Venture into a home-entertainment store to shop for a new flat-panel TV and very little seems clear beyond those ludicrously sharp, bright, oversized images of sweat beads on some jock's face or taste buds on a grasshopper's tongue. The sales staff, weary of explaining the difference between seemingly identical models - "They're all good. How big's your wall?" - doesn't illuminate much. Still, the reduced prices on the sets are very tempting.
"I think most customers who come in are pretty bewildered right now," says Pam Crane, executive vice president of the Los Angeles area's Ken Crane home-entertainment stores. "Given how drastically the technology has improved and the prices have fallen in so short a time, it's hard for anyone to keep up."
If current trends are any indication, even 52-inch LCD TVs ($3,000 average price) will be cheaper and better by the end of the year. The average $1,877 price for a 42-inch set could drop 35 percent to $1,175 by the winter holidays, the ISuppli industry analyst group said recently. The average plasma price was $5,000 in 2002, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Now it's $1,500. And they're going for less than that.
"It's what we call a 'profitless prosperity' right now," Crane says. "There's a lot of product, and it's really become a price war. The big winner is the consumer."
As TV sizes keep swelling, resolutions keep improving and technologies keep advancing, new design dilemmas and solutions pop up. Making the best call about a TV should happen before the wrong one ends up weighing down your wall studs.
Big or supersize?
"Generally, people want to have the biggest TV they can afford - at least for their predominant set, the one that they watch the most," says Crane. "I'd say the most common issue our customers deal with after buying one is then deciding that they want to upsize."
The 42-inch sets, once the benchmark flat-panel size, have lately been losing status to 52s and now 63s. Are there downsides to the need to upsize?
Designer Brad Haan says any screen larger than 52 inches "can start to feel like you're on the flight deck of the Enterprise. If you have a separate media room, that's one thing. But bigger is not always better at all - even though it may look that way in the showroom."
The expense of adding a huge screen can turn a great plasma deal into less of a bargain when factoring in the cost of remedial design solutions - but ignore them at your living room's peril.
"The error that people make when shopping for a big television is thinking only about the cost of the TV itself without also considering the kind of architectural treatment or custom build-out necessary to make it a positive addition to a room - whether it's custom cabinetry, a wall of Shoji screens or something else to provide some balance," says interior designer, Deborah J. Davis.
LCD or plasma?
Most non-videophiles will have a tough time distinguishing between these two dominant sandwich-thin technologies. A closer look reveals some differences worth knowing.
Images on plasma sets are created by thousands of tiny, inert, gas-filled pixel cells between two panes of glass. Plasma screen sizes generally begin at around 42 inches (measured diagonally) and get as large as 103 inches.
In contrast, LCDs' (liquid crystal display) images are created by thousands of liquid crystals sandwiched between thin panes of glass. LCDs have traditionally dominated the smaller flat-panel market but are now forging deeper into plasma territory. The 52-inch LCDs and larger models are now common enough, though typically more expensive than plasmas in this upper size range.
Both LCDs and plasmas flaunt the latest HDTV advancements - notably 1080p resolution. But one can't judge a state-of-the-art television by pixel count alone.
"Plasma produces a lot of heat and infrared emission, and LCDs don't," says Alberto Fabiano, chief technology officer at DSI Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based home-theater system company.
"Plasmas also tend to be up to 30 percent heavier, use more energy and remain the only display device on the market that still has a potential problem with burn-in when displaying static images - like video games - for long periods of time."
There's also the glare issue. Plasma glass screens allow more ambient light reflection. LCDs tend to do better in rooms with a lot of windows or natural light.
Self- or full-service?
As a rule, the more sophisticated the system, the more help you may need. Only you'll know how much hand-holding you require. "At least let someone else hang it for you," Fabiano urges. "You don't want something that weighs 120 pounds and costs several thousand dollars crashing on the floor - or on you. That thing falls on your watch, it's your fault."
Jordan Rane writes for the Los Angeles Times.