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Technology

Plasma and LCD

Video screens get bigger, better, cheaper

November 21, 2006

If you're thinking about investing in a flat-panel TV but haven't visited the wall of televisions in your local electronics store in the past several months, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise this holiday.

The prices of flat-panel displays have dropped to such a degree that they've become a plausible option for even the most frugal television shopper. Prices are in constant flux, but at the time of this report 37-inch brand name LCDs were selling for between $1,400 and $2,000 at major Canadian retailers, while 42-inch plasmas were available for less than $2,000.

And as prices have fallen, image quality has gone up.

LCD technology in particular has seen a boost in image quality with the introduction of several affordable models that support the highest video-resolution standard in the industry, 1080p. (It's a notch up the high-definition ladder over the current standards of 1080i and 720p, with 1080p delivering a noticeably crisper, cleaner, higher-resolution picture.)

Until recently, 1080p sets were well beyond the financial reach of most consumers. But this fall saw the launch of 42- and 46-inch 1080p LCDs from manufacturers including Toshiba, Sony, Samsung and Sharp that sold in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. (By comparison, the cheapest 1080p plasma sets cost more than $10,000.)

1080p content is currently limited to next-generation DVD technologies and game consoles, but many industry insiders believe it will inevitably supplant lower resolution standards, making it a smart bet for forward-thinking consumers.

Another feature shoppers should look for in LCD panels is improved black performance. Black levels have long been the Achilles heel of LCD televisions, which have never measured up to the clear, deep blacks seen in plasma displays. However, LCD manufacturers are constantly finding ways to more effectively block the light that seeps into darkened liquid crystal pixels - the root cause of washed-out blacks.

LCD TV makers are also combating the problem by providing a wide array of customizable settings that let users control the intensity of their television's backlight or artificially enhance details in darker scenes. Many LCDs now have an ambient light sensor that monitors the brightness of the surrounding environment and dynamically adjusts the strength of the panel's backlight for optimum viewing.

But while black levels in LCD televisions have improved, they still can't match those of top-tier plasma displays, which is why many home theatre enthusiasts still prefer plasma — even if it means settling for a resolution of 720p or 1080i as opposed to the superior 1080p of top-of-the-line LCDs.

However, plasma sets are beginning to lose some of their appeal to non-videophiles. While newer plasma sets show improvement in displayable colours and levels of gradation (the steps between pure black and pure white), these advances aren't as dramatic as those that have taken place in the LCD arena.

Moreover, while plasma was once considered the smart financial choice for consumers shopping for a large flat panel, the falling prices of larger LCD panels is quickly erasing this advantage — though plasma still holds a considerable lead in the 50-inch plus category.

Regardless of flat-panel technology you choose, one thing is clear: Canadians — the world's largest consumers per capita of large-screen televisions — are definitely getting their money's worth. Here are six models worth a look-see if you happen to be shopping for a set this holiday.

ViewSonic N3751w 37-inch LCD: $1,499

ViewSonic's new 37-inch LCD has a virtually unbeatable price tag and a surprisingly impressive spec sheet to boot, including three HDMI jacks and a display refresh speed that's on par with those of top-tier sets (making it suitable for visually demanding content such as sports and videogames). The tradeoff? Slightly sub-standard black levels and a shorter than average lifespan — an estimated 50,000 hours as compared to the industry standard of 60,000.

Samsung LNS4041D 40-inch LCD: $2,399

It's nearly twice the price of the ViewSonic above, but it delivers a few more inches of screen, a superior picture, a dedicated gaming mode and a novel input for a television: USB (which allows users to plug in an MP3 player or a camera without using a computer). There aren't many downsides to this set, save a contrast ratio just a smidge lower than those of more expensive models.

Sharp Aquos LC46D62U 46-inch LCD: $3,499

Three reasons to consider the Aquos LC46D62U: 1) it delivers on the 1080p promise, serving up beautiful images at the highest resolution standard around; 2) it has the deepest black levels of any LCD set on the market (according to independent testing); and 3) it has a very competitive price among 1080p LCDs. If you have $3,500 burning a hole in your pocket, there are worse ways to spend it.

Sony Bravia KDL52XBR3 52-inch LCD: $8,299

This behemoth 1080p display from Sony represents the pinnacle of LCD technology — and it has a price to match. It's powered by Sony's lauded Bravia Engine Pro video processor, which does an excellent job of converting non-1080p signals to fit the display's ultra-high resolution. And it uses proprietary technologies to deliver beautiful noise-free colours.

LG 42PC3D 42-inch Plasma: $2,299

Though not considered a cream-of-the-crop plasma manufacturer, LG's sets deliver image quality that only the most discerning videophiles will find issues with. With only one HDMI input, no multimedia card slot and no picture-in-picture, this 42-incher is a little low on extra features, but all is forgiven once you check the price tag.

Panasonic Viera TH50PX60 50-inch Plasma: $3,499

If you're the kind of person likely to notice how much detail one ought to be able to make out in the gloomy shadows of the Lord of the Rings' Mines of Moria, then the Viera TH50PX60 is the television for you. It has black levels unparalleled in the world of flat-panel displays. Its sole downfall is its display resolution, which meets the requirements for true 720p and 1080i but not 1080p.

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