HDTV Buying Guide 2008
Prices for LCD and plasma TVs are falling--hard and fast. According to market research firm DisplaySearch, retail prices for LCDs worldwide sank by an average of 22 percent in the 12 months ending in September, and plasma prices tumbled by 27 percent. And the larger the TV, the steeper the drop: In North America, the average price of a 32-inch LCD fell by 12 percent (from $750 to $658) but the average price of a 52-inch LCD fell from $2791 to $1951 (30 percent).
For this comprehensive roundup of large high-definition televisions, we looked at 13 new HDTVs and reappraised a bunch of older models across three basic size categories: 42 inches, 46 to 47 inches, and 50 to 52 inches. Ultimately, three newcomers captured Best Buys: the 42-inch LG 42PG25, the 46-inch Samsung LN46A650, and the 50-inch Samsung PN50A760.
120 Hz Can't Hurt
This season the big news is 120-Hz LCDs, which refresh their screens 120 times per second. Though 120-Hz HDTVs have been around since 2007, they were quite expensive until recently. Now, says Paul Gagnon, director of North America TV market research for DisplaySearch, a 120-Hz LCD costs about 10 percent more than an otherwise identical but slower-refreshing set.
The faster refresh rate aims to correct a major shortcoming of LCD technology: the fact that LCD pixels don't rewrite as fast as plasma phosphors. A slow rewrite time can cause blur in fast-moving images and jerky motion in camera pans.
But there are technical reasons to be skeptical. As Joel Silver of Imaging Science points out, changing the refresh rate doesn't "change the temporal nature of the LCD." In other words, sending a new image to the LCD every 120th of a second doesn't mean that the old image goes away. And content is still recorded at 30 (video) or 24 (film) frames per second.
Nevertheless, a well-executed 120-Hz refresh rate can improve the on-screen appearance of fast action, especially if the footage was originally shot in high-definition at 60 frames per second--as many broadcast sporting events are today. By interpolating an extra frame between the existing ones, a 120-Hz LCD TV can make images clearer and less jumpy. It may also help eliminate the occasional jitter (sometimes called "motion judder") associated with the 3:2 pull-down used in converting 24-fps film to 30-fps video.
All three of the 42-inch, 120-Hz LCDs that we tested--the LG Electronics 42LGX, the Toshiba 42XV545U, and the Vizio SV420XVT--outperformed the lone 42-inch plasma model (the LG Electronics 42PG25 plasma set) in our NASCAR test, which involves fast action shot at 60 Hz. The NASCAR test is the measure most likely to reveal improved performance from a 120-Hz refresh rate.
A similar pattern occurred within the 46- and 47-inch category: The two 120-Hz LCDs--Samsung's LN46A650 and Vizio's SV470XVT--outperformed the only plasma (Panasonic's TH-46PZ800U) overall and on the NASCAR test.
The impact of 120 Hz was less evident with 50- and 52-inch sets. The LG Electronics 52LG70 was the only 120-Hz LCD model we tested (out of six TVs of this size), and it finished in third place both overall and in our NASCAR test.
HDTV Feature Trends
We heard talk earlier this year about Internet-capable televisions, but as yet only a handful of sets have appeared that offer this capability.
Samsung's 50-inch PN50A760 and the same company's 46-inch LN46A650 have ethernet ports and use the Internet to access the company's own InfoLink news service (for weather, news, sports, and financial RSS feeds from USA Today)--a far cry from full-fledged Internet capabilities. Still, multimedia capabilities are catching on. Several sets come with a USB port that you can use to look at photos and listen to MP3s. And you can remove the SD Card from your camera and plug it into the Hitachi or the Panasonic to view your photos on the set.
Most HDTVs have picture modes (presets of video adjustments that are readily accessible through the menus) called Movie or Cinema, but the Panasonic TH-46PZ800U has one called THX, which is designed to replicate the look of a professional monitor used to master video content. Will THX certification mean a better image when you aren't using THX mode? Lucasfilm THX chief of AV architecture Michael Rudd says that it's "possible, but not likely."
The PC World Test Center doesn't use preset modes in our image quality tests, so we can't judge the advantage of THX certification. But I noticed that virtually all of the new TVs simplify set optimization for home viewing. In the past, only a handful of televisions gave you a choice, when you switched them on, of settings for a store or for a home environment. But today, most of them do.
Prices are dropping, image quality is improving, and the idiot box asks intelligent questions the first time you turn it on. Television really is better than ever.