News & Politics

Big But Not Easy

A big-screen TV offers lifelike images—but also a dizzying array of acronyms to decode and choices to make.

You don’t need to be an engineer to see the differences between the images on a bulky old television and the lifelike pictures on today’s big screens.

But shopping for a big-screen television—sets that are 36 inches and larger—can seem like the nightmare of taking an exam for a class you’ve never attended.

Within minutes, the head starts spinning with equations involving resolution and pixels; differences among plasma, liquid-crystal display (LCD), and digital light processing (DLP); and endless choices regarding projection, size, and depth.

And if the learning curve doesn’t scare consumers, the costs of these sets might. Despite falling prices, many stores showcase their largest big-screen TVs in front—and those can cost upward of $10,000.

“There is so much confusion out there,” says Phillip Swann, an industry consultant who runs the Web site, which explores how television technology is shaping culture. “People are intimidated by all this information, and most really don’t care. They just want to know ‘how much is it, and how do I bring it home and plug it in?’ ”

Industry experts say there’s never been a better time to buy big-screen TVs. Quality is up, more high-definition programming is available, and prices have never been lower. A look at local specialty stores and big chains proves that point: Many well-regarded big-screen TVs start around $1,000.

Broadcasters, meanwhile, are slated to end traditional analog television transmissions in 2009. (After that date, owners of analog sets will need to purchase converter boxes—LG Electronics has estimated the cost at $60—to display digital programming.) “The prices are reasonable, and they’re falling at a slower rate than in years past, so waiting to buy is a diminishing return,” says Gary Yacoubian, president of MyerEmco AudioVideo, a 50-year-old retail chain now specializing in high-end home theaters and stereos. “And the quirks have been ironed out. These sets are working very well.”

This has not been lost on consumers: According to the Consumer Electronics Association, factories worldwide will sell about $26 billion worth of digital televisions to US dealers in 2007, up from about $1.5 billion in 2000.

The technology behind these new sets is more complicated than that of older analog models, and it seems the industry is unveiling new products and advances every day. So shoppers may want to do some homework. Jargon needs to be unraveled. Acronyms need to be decoded.

But you can overthink things. Take in a ball game or movie on your friend’s new plasma, and compare sizes and brands at local stores.

“This is not brain surgery,” says Bary Maddox, owner of Graffiti Audio-Video, a 30-year-old DC-based chain. “What you really need to do is spend 15 minutes in a store to figure out what’s happening in television, what you want, and how much you need to spend.”

Choose Your Real Estate

Before leaving home, experts advise, shoppers should decide on the room in which their big screen will sit, even down to the specific space it will occupy, as so many of the sets are hard to move and need to be professionally installed.

Those without a home theater should consider the functions of the room, says interior designer Michele Pretka Litvak of Mi Mi’s Fine Design in Potomac. Litvak says shoppers should consider the size of their TV and the options for concealing it. “You don’t want a television to become the focal point of a living room that’s also used for cocktail parties,” she says.

The industry standard for determining how big a TV to buy is based on how far away the viewer will sit. The diagonal measure of the screen should be one-half to one-third the distance between the TV and the viewer. For example, shoppers will find a 60-inch screen ideal if they have a couch or chairs 10 to 15 feet from the set.

Choose Your Definition

Big-screen shoppers should consider whether they want a high-definition television (HDTV) or an enhanced-definition one (EDTV). Both present images that are crisper than on standard TVs. And both can deliver high-definition broadcasting and show standard-definition programming.

HDTV has a higher resolution than EDTV and offers the most lifelike images. “People are fascinated by how celebrities look on high-definition TV or that you can see the blades of grass on a football field,” says consultant Swann.

Because they deliver a higher-quality image of all the new HD programming, high-definition sets cost several hundred dollars more than enhanced-definition versions.

Sleek and Slim

Thin-panel plasma and liquid-crystal display (LCD) televisions are alluring—and expensive, with the smallest of the big screens generally ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.

Both tend to be only a few inches deep and weigh 25 to 60 pounds. They can be wall mounted, one of the advantages over less-expensive big screens. Thin-panel high-definition plasma sets are said to display dark colors and deep blacks better than LCD sets, making them a good choice for movies. But because of their glass screens, plasmas are more prone to glare in a brightly lit room.

