Television Quest

I haven’t had a boob tube since 1991. Can I find one I want to buy?

After 15 years without a television, I finally cracked last month. Prices for LCD and plasma screens have plummeted up to 30 percent this year. More important, YouTube and iTunes have introduced me to a bevy of new shows— Battlestar Galactica and Lost, for starters—that I want to watch at full resolution, on a screen meant for moving video and not Web browsing. After 20 years of using the Net to hide from the TV-watching masses, it was time to call Comcast and join the rest of the human race.

My plan: venture into the local Best Buy and pick out a big flat-panel display for the living room. Simple enough, right? Well, this plan was undone when I counted 126 screens in the showroom. Plasma, LCD, DLP—which was for me? The salespeople were helpful to a point but seemed to expect me to know what size screen and what technology I wanted. “Flat” and “big” were my only criteria, and I wanted the best picture quality I could afford.

A year ago this would have been easy. If I wanted a 30-inch or bigger screen, I’d have been steered to a plasma display. If I wanted a smaller screen, I would’ve had only LCD models to look at. But LCD and plasma tech overlap now—I found a 42-inch Sharp LCD screen on sale next to a 42-inch LG plasma display. To my surprise, the plasma was cheaper, but the LCD boasted higher resolution. Even if you’re reasonably tech-savvy, you can’t just look at the screen and guess what kind it is anymore or how much it’ll cost.

Still, I figured the bevy of options would work to my advantage. If I shopped hard enough, I thought, I would find a great display that fits my $1,500 budget. In a couple of days, I would have a TV that outshone the tubes owned by foolish friends who’d blown $5,000 on a plasma two years ago.

Instead, I found dozens of screens I could afford but none I was totally satisfied with. If I watched any TV long enough, I could find something wrong with it. The Sharp Aquos LCD seemed vibrant and colorful, but when the cast of Grey’s Anatomy suddenly bolted from a lunchroom table, their faces got blurry like a grainy phone-cam shot. The LG 42-inch plasma had even more pronounced problems—whenever a scene faded to black, I saw tiny constellations of red pixels in the actors’ darkening faces.

I’d have written this off to poorly set-up store displays, but friends who’d recently bought TVs spewed the same gripes. “The color’s off.” “Digital artifacts.” “It has a hot spot you wouldn’t believe.” I collected enough data to come to the following conclusions:

Plasma screens still generally have the best color, but the cheaper models aren’t much better than your PC. If you play computer games or leave your laptop plugged into them, you’re likely to get “burn-in“—the unfixable problem where the shadow of a long-displayed image, such as NBC’s peacock watermark, becomes permanently etched into the screen.LCD (liquid crystal display) screens are cheaper and lighter than plasmas and don’t burn in when used for PCs or games. But their colors aren’t as deep as plasma, and they’re more prone to blurry motion—a problem usually attributed to slow screen refresh rates.DLP screens, which use a new rear-projection technology, are big and bright. But you need to sit directly in front of them for the best picture, and they’re much thicker and bulkier than flat-panels. Part of my new-TV fantasy was to not have a 200-pound God-box squatting in my living room.

The biggest frustration I found in stores, though, was that most of them ran lower-resolution cable-TV signals through their demo units. Sure, the networks call it HDTV, but it’s only 720 pixels high instead of the full 1080p used by George Lucas’ digital theatrical releases. To see a 1080p screen’s full potential, you need to jack in a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player with a disc of full-definition 1080p programming. The difference isn’t subtle—it’s like switching from TV to a movie screen.

Engadget HD editor Ben Drawbaugh put it in simple terms for me: “It’s the difference between a 0.75-megapixel camera and a 2.0-megapixel camera.” Drawbaugh warned me not to listen to store clerks who said 1080-pixel displays were a waste of money. Most likely, he said, I’d end up buying yet another screen next year after watching a few Blu-rays on a neighbor’s set.

The PRO-FHD1 from Pioneer

But even at 1080 resolution, it was always easy to pick out a flaw or two in most screens. That is, until I wandered into a store that carried Pioneer’s Elite PROFHD1 50-inch plasma. My jaw literally dropped open. This wasn’t a TV screen, it was a window into the Serengeti. I could see the Matrix! Every trick I’d learned to spot the bugs—bobbing above and ducking below the center line of the screen, walking sideways to the far edges of the room, turning on the overhead lights—failed to break the Pioneer. No matter where I stood or sat, it was gorgeous.

This was it—I told the salesman that I’d found the screen I wanted to buy. “Well, um, I’m not saying you have to buy this one,” he hesitated, taking a step back as he gestured toward the price tag: $7,999.95. Ulp.

I know what you’re thinking: I went looking for a pricey TV so I could brag about how I’m able to discern its incredible image quality. But it’s the opposite: You don’t have to be any kind of expert to tell that the Pioneer leaves every other TV out there in the dust. Just go to the store and look at one. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for the cheaper model. If you turn down the lights and sit front and center, most of the new screens are still better than anything from five years ago. The magic of TV is that a few nitpicky glitches don’t distract from a good show.

The verdict: Mission not accomplished. I’d planned to bring back a $1,500 display worth recommending to all. Instead, my gung-ho reporting backfired. I’ll have to keep saving while Pioneer’s prices—hopefully—keep falling. Meanwhile, I’ll watch Galactica at my desk, same as always. I’ve already been without a TV for 15 years. What’s one more?