Here's our take on five of the hottest flat-panel TV features.
|Lab technicians Matthew Ferretti and
Antonette Asedillo perform preliminary
Photograph by Michael Smith
Walk into any TV showroom or peruse any ad, and you'll be bombarded with claims about the latest, greatest features—eye-popping 3D, TVs that can stream movies and more from the Internet, LED and 240Hz technologies that raise LCD picture quality to new heights, and superfine 1080p resolution.
Some claims might be overblown, but most features will be worth the money for certain viewers. This report will help you decide what makes sense for you. Our latest Ratings of more than 140 LCD and plasma TVs, the most ever, have no shortage of fine choices with excellent picture quality, including lower-priced sets with few bells and whistles.
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3D: Great or gimmicky?
Since we tested the first 3D TVs last spring, we've seen a rush of new models. Our first Ratings of 3D-capable TVs feature 20 of them. These aren't special TVs used exclusively to watch three-dimensional images. They're regular high-definition LCD and plasma TVs with an extra feature: a 3D mode. They display regular 2D programming just like any set but can be switched into 3D mode when you want to watch 3D content from a Blu-ray disc or TV channel. You must wear special eyeglasses to perceive the three-dimensional effect; otherwise you'll see blurry double images. You don't need glasses for regular 2D content.
The best TVs displayed compelling 3D images with clarity and depth, but others were less successful. Plasma TVs provided better 3D than LCD sets, primarily because they exhibited less ghosting—double images visible even through 3D glasses. The Panasonic plasmas we tested consistently had the least ghosting, followed closely by plasma models from LG and Samsung.
|Panasonic VIERA TC-P50VT25
50" 3D TV
Like most new technologies, 3D capability was initially expensive, but prices of 3D TVs have already dropped and are sure to decrease further this year. At some point, the premium over a regular TV might be so small that it will be worth considering a 3D model even if you don't plan to use that feature. For instance, the Panasonic VT series plasmas in our 3D Ratings have the best HD quality we've seen. Even sets that don't do well with 3D often excel with HD, as our Ratings show.
Also look for lower prices on the 3D-capable Blu-ray players you'll need to play 3D discs. Prices now start at less than $150 and we're expecting even lower-priced players from secondary brands this year.
But two big issues remain. 3D glasses are one. The active-shutter glasses needed to view 3D on most current TVs tend to be uncomfortable. They're also pricey, often $130 to $150 a pair. Some TVs come with one or two pairs of glasses but others don't include any. TVs that use cheaper, lighter passive glasses were starting to arrive at press time, and we'll test them soon.
Second, 3D content has been very limited, but more is coming. Some 3D Blu-ray movies released last year have been bundled only with a certain TV brand, but as these deals expire, the movies should be more widely available. Dozens of new 3D titles are expected, too. ESPN 3D and DirecTV's n3D channels will soon be joined by 3net, a 24/7 3D channel from Discovery, IMAX, and Sony. In addition, HBO and Vudu recently added 3D content.
Before making any decisions, visit a local retailer to experience 3D for yourself. If you like what you see:
• Go for a 3D TV if you're a well-heeled early adopter who wants the fun of 3D viewing now or a photo enthusiast with a 3D camera or camcorder. A compatible 3D TV is by far the best way to see your 3D photos and home movies.
• Think about buying a 3D TV if you're in the market for a top-performing set and you find a good deal on a 3D model.
• Bide your time if you don't need a new TV and you're not dying for the 3D experience. Soon there will be more TVs at lower prices, more 3D discs and broadcasts, and cheaper, more comfortable glasses.
Although 3D is likely to remain a niche product in 2011, TVs that can access Web-based content will be mainstream. About half of the sets 40 inches and larger in our Ratings can access online content via a broadband connection, and some 32- and 37-inch sets now have that feature.
There's more streaming content as well, including thousands of movies and TV episodes from fee-based services such as Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, and others. Free content includes news, weather, and sports feeds, YouTube videos, and more.
|Apple TV Wireless HD
Digital Media Streamer
It's easy to get Web content onto your screen. You can use an Ethernet cable to connect an Internet-enabled TV to your modem or router. Some TVs can connect to a wireless home network as well. Many TVs have "apps" that let you access sites such as eBay, Facebook, and YouTube by clicking on onscreen icons, called widgets, provided by Vudu and Yahoo, among others. You might need to register using a computer the first time you use a site, but otherwise you just use your TV remote. Some TVs let you make Skype video calls when you use an optional camera.
