Picking Out a Flat Screen

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One of the most asked questions is what to look for in a flat screen TV, the beautiful new sets that can be mounted on your wall or placed on a cabinet for an incredible home theater experience.

Like everything else in life, the answer is, “It depends.”

What kind of room you will put it in, what you plan to hook up to it, what are your viewing habits, how much money you want to spend, and what you want to watch on it. There are various technologies out there, though the LCD and plasma sets seem to dominate. Think about the following when you’re finally ready to drop a paycheck or two on one of these beauties:

  • Will this be used in a multipurpose home theater room, or just put up in the bedroom for short term viewing the cable TV?
  • Is the room brightly lit with windows and multiple light sources, or a dark, curtained actual theater room or simple bedroom?
  • Will I plan to use the screen for some simple computer functions; do I need a wireless router to hook any of these toys up to my screen?
  • How to I plan to mount this thing?
  • Are there any unusual cable types that I need to plug into it, or am I going to run this through a home theater receiver?
  • How “hi-def” do you want go?
  • How much dough to I have to drop on this puppy?

Some of the accessories and capabilities that are offered these days will probably never be used by you; though there are new features that are incredibly useful that might fit a particular application that you’re searching for. You might never need to plug in a camera card from today’s digital cameras (to look at photos or home video) but the new built in wireless receiver might allow you to view your streaming Netflix or Amazon.com account withouth having to add another router or internet receiver.

Here are some of the basics to the screens available today:

LCD screens:

Very bright – will work well in most rooms with windows and any high level of ambient light. Most LCD’s handle reflections better than plasma, though some are better than others. Incredibly lightweight for their size, and they tend to be the thinnest sets available. (Think about your computer monitor.) You tend to pay a bigger premium for the size of the set than you would with a plasma, though that gap is narrowing. You will sometimes hear complaints about the black levels not being deep enough – this was a problem with early sets, but is mostly a thing of the past. (Movies and dark scenes did not have a cinematic sense of richness to them.) This was a function of the LCD fluorescent backlight technology. There are now LED screens which get their light from LED lights either in the back or on the edge. Some of the newer LED sets are much more energy efficient than previous designs. The one are that LED comes up short is viewing angle. If you intend to have the set against a long wall, and plan for viewers to watch the TV from side angles, be sure and test your angles in the store. Much like your computer monitor, off angle viewing fades quickly. Most models do better being viewed from forward positions.

Plasma:

Plasma sets are a bit heavier than LCD, but they are still a bit cheaper for most model sizes, though again, that gap is decreasing. They have always had deeper blacks and rich colors, but their glossy flat screen was a real mirror when it came to generating reflections. Sometimes not quite as bright as an LCD or LED, in a room brightly lit by windows and French doors, the glass could easily pick up some distracting glare. Better glass treatment and also attention to mounting the unit is helpful. Plasmas are often a few bucks cheaper. The one real problem with the first generation or two of the sets was image burn. Left on all day with a stationary video game graphic, or kept on a cable channel that had a bright “ticker” strip or graphic stripe, sets would often show a burned ghost image. Most units have electronics that continually scan the image in an effort to reduce the problem, as well as shut off technologies when it senses that there is not any activity on the screen for an extended time period.

Features to look for:

3D sets:

Whether 3D television is a revolution or a short lived gimmick is still up for debate. Some of the newer models have this feature built in, so as to detect a program offered in 3D. Glasses must be worn, of course. (Honestly? Gimmick.)

Wireless:

One of the most impressive new features, a built in wireless receiver (or connectors to facilitate use of one,) can be tuned to your wireless network. Several streaming video services offer programming that can now be viewed without additional computers or wireless receivers. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and several sports networks (some are pay per view or subscription based) are some of the offerings now; this is probably the fastest growing segment of home video programming. An Ethernet wired connection will provide the same ability to connect to internet, of course.

A Decent Remote:

We shout about this all the time. If your entire family will be using this set, take a look at the remote control that comes with your set. If granny can’t read the buttons, if they’re too small or so illogically laid out as to be dysfunctional, then you might shop around. Of course you might already have universal remote, or plans for a system controller – but remote control frustration is a terrible thing.

Inputs:

Review once again your overall long range plan for your media room. Almost all modern sets have a variety of connection choices. If you’re stuck with some older equipment that you want to be able to hook up, make sure that those older connectors are available, (or there is a way to adapt them.) By the same token, if you have several new components, make sure there are enough HDMI connectors to suit you, (or whatever your preference is.) Keep in mind, you should ALWAYS plan for expansion, someone will show up with a home video camera they want to play with, or a new video game over the holidays, so give yourself some room to grow.

Bubba’s bottom line: It’s going to boil down to personal preference and price point. Prices continue to drop. A good place to look is a large discount chain store. Why? Viewing conditions in those big warehouses are usually awful: bright, glaring overhead light. Check for reflections; how does the picture pop out in all that ambient and direct light? Compare to the surrounding models with various technologies. You might find some less expensive sets that put out a pretty good picture compared to the luxury models.

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