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What types of televisions are available?

When it comes to buying a television, there are many choices available. Of course, with choice comes confusion. Here's what you need to know about your television choices:

Standard Definition Television (SDTV) or High Definition Television (HDTV)?:

The first step in buying a television is deciding whether you want to go with SDTV or step up to HDTV. You need to look at a few things before deciding:

- Is HDTV available in your area? Does your programming provider offer it? If you can't get HDTV programming it might not be the best time to look at an HDTV set unless it will be offered in the near future. Despite the confusion, the FCC is not mandating that any stations broadcast in HD. They only have to broadcast a digital signal which can be standard definition. Even more, this only affects the over-the-air (OTA) networks, such as ABC, CBS, etc. Cable networks do not have to go digital because the cable and satellite companies that rebroadcast them can convert their analog signals to digital. The reason the OTA networks have to go digital is the government wants the older analog broadcast spectrum back. It's going to be used for expanded emergency frequencies as well as to auction off to wireless technology companies (mobile phone services, wireless Internet, etc.). Of course, even if your local stations aren't broadcasting in HD, there are several other cable and satellite networks that are. ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, HDNET, HDNET Movies, UniversalHD, DiscoveryHD, INHD 1 & 2, HBO, Showtime, Starz!, as well as several region sports networks and origianl channels specific to certain service providers. Unfortunately, not every channel is available on every provider. This means choosing a service based on which channels interest you.

- How much are you willing to spend? HDTV can be expensive. Expect to pay at least $1000 (likely more) for a reasonably sized TV. If you have cable, you'll need to rent a special HDTV set top box (STB) and usually need to pay extra for HDTV programming. On the satellite side, you'll need to purchase an HDTV STB along with programming. Even if you get your TV OTA, you still need a tuner box for most TVs because few currently come with them built in. This is expected to change, but there are many legacy sets out there now that won't be covered by future rules.

- Do you even want HDTV? If you don't care about getting HDTV programming (it's all right, we'll forgive you - honest) you may want to still consider a standard definition widescreen (16:9) digital TV over an analog standard screen (4:3) model, especially if you enjoy watching DVD movies. A digital TV will allow you to view OTA programming should you decide you don't wish to subscribe to cable or satellite service and the widescreen display will be better for viewing widescreen DVDs. Note that movies with very wide aspect ratios (2.35:1) will still display with small black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, despite the wider viewing area. This is because widescreen TVs are not quite as wide as theater screens. However, the bars will be very small, unlike those you would see on a 4:3 aspect ratio TV. Keep in mind, if you plan to buy a widescreen TV and normally buy "fullscreen" (sometimes called Pan and Scan) DVDs, you may want to switch to widescreen versions. The reason is that movies that fill the screen on 4:3 TVs will display with black bars on the left and right on a widescreen TV. With 1.78:1 aspect ratio movies, most widescreen TVs will show the movie with no bars at the top or bottom, while 2.35:1 movies will have very small bars at the top and bottom that would be a lot less noticable than those that would appear on the sides of a 4:3 pan and scan image.

What type of display?:

There are several ways that TVs can display an image: Direct View, Rear Projection, Front Projection. Here is how they all work:

Direct View Televisions:

Direct view televisions have displays where you view the actual light source that creates the picture, rather than a reflection. Tube TVs (like the one you have been using for years) as well as plasma and LCD flat panels offer a variety of options here.

Rear Projection Televisions:

The old phrase "Done With Mirrors" comes into play here. With rear projection, an image is created in the lower portion of the TV below the screen. This image is then reflected backward onto the rear of the screen with either a bunch of little mirrors or one big one. The screen is semi-transparent, which allows you to see the image. Because you're viewing the front of the screen, the image appears normal. It's like writing on the mist inside a window. You write the letters backward from your viewpoint so they'll appear forward to people on the outside.

Front Projection Televisions:

These devices really aren't TVs at all. They're projectors that display an image on a screen, kind of like a movie theator or your old slide projector does. However, that's really where the similarities end. While the lense (or multiple lenses) and bulb are similar, your image comes from a digital sensor that get's its image from your television gear. This is then projected onto a wall or a special screen. These devices allow you to decide how big a screen you want by moving the projector closer to or further away from the screen.

Standard Definition Television (SDTV) or High Definition Television (HDTV)?:

With many types of TV technologies, you have the choice of Standard Definition Television (SDTV) or High Definition Television (HDTV). SDTV is probably what you are watching now. It's been around for decades and it's all many people have ever seen. Those SDTV signals will soon become digital, so you may need a special converter box for older analog TVs. If you have digital cable or satellite, you already have one.

