A friend of mine recently emailed me the following question:

“We are looking at getting a TV and I was wondering what your thoughts are about TVs. We were looking into about a 42″ or 50″ HDTV. We were looking at the LCD Sony and also the Samsung with the DPL stuff. We only want to spend 2,000. We are in no hurry to get a TV and since everything is going to HD should we wait a year or so? Are prices going to drop soon?”

I replied to his email and then realized that it might be informative to others out there. My response follows:

I’m assuming by “LCD Sony” you mean an LCD rear-projection television and not a true LCD. LCD rear projectors are like regular rear projection televisions, the obvious difference being that an LCD provides the source image as opposed to a traditional CRT. LCD rear projectors are quickly becoming the de facto standard for rear projectors. DLP is another breed of rear projector.

So I’m going to operate under the assumption you are looking at LCD and DLP rear projectors (a true “flat panel” LCD of the size you’re talking would be big bucks). Rear projection sets are where it’s at these days when it comes to bang for buck, and the LCD and DLP models offer cabinets that aren’t as deep and awkward as the cabinets of yesterday’s CRT rear projectors.

You’ve picked a great time to by a television. Prices have plummeted and there are some excellent sets in the $2,000 range and below. Sure, prices will continue to steadily drop with the various TV technologies, but such will always be the case. As for high-definition, there is no reason to wait. HD is here and there are plenty of sets that handle HD signals with aplomb. And it doesn’t take $3,000 (or even necessarily $2,000) to reap the benefits, though your $2,000 figure is a reasonable one to start with and opens up plenty of possibilities.

As it turns out, you’ve picked two of my favorite brands. Though there have been times when Consumer Reports has given Sony sub-par marks on maintenance history, it seems like over the years they have been pretty consistent in delivering great pictures, from their Trinitron tubes to their upper line WEGA sets. Then you have Samsung, who has transformed their image from low-budget, brand-name-alternative to industry powerhouse with cutting edge technology at reasonable prices (there are rumors that Samsung is going to begin nudging prices up now that they have secured a substantial market share…dunno how much credence there is to that). I am a Samsung fan. For televisions, I’d have to seriously consider Sony, too, though.

As for the two technologies you’re looking at, as a general statement I think I prefer DLP RPTV’s (rear projection TV’s) over LCD RPTV’s. DLP has ironed out *most* of the wrinkles in its technology and it really can deliver. Probably the best set I’ve calibrated was a Samsung DLP. We watched Finding Nemo on it afterward and it was almost disgusting how good it looked (progressive scan DVD player will be a must for you, by the way…but that’s pocket change; most players are coming with progressive scan these days). Anyway, each technology does have its weaknesses, though each are capable of delivering an excellent picture…let me briefly breakdown the most notable…

LCD RPTV’s: A couple of things to look for on the sets, though. Sometimes these sets can exhibit a “screen door” effect since LCD sets, by design, demand a bit more room between the pixels on the LCD. I would guess most sets you will look at won’t have this problem, but it’s worth keeping in mind. DLP doesn’t have this issue. Also, the most critical aspect of LCD RPTV’s is contrast ratio. They have traditionally had a difficult time displaying “true” blacks and subtle variations in grays (accurate grayscale reproduction is vital for accurate color rendition). The latest LCD’s, though, have really come a long way in overcoming this. But again, it’s worth looking for. This can vary greatly by model/manufacturer.

DLP RPTV’s: Lately, the main culprit with this technology is what they call a “rainbow effect,” though the problem has been mitigated in modern sets. DLP sets use a single color wheel through which passes all three colors sequentially (Red, Green, Blue). This can lead to brief, almost imperceptible streaks of color on some sets. If it’s present, people typically only notice it when they’re quickly moving their eyes across the screen. It sounds like a strange phenomenon; personally, I’ve never experienced it…then again, I haven’t been watching too many DLP’s. DLP’s tend to produce great blacks. There was a time when they had issues mustering ample amounts of brightness but I think that’s pretty much a thing of the past. It’s also been said that DLP is prone to a bit more “video noise” than other rear projection technologies. DLP sets also tend to be more expensive.

Both types will require the replacement of the lamp periodically. And when I say periodically, I mean YEARS. The lamps have thousands of hours on them. Neither type of set is prone to the “burn-in” that you used to hear so much about with CRT’s. One thing that is a must if you buy a television of this caliber: CALIBRATE IT! Ideally, you’d drop a couple hundred dollars and have a certified tech come out, access the service menu, calibrate it, then save the settings. The next best thing, however, is to do it yourself. Though you can’t access the service menu, the conventional adjustments allow you to tweak it fairly well. Basic test patterns that can be used for calibration are on any movie DVD that is labeled as “THX”. They can be accessed through the DVD’s menu.

There can be a dramatic difference between a calibrated and non-calibrated set. I could give you a hand with this, if the time should come. It’s not that difficult. The main thing that will almost certainly need to be adjusted is brightness. They are usually jacked WAY up from the factory. That’s why looking at TV’s in a store is usually pretty worthless; you rarely get much of an idea of the television’s true potential compared to those around it. Manufacturers know that our eyes tend to favor brighter pictures, so that’s how they ship them. Unfortunately, brighter is not better…it comes at the expense of things like color reproduction and contrast.

Sorry to throw all this stuff at you, but it’s good background information to have. As for specific Sony and Samsung sets, let me get back to you after doing some looking around. My instinct says that either one would be a fine purchase (though I’d probably lead toward the Samsung), but I’ve gotten behind in reading some of my periodicals…I’ll bet there’s a review or two that could come in handy. Until then, do some looking around on the Internet. When you DO buy, make sure you get it from a place with a decent return policy. And before I bought I’d consider taking along a THX-certified DVD and at least *somewhat* calibrating the set right there in the store (not the best with glaring fluorescent lights overhead, I know). They should have no qualms with you doing that. Then get right up on the set and look for anything suspicious. How do the blacks look? Is there any strange artifacting? The other thing that is kind of a bummer is the video signal fed to the TV’s in stores such as Best Buy, etc. are horrible. So you really won’t get an accurate idea until you get the set home. More upscale audio/video establishments usually have better set-ups: calibrated TV’s, dimmed lighting, etc.

All this being said, there are a bunch of great TV’s out there. And these days, the differences in quality are becoming fewer and more subtle, often residing as much between different makes and models as which technology is used. You picked a great time to buy a TV.