Have Flat-Panel TV Prices Flatlined?

LCD and plasma flat-panel TVs are the Claudia Schiffer of the TV world: They are thinner, better looking, and sexier than their husky John Goodman-like CRT cousins. But, like supermodels, flat-panel TVs don't come cheap: A typical 30-inch LCD TV can cost you $1300 and up. So, if you're thinking of investing a big chunk of change like that, when is a good time to buy?

The answer, it seems, is now. While prices of flat-panel TVs fell freely over the past year, those prices now are only inching downward, experts say.

"Right now, prices have stabilized for both LCD TVs and plasma [TVs]," says Eric Haruki, research manager for displays and projectors at IDC. Prices will decline through the year, but not at the same frenzied rate, he says.

"It makes no sense to wait if you truly want the product now," Haruki says.

Ken Tompkins, director of TV market research for DisplaySearch, a monitor research company, agrees. Prices of both LCD and plasma TVs can be expected to creep, not plummet, downward this year, he says. The average price of a LCD TV is likely to fall by around 12 percent over the next year, DisplaySearch predicts.

LCD Prices Flatline

Prices for LCD TVs (which use a display similar to that found on a notebook PC) have dropped 27 percent in 2004 from $1500 for a 27-inch HD-ready TV to under $1100 today.

For instance, right now Best Buy is offering a 26-inch Insignia HD Ready LCD TV for $1234. A smaller TV from a better-known vendor will still cost you more, however; a 22-inch LCD TV from Samsung costs $1299 at Best Buy.

Circuit City is offering a 27-inch Norcent LCD TV for $1099, but a 23-inch Sony LCD HDTV costs $1599.

Plasma Price Points

The average price of plasma TVs (which create the screen image by running an electric current through a gas to make it glow, rather like a fluorescent light) have fallen by 23 percent over the past year, according to the market research company NPD Group, with the average price for a 42-inch plasma TV at $2207 in January of this year. The price is being driven down by more products being manufactured, as well as by discount retailers such as Wal-Mart offering them. But despite the falling prices, they remain high-end products, with the cheapest models going for more than $2000 for a 42-inch TV.

We found several models for sale for in the $2000 price range: The 42-inch LG RU-42PX10C is offered by several dealers for just over $2000, although it is worth noting that this is an EDTV model that does not support the higher-resolution 1080i standard. (For more information, see our guide to HDTV standards.)

The good news is that plasma TVs over the past year have become a more reliable investment. The latest shipping plasma TVs have overcome problems that dogged many early models, manufacturers claim. No longer a problem are things like burn-in, where an image would become permanently imprinted on the screen, they say. New techniques such as pixel orbiting (where the image on the screen is moved slightly so the image is less likely to be burned in) mean that they should last longer.

"LCD is currently a small screen technology, dominating in 37-inch and smaller screens," says Lee Simonson, business team leader for TVs at retailer Best Buy. "Though there are larger LCD screens becoming available, plasma is a much better value today in large sizes."

Flat-Panel Buyer's Remorse

The sting of buyer remorse should be minimal when it comes to buying a flat-panel TV, experts say. That's because none of the innovations to improve flat-panel TVs are expected to debut in the very near future. Although manufacturers are looking at new technologies that could replace their current models, none of these technologies are likely to come out this year.

One of those technologies is a new type of LED screen called Organic LED, or OLED. This display technology uses a layer of organic material that glows when electricity is applied to it. We've seen these displays used in a few devices such as portable media players, but manufacturers have not yet worked out how to make these OLED screens big enough and cheaply enough to compete with LCD and plasma screens. The technology is very young and won't be available in TVs for some time.

But don't loose faith in the humble CRT TV. This technology will keep a place in the market as an inexpensive alternative to LCD TVs for some time.

New developments like slimmer cathode ray tubes mean that these TVs are going to get smaller and thinner. "You can teach an old dog new tricks," says DisplaySearch's Tompkins. He says you can expect these thinner CRT TVs to cost the same as existing bulky CRT models.

"They are already selling in some European countries and Korea, and the sales look pretty good," Tompkins says.

Best Buy's Simonson says for the next few years, "more CRT TVs will be sold than all other technologies combined." After that, though, flat-panel technology will turn CRTs into dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, the price of flat-panel TVs is going to keep falling, analysts agree. By the end of 2006, expect 30-inch and larger LCD TVs to sell for less than $1000. Currently, a 30-inch LCD TV will cost you $1700 and up.

It's an age-old dilemma consumers are faced with: Wait and get more for your money, or buy now? Based on expert advice, if you're serious about flat-panel LCD or plasma displays, there is no time like the present. Like supermodels, the popular flat-panel products aren't going to be around for long, so if you want a flat-panel TV, our experts advise you to go for it now.

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