Most Internet TVs limit Web access to specific sites and services, which vary by brand, but Android-based Google TVs offer full Web browsing via Google's Chrome browser. Sony has already started selling Google TV models, and Vizio recently announced its line. Google TV isn't the only option: LG and Samsung will offer new TVs that offer full Web browsing.
Internet connectivity can benefit many TV viewers, vastly expanding entertainment options. If you're buying a new TV, consider an Internet-enabled model, especially one with built-in Wi-Fi or the ability to add it. But don't break the bank, or even buy a new TV if your current one still suits you, to get those features. You can often get the same services on any TV for as little as $100 by connecting it to an Internet-enabled Blu-ray player or set-top box, many of which have wireless capability.
LED backlights on LCD TVs
More LCD TVs are now using LED backlights; last year LEDs were used mostly on high-priced TVs. These so-called LED TVs aren't a new, better type of TV, though ads imply that. They're LCD TVs that use LED backlights instead of fluorescent ones. When well implemented, LED lighting can contribute to deeper blacks, better contrast, a slimmer profile, and lower energy use. Some manufacturers are selling only LED models, especially in larger sizes, so you might have less choice in conventionally backlit sets.
Most of the new LED-based sets we're seeing now use edge-LED backlights, with LEDs around the perimeter of the screen and special diffusers that spread the light across the entire panel. Edge LEDs allow LCD TVs to be very thin. They're also very energy-efficient, resulting in the lowest power consumption of TVs we've tested.
We're finding fewer new TVs with full-array LED backlights across the entire panel and a feature called local dimming. Local dimming allows for variable brightness in a scene, with dimmer lighting behind dark sections of an image and brighter lighting in other areas, an attempt to improve perceived contrast.
|Vizio XVT473SV 47" LED TV|
On the TVs we've tested, local dimming is often very effective, resulting in better contrast and deeper black levels. For example, the newer Vizio XVT LCD TVs with TruLED backlights have produced some of the best black levels we've seen on an LCD, almost as good as the better plasma sets. We've tested a few edge LEDs with local dimming, but we haven't found it to be very effective on those sets.
Consider an LCD TV with a full-array backlight and local dimming if you want deeper blacks and better contrast and you're willing to pay more. If you want those attributes without a high price tag, consider a plasma TV instead. And don't rule out conventional LCDs, which can do just as well as LED-based sets, and usually at a lower price. If you want the thinnest TV and lowest power consumption available, opt for an edge-LED set. New TVs might combine the advantages of full-array and edge-lit LEDs: LG Electronics has announced a new type of full-array LED backlight with lights placed on a thin film, allowing for a very thin profile, along with local dimming.
Once a step-up feature on higher-priced TVs, 120Hz technology has moved into all but the lowest-priced LCD TVs from the major brands. That spec refers to the frame rate of the screen, or the speed with which images are refreshed.
A set with a 120Hz frame rate refreshes the screen twice as often as an LCD TV with the usual 60Hz rate. That can potentially reduce motion blur and the loss of detail in fast-moving images. More new sets, usually higher-priced models, now use 240Hz technology. But their higher prices often get you other features, such as LED backlights and Internet access. In our tests, we found that some 120Hz sets had minimal motion blur, and some 240Hz LCDs displayed almost no blur on typical programs (though a slight blur was evident to varying degrees in our more challenging tests). But other LCDs with 120Hz and 240Hz frame rates did no better than those with a 60Hz refresh rate.
We're starting to see the first LCD TVs with 480Hz, which speeds up the frame rate even further, and manufacturers such as Sony are already developing 960Hz TVs. But plasmas still set the standard for blur-free motion.
One consideration: Higher frame rates are often tied to a feature called motion smoothing, which is designed to reduce the jerkiness (or judder) you sometimes see when film-based content is displayed on a TV, especially when a camera pans across a scene. Eliminating judder can produce a smoothing effect that makes film look like video, an effect you might not like. TVs from some brands allow you to use the higher frame rate without the anti-judder feature, but other sets link them. Avoid the latter if you prefer the film look.
A 60Hz LCD TV will probably satisfy most casual viewers who aren't especially critical. If you watch lots of sports or action movies or play video games, consider a 120Hz LCD set, which shouldn't cost much more than a 60Hz model. If you're fussy and don't mind paying a premium, think about a 240Hz TV. Remember that 120Hz and 240Hz technology don't guarantee better performance.
TC-L42U25 42" LED TV
with Full HD 1080p Resolution
"Full HD," or 1080p resolution, is almost the norm these days. It's hard to find an LCD TV 40 inches or larger that doesn't boast full HD, and more plasma TVs have 1080p screens, too. Some 42- and 50-inch plasma TVs still have 720p resolution, and they might cost a few hundred dollars less than a 1080p set, but they might also have fewer HDMI inputs or other features.