Plasma screen sizes, though typically 42 to 60 inches, can surpass 100 inches.

Thin-panel LCD sets, which look like flat-panel computer screens, have a higher resolution than plasma sets and are said to yield brighter, more detailed high-definition images than plasmas. But some industry experts say any differences are virtually indistinguishable in newer versions of these sets.

Thin-panel LCDs aren’t available in the same super sizes as their plasma counterparts—most are 40 inches or smaller—and images may dim if you’re viewing the screen from an angle.

Rear Projection

Rear-projection televisions (RPTVs) are a more economical big-screen choice, costing about 40 percent less than their thin-paneled cousins, but they take up more real estate. RPTVs range in size from about 42 to 70 inches and up, and most new models are programmed for high-definition television.

Although newer rear-projection big screens, which typically use LCD or DLP technology, are deeper than thin-panel sets, they are still much thinner and lighter than old-fashioned rear-projection big screens that use cathode-ray tubes (CRTs).

Images on many higher-end rear-projection TVs may dull if you’re viewing at an angle, and bulbs may need to be replaced during the lifespan of the set. Bulbs generally run between $200 and $500.

Cathode-ray tube-based RPTVs are thick—they can be nearly two feet deep—and heavy, and the picture quality typically ranks low in comparison to big screens that use the newer technology, but they can transmit high-definition programming. Still, these TVs offer the biggest screen for the lowest price. For instance, a 51-inch CRT television was recently listed for $1,000 at Best Buy, while a 50-inch DLP rear-projection high-definition set cost about $1,500, and a 50-inch plasma was $2,300.

Front Projectors

Movie buffs with enough space for a dedicated home theater might consider a digital front projector and screen, which can range from about 70 inches to 200 inches. The whole setup, including projector, ceiling mount, screen, and speakers, starts at around $2,000.

Front-projector setups are most popular for movies or sports. The bulb generally burns out after a couple of years.

Where to Buy

There are several small specialty audio/video stores, a handful of local specialty home-theater chains, and a number of big-box retailers selling high-end televisions and their bells and whistles.

“My advice is to just do as much research as you can or you’re at the mercy of the salesman,” Swann says.

Typically, local audio/video stores are authorized dealers and will be available for returns. Local stores also display the models they’re selling, and salespeople at these stores are likely to be knowledgeable and available to guide you through your purchase. But they may stock fewer brands and models than their bigger counterparts.

Big-box retailers feature more big-screen televisions, especially in the lowest price ranges, but their sales staff may be of little help. Many smaller specialty stores will match the chains’ low prices on the same models.

“We guarantee prices to be the same as Wal-Mart, the Internet, or any authorized dealer,” MyerEmco president Yacoubian says. “And what we do that they don’t is demonstrate and explain products so you don’t have to do the homework. And we do an active installation that will fulfill the promises of these new technologies.”

Internet bargains should be weighed carefully. Besides the obvious lack of personal guidance and service, many Internet retailers offering rock-bottom pricing aren’t authorized dealers of the products they feature, and some manufacturers won’t honor warranties on sets sold through these dealers.

Extra Costs

Delivery and installation costs for big screens vary depending on the dealer and the set. Internet retailers often offer free delivery for high-end televisions, but it’s probably worth spending the $50 to $100 most stores charge to have these big sets delivered to your home.

Retailers recommend professional installation of wall-mounted sets. That can cost about $200, not including the wall brackets, which start at $50 a set.

Whether to buy an extended warranty, which may include the set’s maintenance, repairs, or replacement, is a matter of preference. These plans can run several hundred dollars for a few years of protection beyond the manufacturer’s warranty. “In my opinion, you’re better off taking chances. It’s not the best money spent,” says Maddox of Graffiti Audio-Video, which sells extended warranties. Repairs to high-end TVs can sometimes cost hundreds of dollars, he says, but are necessary only once in a while.

Web sites that can help:

• This FCC site explains the new technologies and TV options in plain language.

• This industry site features shopping tips and reviews of specific models of all types of sets.

• This technology site has explanations and reviews of big-screen options.


Kerry A. White is a Bethesda writer who wrote about neighborhoods in the April issue. She can be reached at