbs last longer (20,000 hours without brightness degradation).


What's in a word?
A lot of HDTVs say they're "True HDTV or "1080p." What do you really need?

You need to know the language that the manufacturers are talking, and there are three main phrases they use to define the latest, highest-definition TVs:

  1. "True high def"
  2. "Ultra high def
  3. "Full high def"

They all mean the same thing — 1080, or one thousand and eighty vertical lines of resolution.  And without getting into the current debate over whether 1080i or 1080p is better, just make sure it says 1080.

Paul Hochman is TODAY Tech Editor and a Men's Journal contributor.