Because a 1080p screen has more pixels (the tiny elements that make up an image) than a 720p set, it can display more and finer detail. The difference is most noticeable with high-quality HD images, such as those you get from a Blu-ray disc, especially on larger screens. With typical HD content, you might see only a subtle improvement in picture quality between a 1080p set and a 720p model.
If you use your TV as a computer display, a 1080p display will fit more content onscreen, with greater clarity and finer detail. And if you plan to view Web content on your TV, you'll find the higher resolution to be a plus for viewing photos, graphics, and text. That's also true if you use your TV screen for digital slide shows.
If price isn't an issue, we strongly recommend a 1080p set. But for top value, consider a 720p model TV.
Four out-of-the-ordinary ways to use your TV
As a digital photo frame
Why squint at your photos on a puny 7-inch screen or even a 15-inch laptop when you can enjoy them on a big-screen TV in all their high-def glory? It's easy to do. Transfer images from your camera to a USB flash drive and plug the drive into the USB slot on many new TVs. If your camera uses SD cards, you can insert the card into the compatible slot on certain TVs. TVs have the software needed to view the photos, run slide shows, or watch videos stored on portable media. A 1080p screen will display more detail than a 720p model, but both should look great. Many TVs will allow you to include a soundtrack.
To watch home movies
Make family and friends stars of the big screen. The quickest, easiest way to view home movies is to plug the camcorder into the TV. Many sets have easy-to-reach front- or side-panel inputs for just such uses. Most new HD camcorders have an HDMI output (they often include a cable with a mini-HDMI jack on one side), though older models might use component-video, S-video, or composite-video outputs. Just be sure the outputs on the camcorder match the inputs on your TV.
To make free video calls
A number of new Internet-enabled TVs from brands such as LG, Panasonic, and Samsung have built-in Skype capability, which lets you make free video calls. To do that, you'll need an optional Skype video camera and a broadband connection.
To play content from other devices
Connect a computer to your TV's HDMI or VGA input and you can use your big screen to display that PowerPoint slideshow, a big spreadsheet, a video from Hulu or YouTube—anything you would normally view on your computer display. Picture quality will depend on the quality of the source. If your TV, phone, computer, and MP3 player have a new feature called DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) and are all on your home network, you can easily play media files (music, videos, and images) from those devices on your TV as well.
|The special glasses needed to view 3D images,
shown here with our test patterns, can be
heavy and expensive.
Photograph by Michael Smith
3D glasses are a necessary evil … for now
With current 3D TVs, you need special glasses to see images in all their three-dimensional glory. The TVs in the Ratings require active-shutter glasses powered by rechargeable or disposable batteries. Some glasses are fairly heavy and cumbersome, especially when worn over prescription specs. The 3D glasses tend to dim images a bit, so some TVs crank up brightness (and power usage) to compensate. A TV might come with one or two pairs of glasses, but others don't include any. Active-shutter glasses cost about $130 to $150 a pair.
Why you need glasses to see 3D
In the real world, each eye sees a slightly different perspective of a scene, and the brain combines them into one image with depth and dimension. To simulate that, a 3D TV presents separate views, one for the right eye, one for the left. The shutters in the glasses open and close very rapidly to steer the correct image to each eye. If the two images aren't kept completely separate, you might see ghosting (double images) even with glasses.
Most 3D TVs work only with glasses from the same brand. But XpanD and Monster recently began offering so-called universal glasses that will work with several TV brands. They're lighter than most that come with the TVs, but no cheaper: about $130 for XpanD's X103 model, and $230 for Monster's Vision Max 3D starter kit plus $160 for extra glasses.
Though 3D picture quality is the most critical point, the comfort of the glasses is a consideration, so try on the specs before buying a 3D TV. The LG, Samsung, Sharp, and Toshiba glasses we've tried were fairly light and comfortable. The Sony and Panasonic glasses were heavier and less comfortable. But new glasses could come out at any time.
Other TVs coming out now use passive glasses more like those you get in theaters. They don't need batteries, so they're lighter and cheaper than active glasses. There are no shutters, so 3D images might be brighter, with less ghosting. They accept prescription lenses, and some serve as sunglasses. We'll have to see how effective TVs using passive glasses are compared with those using active glasses. 3D TVs that don't require any glasses might be here in a few years, but viewing angle and resolution will be a challenge.
Copyright © 2006-2011 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.
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