Tips and tricks on buying your next TV
THERE IS AN ADVERTISEMENT currently being shown on television that quotes science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s an ad for tyres. Finweek believes Clarke’s famous line concerning the nature of extraterrestrial civilisations is far more applicable to high-definition flat screen TVs.
The technobabble associated with today’s televisions has long since surpassed that of personal computers. It’s easy to see the benefits or disadvantages of an 80GB hard drive versus one of 250GB; or a 384Kbps Internet connection vs one of 8Mbps. With the latest generation of flat panel televisions, making sense of the different features is decidedly more difficult.
Apart from the fact that there are two competing products in the market – LCD and plasma (with a third called Organic LED on the way) – the widely varying prices between brands and technologies make purchase decisions highly frustrating.
Don’t expect too much help from staff at the outlets that sell flat screens. For what could be a household’s third biggest expense after a house and a car, and one that will take up on average four hours of your day, good advice is hard to come by. And forget about an in-store test drive: remote controls are off limits, even for those ready to make a R40 000 investment.
So how do you decide between a 42” plasma from brand A going for R12 000 versus a similar looking 40” LCD from brand B that’s at least double that?
Plasmas come in bigger sizes than LCDs for much less dosh. If you’re putting down this amount of money you may as well go big. Remember that extra 2” is measured diagonally and the increase of the viewable area is noticeable. You’ll probably also be watching a fair amount of regular television broadcasts, which means unless you want to turn all the soapie stars into short fatties, you’ll have to adjust the set to a box shape, losing even more of the picture. Only a very limited number of widescreen broadcasts are available in SA. The latest plasmas also offer slim and sleek designs and even a 50” when wall mounted won’t dominate a smallish living room.
If you’re mostly going to use the television for regular broadcasts, plasma’s rendering of colour also counts in its favour. Compared to LCDs, colours on plasmas are more natural. On LCDs red often appears too warm and green synthetic. If you’re a film buff and want to see every last shade and detail in a dark cinematic scene, then plasma’s high contrast and true rendering of black produce a superior picture to LCD, which because it’s backlit turns blacks into dark greys. Lastly, for sports and fast moving action, plasma’s quicker refresh rate gives it the edge.
That’s where the good news on plasma ends, especially for Jo’burgers. Plasmas don’t perform well over 2000m above sea level and can emit a buzzing sound as a result. Jo’burg is 1800m above sea level so it shouldn’t really be a problem, but the panel’s lifespan could be shortened. The latest plasmas and LCDs will last longer than conventional TVs and after more than a decade of use, you’d want to replace the set with the latest technology anyway.
Although the latest screens suffer far less from burn-in, this remains plasma’s biggest drawback. Burn-in happens when static images are burnt on to the screen to leave a ghost image. All of plasma’s other benefits may seem insignificant if you have the CNBC logo permanently displayed in the corner of your screen. Anti-burn-in technology like whitewash could shorten your plasma’s lifespan. Plasmas are generally more fragile than LCDs and most manufacturer and store guarantees don’t go beyond three years. LCD pixels can also go dead or stay lit, but you may not even notice it. LCDs have wider viewing angles, but it’s hardly a factor as no one would want to sit at a 170 degree angle to any screen.
LCDs first saw the light as monitors, so they are best if you’re hooking up a laptop to the TV or playing games. LCDs screens are brighter and don’t reflect light, but the main factor here is that LCDs have better resolution than plasma. And higher resolution is probably what will swing decisions in favour of LCD. High definition broadcasts will be in SA before 2010. LCDs are HD ready, but only the top end plasmas are high-definition, which diminishes plasma’s price advantage.
All manufacturers tout their image engines and special filter technologies. Sony’s got Bravia, Samsung has DNie, Philips chose Pixel Plus, LG calls theirs XD and Panasonic has a range including a Mach Enhancer. When comparing these at a technical level it soon turns into hair splitting. How many billion colours do you really need? Rather look for useful features such as Philips’s ambient lighting and built-in USB and memory card readers to look at photos and listen to MP3s, or LG’s built in hard-drive recorder that lets you pause live TV, skip ads and record 40 hours of television.
In short: if you want a big TV to watch normal broadcasts, get a plasma. If you’re regularly hooking up a PC, game console or other high definition source, get an LCD.
What you see is what you get.