SDTV is not bad, but it could be better. That's where HDTV comes in. This technology provides a much sharper image than SDTV and it does so in a widescreen format. You'll see details that you never saw before with HDTV. You'll need a special TV in order to view HDTV.

Direct-View Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) standard definition televisions:

Undoubtably, you already have one of these units in your home. These TVs have a long legacy and they are just about dirt cheap. A 30" set can be had for around $200. Unfortunately, that's about where the good news ends.

These TVs are analog. Television is going digital. This means when the analog television signals go away in the near future, you'll need a converter box. If you're a digital cable or satellite customer, you allready have one. However, if you get your TV over the air (OTA), you'll nead a converter box, and these units don't seem to be coming down in price. In addition, with many local stations converting to High Definition Television (HDTV), you may finding yourself watching more and more widescreen programming on your non-widescreen TV.

Rear Projection CRT standard definition televisions:

For a while, these units provided the only way to get a reasonably priced big screen TV without the heft of a direct-view CRT. Early units suffered from narrow viewing angles, but newer models (especially the newest digital widescreen units) are much better.

Unfortunately, the standard definition models suffer from the same issues as standard definition direct-view CRTs (listed above) when it comes to the conversion to digital television.

Front Projection CRT standard definition televisions:

Front projectors aren't really televisions at all, but add a screen (or a clean, white wall) and an over-the-air, digital cable or satellite receiver and you can watch TV with them. The nice thing about these units is your screen is as big as you want it with no extra bulk.

If you're allready using one of these units to watch TV, you probably have the equipment you need to view digital television. Also, unlike the above TVs, it doesn't matter whether the programming is widescreen or standard aspect ratio. You're only limited by your screen size. This makes them excellent for DVD viewing. However, these units won't get you high definition television because they don't have enough picture resolution.

Front Projection DLP standard definition televisions:

These units are similar to the above CRT projectors, but use Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology to produce a picture. DLP technology uses a chip containing millions of tiny mirrors. The light is reflected through red, green and blue filters to produce color. Better technology divides the colors into separate elements, while older (read: cheaper) systems use a rotating color wheel, which can occasionally cause rainbow effects in the picture. High definition models are also available.

Front Projection LCD, LCoS and D-ILA standard definition televisions:

These units are very similar to the above DLP projectors, but use Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology to produce a picture. LCD technology uses a chip containing thousands of tiny red, green and blue pixels. The light from pixels is control by tiny shutters that open and close to produce a visable image.

LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silcon) is very close to LCD, but uses a single liquid crystal plate with a silicon backing instead of a pair of liquid crystal plates, like with LCD. The technology is owned by Hitachi.

D-ILA technology uses the same basic principles of LCoS, but is owned by JVC.

Both LCoS and D-ILA technologies can also produce HD resolutions. HD LCD front projectors are available, but are less common due to high cost. At that level, many people prefer to go with front projection DLP or CRT technologies.

Flat panel LCD standard definition televisions:

These units are similar to flat panel LCD computer monitors. The real difference is they have standard TV connections on them and usually have speakers. These units are devices and light, so they can be mounted on a wall or under a cabinet. They are digital, so they're ready for the transition to digital TV. However, they aren't HDTV-capable. For that, you'll need a unit that is HDTV-compatable.

The downside of these TVs is price. The tend to be more expensive than CRT models (just like the computer screens are).

High Definition Television (HDTV) / Enhanced Definition Television (EDTV) Devices:

Direct-View Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) high definition televisions:

These units are similar to their standard definition counterparts, but with two important differences. The first difference is the widescreen aspect ratio (though units are available with a standard aspect ratio). The second difference is the screen resolution. These units offer several times the resolution of standard definition TVs.

While these units do offer better picture quality than many other technologies (as well as a better price), their bulk and weight makes them less desirable in this age or "smaller is better." On the other hand, if you own your home (therefore are less likely to move often), have the space and get a good deal on delivery of the unit, a direct-view CRT television may be right for you. However, these units are disappearing in favor of more fashionable technologies, so they may not be what you want if you desire the latest gear.

Rear Projection CRT high definition televisions:

High definition rear projection CRT-based televisions are slowly leaving the marketplace in favor of newer (and smaller) technologies. In addition, some units only offer HD component inputs, rather than newer DVI (and similar digital) interfaces. While component inputs do the job, their existance is being threatened by Digital Rights Management (DRM) technolgies which rely on digital "flags" to protect content from unauthorized copying. There are plenty of units that do have DVI inputs and a price than can be thousands less than similarly sized TVs using other technologies. So, if you don't mind the bulk, a rear projection CRT may be the way to go.

