LCD vs. Plasma: Which HDTV Is Right for You?

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HDTV Technologies to Look For

Here is a brief glossary of key terms you should know in order to understand the latest technologies used in high-definition television.

1080p [LCD and Plasma]

What it does: The highest quality mode of high definition draws 1080 progressive lines onto your screen for every frame. You won't find 1080p content over the air or on cable or satellite, but it's the standard for Blu-ray and HD DVD.

Why it's important: 1080p is the best picture you can get on a home screen. You may not own a Blu-ray or HD DVD player yet, but you won't want your television to seem out of date when you finally do buy one.

Who has it: All seven of the LCD sets we reviewed for this article can display 1080p, as can the Panasonic TH-42PZ700U plasma. Just about every company making TVs today has some 1080p models, though most such models have relatively large screen sizes. 1080p is rare on 40- and 42-inch plasmas, and nonexistent on smaller sets of either type.

HDMI 1.3 [LCD and Plasma]

What it does: HDMI provides uncompressed, digital bandwidth for both video and audio from a source (a DVD player or a DVR, for example) to your TV. HDMI 1.3 doubles that bandwidth and supports 10-bit, 12-bit, and 16-bit "deep color," rather than just the 8-bit color of other connections. By increasing the palette, deep color better approximates the analog range of color captured by motion picture film and the human eye. HDMI 1.3 also adds direct support for high-end audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio. (Most TVs won't support those formats, however; you're more likely to see them on home-theater receivers.

Why it's important: In theory, both Blu-ray and HD DVD support deep color, and someday someone may release a disc that uses it.

Who has it: Five of the twelve TVs we reviewed support HDMI 1.3: Philips's 42PFL7432D/37, Pioneer's PDP-4280HD, Samsung's LN-T4061, Sony's KDL-40V3000, and Toshiba's 42HL167. All new sets will have it in the near future.

Two-Way CableCard Slot [LCD and Plasma]

What it does: Some digital cable stations--especially premium channels--convey content into your home in encrypted form. In that case, even if your TV accepts digital signals, you'll need a set-top box to descramble them. A CableCard, supplied by your cable company, takes the place of a set-top box and allows your TV to decrypt the signal. Two-way CableCards allow two-way communication so that you will not only receive cable signals but also send information such as requests for pay-per-view channels and the cable company's guide information on your set.

Why it's important: It means one less box taking up shelf space and a power outlet, and one less remote for you to misplace.

Who has it: Among the 12 televisions we looked att, only the Pioneer PDP-4280HD has a CableCard slot--and it's a one-way version. We're still waiting for two-way versions to arrive.

Fast Pixel Response Time (8ms or less) [LCD]

What it does: An LCD pixel takes a few milliseconds to change its color. Not so long ago, 16ms response times were common; today, 8ms response times are common, and 5ms times are available.

Why it's important: A faster response time prevents ghosted images from appearing on your set. In the past, slow response times made LCDs a poor choice for action flicks and other fast-moving entertainment; but 8ms LCDs have all but eliminated the problem.

Who has it: Five of the seven LCDs reviewed here have 8ms response time--sufficient to virtually eliminate the problem. The other two--the LG 42LB5D and the Philips 42PFL7432D/37--turn pixels around in only 5ms.

120-Hz Refresh Rate [LCD]

What it does: Since the 1940s, American televisions have rewritten the screen 60 times per second. Some new LCD sets double that rate by inserting either a black frame or an interpolated image between each two frames.

Why it's important: A 60-Hz refresh rate--at least with progressive scanning--should suffice because it's more than double film's 24 frames per second. But a faster refresh rate gives LCDs another way to improve on their pixel response time.

Who has it: None of the seven LCD televisions we reviewed can rewrite their screen 120 times per second. Sony, Philips, and Toshiba make 120-Hz TVs, though they're not the models we looked at. Sharp and JVC make them, as well.

LED Backlighting [LCD]

What it does: Fluorescent tubes light most LCDs from behind. But LEDs allow the manufacturer greater control over the quality and intensity of the light.

Why it's important: LEDs can produce extremely pure red, green, and blue light, which combine into a near-perfect white. The result is exceptionally fine colors that rival those generated by CRT and plasma screens. The greater brightness control in some LEDs effectively increases the television's contrast ratio, too.

Who has it: Currently, LED-lit LCDs are still an expensive luxury. No TV in our roundup comes with LED backlighting. However, Samsung and Sony do offer models with LED backlighting. Samsung's new 81 series of LED-backlit TVs costs nearly $3000 in a 40-inch version, and Sony's 70-inch BRAVIA KDL-70XBR3 goes for $33,000 .BenQ may be offering sets with this feature next year.

Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about film for Bayflicks.net.

This story, "LCD vs. Plasma: Which HDTV Is Right for You?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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