The TV You Want Today
Most Promising (Maybe): OLED
The most promising technology that might yet catch on remains organic light-emitting displays (OLEDs). OLEDs are emissive like a picture-tube (CRT) television, which eliminates issues with viewing angles; and the technology is fast and highly responsive, so it lacks motion blurring. OLED displays are incredibly thin; the entire display is just a thin layer on the back of a sheet of glass (or plastic or other substrate). Blacks are deep and endless, colors are stunning, and the whole thing requires very little power.
Sony has been selling the XEL-1 OLED TV for a couple years now, and it is the first and (still) the only OLED TV on the market. (OLED screens are used primarily in mobile devices such as cell phones and media players like the Microsoft Zune HD.) The problem with the XEL-1 is that it's about one-sixteenth the size of a 42-inch flat panel, yet costs two to four times as much. It measures only 11-inches diagonal, or about the size of a netbook screen, so it's barely large enough for a personal TV. It also carries a mere 960-by-540-pixel resolution, so it's not even high definition. And with a $2500 price tag, it's impossible to get excited about the value proposition.
While many companies have set (and missed) delivery dates for larger-format OLED HDTVs, the only company with anything promised is Samsung, which plans to sell a 15-inch, 720p-capable model in Korea this year. Samsung hasn't yet announced pricing, but some sources have predicted that they will be in line with the Sony model. Other sets are rumored for delivery in 2010, but as past experience has shown, don't believe they're coming until they hit the store shelves. While small-screen production for mobile devices is proceeding well, manufacturers are finding it more difficult than expected to transfer that experience to manufacturing the larger panels necessary for an HDTV. The fabrication costs are higher and the yields lower than hoped, and this makes it nearly impossible to make a TV-sized panel at a competitive price. At least for now.
So today, your choices are LCD and plasma for flat panels. LCD is just about the only choice for sets smaller than 40 inches diagonal. Plasma continues to have a price advantage in sets 40 inches and larger, so compare carefully when choosing between the two technologies.
Beyond the Core
Manufacturers continue to find ways to differentiate their products. For example, most flat-panel TVs now have extensive settings that allow the image to be adjusted to optimal settings for a given room or piece of content (video or film, say). Some will even store different configurations for day and night viewing. In the past, these were locked up so that only qualified technicians could access them, and a professional calibration service could cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. Now, most people buy and install their flat panel themselves--so manufacturers are opening up the advanced configuration settings to the end user.
Note, however, that such do-it-yourselfers can get lost in the maze of settings and end up with an image that is far less than optimal. Get the edge enhancement settings too far off, and objects on the screen can develop comic-book outlines. Misadjust the motion compensation settings, and you can introduce noticeable artifacts (even though you'll fix other, also noticeable, artifacts). If you do change any of the settings, make sure you know how to get back to the factory defaults in case you get it hopelessly entangled. You can also find DVDs that will provide test images and instructions that will help you adjust your HDTV's settings with more precision than just eyeballing it.
Another feature area is the quality of the sound the set can produce. Some can simulate multi-channel surround sound, while others just have simple stereo speakers (and not always of outstanding quality at that). Some models, such as the Toshiba REGZA XV648 series, include volume-leveling features that even out the quiet and loud parts of programming. Toshiba uses technology from Dolby for this, though other companies offer similar technology. If you're serious about sound, you'll still want a separate surround sound setup.
A feature coming to sets in the near future is 3D capability; for a discussion, see "3DTV: The Next Big Thing?"
Some of the newfangled features we've discussed here will help you experience your entertainment content differently, or improve how it looks on screen. In general, as you try to decide what to buy, resist being dazzled by shiny, sparkly things. Focus instead on the attributes that will matter when you're watching various kinds of content on your new TV.