News & Politics

Flat-Screen Envy

All I Wanted Was One of Those Cool TVs With a Nice Big Screen I Could Hang on a Wall. What Could Be Simpler? Try Nuclear Physics.

The problem began the day the cable connection on the back of my 27-inch RCA television fell off. For weeks it had been hanging by a wire; finally it couldn't be jerry-rigged any longer.

When Value Village called a few days later, I consigned the TV to the give-away pile.

We still had two other televisions–a 27-inch Magnavox that we got at Sears, and a 12-inch Sylvania for the kitchen that my wife bought at Costco for $99. But I tripped over the cord of the little TV, and the cable connector went flying on that one, too.

So I decided to buy a new TV. No big deal–I had a credit card and the address of the nearest Sears. How hard could it be?

This time, though, I thought I might buy something a little more imaginative than the simple set I had. Somewhere I'd gotten the idea that I could buy a "flat screen" television for around $649. I would hang the television on a wall, and voilà–I'd be hip.

So I made my way to Circuit City to check out the latest gizmos and get some advice about how to hang my new flat-screen TV on the wall.

I entered the store and swung in the direction of the largest televisions. The prices seemed quite reasonable–$499, $599. I saw some great ones for $399 and even $299. I couldn't have been more pleased–until I looked more closely at the stickers and realized that these were the prices of the TV stands.

I discovered that there actually were televisions that cost more than my first MG, which I bought in Clearwater, Florida, in 1979 for $6,999. The TV sets, it turned out, were about ten times the prices of the stands. Some were $4,999. A couple crossed the $7,999 barrier. And that was before delivery and installation.

Obviously, I was in the wrong section of the store. I followed the price tags back to the land of three figures.

Quite a few of the televisions there claimed to be "flat screens." But when I looked at the back of the sets, they were as large and bulky as my 27-inch Magnavox.

That's when I learned my second lesson of television shopping: A "flat screen" has nothing to do with the depth of the set. These flat screens were flat all right, but no way were you going to hang one of these babies on a wall.

So far, not so good.

Af ew nights later, I went to a party hosted by a friend showing off his renovated apartment in DC's Kalorama neighborhood. In the bedroom he had a Sharp Aquos TV. This was truly a flat television–it was quite handsome.

I was pretty sure that this was the set I had in my head, the one that would sell for about $649. So the next day I went to Sears, determined to come home with a truly flat TV.

As I made my way through the canyons of television sets, I could see that Sears had lots of different choices in the section where the truly flat LCD TVs were. There were the Sharp Aquos sets and some similar-looking Sonys.

I spotted the price tag I was looking for–$649 for an LCD display. But this was not the set I had seen at my friend's. This $649 set was basically a 15-inch flat-screen computer monitor.

As I looked around, I finally saw the set like the one in my friend's apartment. It had a 20-inch "thin" LCD monitor. The price tag was $2,099.

Did I want this? It was a beautiful piece of electronics–a nifty-looking TV. But it was only 20 inches across. I had seen regular 46-inch TVs for less.

To hell with it–I'd take it. I had to end the search, if only to preserve my sanity. I made my decision known to the clerk in the Sears TV department. He seemed a little surprised that someone would just walk up to him and say, "I want that."

He punched some letters and numbers into his computer and told me he could have it delivered.

The TV was small enough to fit in my car, and the sign next to the TV had read TAKE ONE HOME WITH YOU TODAY.

No delivery, I said. I wanted to take that little beauty home with me. I didn't want to wait three days for buyer's remorse to set in. Nor did I want to lose a day of work sitting at home waiting for the delivery man.

During the few minutes that the clerk was scurrying around to see if he had one in stock, I started having second thoughts. For so much money, it was very little picture. But I waited. And waited. After a while, nobody who worked there seemed to remember what I was waiting for. Finally, one of the clerks who was supposed to be working on my "order" came up and asked if he could help me.

I took that as my excuse to drive home. I did not have a TV, but I still had my $2,099.

Fr iends had recommended that I investigate an audio-visual store called Graffiti. I wandered in. The TVs were large and flat. Some of them cost upward of $10,000.

Some TVs were marked "high definition" (HD). Others were marked "HD ready" or "convertible to HD." Others used initials like ED, for enhanced definition. There was the very popular DLP (digital light processing) as well as LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon). Some TVs had plugs that enabled you to turn them into computer monitors. The VCR and DVD designations added yet more initials. A clerk asked if I needed help. I laughed. I wouldn't have known where to start.

But all that was child's play compared to sorting out the TV sets marked "plasma."

Up until then, my understanding of current technology was that there were "flat" TVs you could hang on a wall. I had never contemplated how the picture was brought to the screen. To me a TV was a box with knobs–you affixed the cable, turned it on, and brought in the fried chicken before the game started.

Technologically speaking, my biggest concern had been weight. If I bought a flat TV, could I get it up on the wall? And if I got it up on the wall, what if it fell down and exploded? I could be out thousands of dollars if my wall hangers weren't strong enough.

I didn't understand this plasma thing. Would it help if I needed a blood transfusion during a heartbreaking GWU basketball loss to Xavier? I didn't think so. My concerns were heightened when a friend mentioned that he owned a plasma TV and the plasma had drained out of it.

But it seemed that plasma TVs were what the world had been waiting for. They were large, they were thin, they could be mounted on a wall. They were all any man could ever dream of. True, you couldn't drive them.

Du ring the weeks that followed, I asked my friends if they had plasma TVs. Except for the guy whose plasma had drained out, I got a universal response: "I'm waiting for the price to go down."

That made sense. Newspaper stories seemed to appear every few weeks about a new computer chip that would bring the price down by more than half–just as soon as I had made my purchase at the old price. Marketers, I was certain, were just waiting for word that I had bought.

My mind flashed to the first Texas Instruments electronic calculator I had bought–for $299. About a week later it was $19.99. I have to say in its defense that 25 years later it still works.

Then I learned that you could pay $5,000 or $6,000 for a new TV set only to bring it home and find out it had no sound. It never crossed my mind that the price didn't include speakers. For the first five decades of my life I had naively assumed that sound was part of television. Much of the time I don't actually look at the picture–I walk away to do household tasks and listen. Yet with the expensive plasma TVs, you need a separate sound system.

And, of course, there's the stand–the stand that costs more than my old 27-inch television set, which had the sound built right in.

A big selling point for the plasma televisions is that they are built for high-definition television, which is supposed to deliver a sort of 3-D picture. Only later would I discover that HDTV brings in a whole new set of boxes and additional charges. And it's available only for about three shows a week until something like 2006, when my new TV probably will already be busted.

By the time I decided to cruise through Best Buy, I was too dizzily confused to even ask for help. Initials and choices swirled around in my head.

Plasma or LCD.

Flat or thin.

Sound included or external sound.

Computer-monitor capability.

HD or HDTV or ED.

DVD capability. . . .

What had started as a simple quest had gone horribly wrong. I knew now that there was no way I could buy any of these televisions.

And yet I had to watch TV–the NCAA basketball tournament was coming up.

I drove to Sears one last time. I walked into the TV section. There was a 27-inch Sylvania television for $139–I had to look twice to believe it. It had a great picture, no plasma. It received all the major channels. The sound came right out of the set.

I plunked down the money and picked it up at the drop-off. After I took it out of the box, it fit into my back seat.

I put it on the table in the bedroom, where the old television had been. The picture is bright. The colors are deeper and richer than the ones I'd seen on the flat LCD. I love it.

Most important, I don't have to walk into a TV salesroom again–I hope for a very long time.