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How to shop for a big-screen TV

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How to shop for a big-screen TV 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

Mitsubishi, the Japanese company that makes cars, cameras, television sets and hundreds of other products, came up with a great ad campaign for its TVs many years ago.

"If you can't have the best of everything," the ad said, "at least you can have the best of something."

Apart from whether Mitsubishi TVs are the best in a crowded field of good products, the message itself is one that even a cheapskate should find appealing. If you are typical, you probably spend more time watching TV than you do in any other recreational activity, and you might as well have a TV set worth watching.

You have two basic choices—a big-screen set and a regular-size set. Your wallet and your viewing habits will help determine which kind is for you.

If you like to watch first-rate movies on your TV and are thinking about turning your living room into a "video theater," you're a candidate for a bank loan and a big-screen television set. These sets are often four to eight times as expensive as regular TVs, but they can't be matched for realism and excitement.

By "big-screen," I'm referring to sizes greater than 40 inches. (TV screens are measured diagonally to get a larger number, by the way. Keep in mind that the actual horizontal width will be a lot less.)

That rules out sets that use standard screens, called "direct-view" TVs. Although sets from 29 inches to 35 inches are often listed in the "big-screen" category, their pictures just aren't big enough to qualify for home theater.

So your choice for video theater comes down to two types of projection TVs—ones that bounce the picture against the back of the screen, called rear-projection sets, and ones that shine the picture on the front of the screen just like it's done in a movie theater.

A front-projection set is the only way to go if you want a picture measuring 6 feet or more. Some front-projection sets need special curved screens, like the one I own, but others will work fine with an ordinary flat screen or a blank white wall. (Yes, white plasterboard will work OK, although the image will appear brighter on a reflective screen.)

Until recently, all front-projection sets shared a big problem—the need for a large, clear space for the projector itself in the middle of the floor and an unobstructed path to the screen. If you have a high ceiling, some models can be mounted up out of the way, but most projectors take up a lot of real estate on the floor. They need to be this big because they contain three high-power TV tubes.

But a recent front projector from Sharp solves the space problem by using liquid-crystal diodes (LCDs), instead of picture tubes, in the projector. It's not much bigger than a 1-gallon paint can. Picture quality is not quite as good as tube-type sets, however.

Rear-projection sets have problems of their own. All of them are tall and wide, although most are not much deeper than standard sets, and all of them are very heavy. Keep in mind that the cabinets they're housed in make up a significant part of the expense of front-projection sets, and the fancy wood adds nothing to the picture quality.

However, you'll have a much greater choice of makes and models among rear-projection sets. Four manufacturers have consistently made the top ranking—Sony, Mitsubishi, Pioneer and Hitachi—and these are the ones you should look at first. Don't be overly concerned with claims of super-high resolution, which is measured in lines. You probably won't be able to see the difference between 600 lines of resolution and 900 lines or more, since our current TV system can't show more than about 500 to 600 lines anyway. (And regular video tapes have about half that resolution, unfortunately.)

If you are considering a direct-view TV, you'll find the best buys among high-quality sets in the 27-inch to 29-inch range. Larger sets can be very good, but they are often three or four times as expensive as slightly smaller sets.

If you can wait a few months, you might like one of the so-called flat-screen models from Panasonic and a few other companies. The screens on these new sets aren't really flat, but they're a lot less curved than current screens. In their first few months on the market in Japan, the improved sets have captured 35 percent of all new TV sales.

In essence, the new sets give the appearance of small rear-projection TVs.

To help save money when you make such a large purchase, you should think twice about any extra-cost service and maintenance contracts. All sets come with a manufacturer's warranty, and in most cases this is all you need.

Stores often make more money selling extra warranties than they do selling the products themselves, largely because few buyers ever make use of the added warranties.

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