Rear Projection DLP high definition televisions:

These units use the same technology as their front projection counterparts, but are set up similarily to rear projection CRTs. The difference is size. These televisions are much thinner (and don't have a huge base to house the projection components) than CRT-based projection TVs. A 40" model only weighs about 100 pounds, so it's easy to move around. While not as thin as plasma or flat panel LCD screens, they still have a surprisingly small footprint as well as a smaller price than flat panel models.

Rear Projection LCD, LCoS and D-ILA high definition televisions:

These units are very similar to the above DLP units, but use Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology to produce a picture. LCD technology uses a chip containing thousands of tiny red, green and blue pixels. The light from pixels is control by tiny shutters that open and close to produce a visable image.

LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silcon) is very close to LCD, but uses a single liquid crystal plate with a silicon backing instead of a pair of liquid crystal plates, like with LCD. The technology is owned by Hitachi.

D-ILA technology uses the same basic principles of LCoS, but is owned by JVC.

All these units are quite thin (around 8 inches), but not as thin as flat panel televisions, like plasma or flat panel LCD monitors. They are quite light and can be moved easily, though they can't be wall mounted like flat panel displays.

Plasma high definition and enhanced definition televisions:

Plasma TVs come in two types: High Definition TV (HDTV) and enhanced definition TV (EDTV). At the low end, the EDTV units produce images at a resolution of 480p - the same as DVD video. While this is better than the average cable or satellite image, it's still considered standard definition. High definition plasma screens usually offer a resolution of 720p (though the vertical resolution is actually 768 lines) with some higher end units now offering 1080p.

Plasma screens don't actually use plasma (any more than lava lamps use lava). Instead, they often use neon as the gas of choice contained in very tiny tubes in the screen. Electricity is used to charge the gas to create a picture.

The big appeal of plasma screens is how thin they are. The can be mounted to a wall (though larger units may require significant bracing of your wall structure to support them) or simply placed in an area where a large CRT would intrude into a room too far. They offer very smooth images without the jagged edges that can sometimes appear in LCD and other chip-based technologies.

Plasma screens aren't perfect, though. For one thing, they tend to be quite expensive compared to your average rear projection CRT, LCD or DLP TV. On the other hand, they are usually cheaper than flat panel LCD screens.

Another issue with plasma screens is they tend to be more sensative to image burn-in. If a static image (such as graphics in a console game) is left on the screen too long, it can become permanently burned in and will be visible even when other images are being shown. Of course, setting proper contrast levels and avoiding extended exposure to static images will all but prevent this problem. You just need to be aware of the issue more than with other technologies.

Other issues include heat and electricity usage. Plasma screens use more electricity than a lot of other TV types. As a result, they also generate more heat. It's important to figure electrical usage and cooling costs into the price of these units since it will be more. However, if you are replacing a large CRT television, the electrical usage and heat produced will probably be about the same.

The final issue is one of image quality. While a plasma TV can produce excellent images, they tend to wear out a bit faster than other technologies. Simply put, the gas has a limited lifespan that tends to be shorter than with other display methods. In addition, plasma screens still come up a bit shy when it comes to producing a full brightness spectrum. This can be especially noticable in very dark images, which can appear somewhat "muddy" and make seeing details difficult.

Overall, plasma screens are getting better and less expensive as the technology improves. Better screens now cost half the price of older units from a few years ago. In addition, newer 1080p units take full advantage of the resolution offered by newer HD disc formats.

Flat Panel LCD high definition televisions:

Competing for your wall space with plasma televisions are flat panel LCD screens. These can be even thinner than the average plasma screen, use less electricity, generate less heat and don't suffer from the same burn-in issues. So what's the catch? Actually, there are two of them. The first item is cost. Flat panel LCD screens can be very expensive in large sizes - even more than plasma units. The second catch is available size. Due to manufacturing limitations, flat panel LCD screens tend to have a smaller maximum size than other technologies. In short, it's hard to make a large LCD panel that doesn't have defects in it somewhere in all those pixels. The technology is catching up, though, and soon larger and less expensive models will be available.

Front Projection high definition technologies:

Most of the standard definition front projection screens listed above have HDTV counterparts. These are the best way to get that true "movie theater" experience at home, especially in a dedicated home theater room where light can be easily controlled. However, their high cost can put them out of range of most budgets. Some units can retail for over $10,000.

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