Super Bowl XLII Screen

The number of choices in TVs can be daunting.  Remember that contrast and brightness in stores may look different in your home.
The number of choices in TVs can be daunting. Remember that contrast and brightness in stores may look different in your home. AP

DETROIT -- If you've been eyeing those fancy televisions in stores lately, you've got a lot of company. Super Bowl season -- the game is Sunday -- is one of the top times of the year for TV sales, and this year there's the added incentive of major price breaks that took place on some of the best new TV technology just before the holidays.

Add the specter of next year's digital-TV transition, and you've got a lot of reasons to upgrade your tube. Most people who do so this year will buy high-definition capable televisions, many of them flat screens. HDTVs can show pictures drawn with as many as 1,080 lines, as compared with the 480 standard in normal televisions.

Frank and Becky Head of Ypsilanti Township, Mich., shopped for a 26-inch flat-screen TV this week, just in time for their annual Super Bowl party. The General Motors retirees bought a 42-inch flat screen as a joint Christmas present last month.

"I've been talking about it for a while. We have all the neighbors over to watch the game, and we wanted something a little bit bigger" than their old 20-inch television, Frank Head said.

He wanted another flat screen, and ended up buying a plasma television.

"They don't take up as much room. They're much lighter. And I think the picture overall is better," he said.

Whether you see a gorgeous picture depends on how your television receives its signal. Receiving HDTV signals requires a special antenna, if you're one of the few getting your television with an antenna. Subscribers to cable or satellite television typically have to pay for a special tuner box to see HD broadcasts, which take advantage of the crisper, more precise pictures HDTVs can draw.

DVD players in two competing formats (Blu-Ray and HD DVD) also can show high-definition pictures. Which will win that format war is unclear.

When you shop for a television, you'll be faced with a lot of numbers. One is the resolution; anything more than 720 lines technically is considered high-definition. Typically, you'll see a letter after the resolution number. The letter "P" means the set is progressive; it draws every line every time the image is refreshed. The letter "I" for interlaced means every other line is drawn each pass time; that means the picture is not as crisp. The response, or refresh, rate is how many fractions of a second the set takes to redraw its image.

At present, 1080p televisions have the best pictures of anything available. But Quad HDTV sets (which show as many as four times as many lines) are slowly trickling out to the high-end marketplace.

When shopping for a television, don't be swayed by the contrast and brightness you see in the store. Models out of the box are specifically tuned to be extremely bright with extremely high contrast so that they'll look appealing when you see them on the shelves.

When choosing a television, be aware that you'll need to sit closer to an HDTV to get the full benefit of the crisper display. For normal televisions, you might sit up to 12 feet away from a 42-inch set and still see all the detail. For a max-resolution HD model in the same size, you'd want to be no more than 5½ feet from the screen. Sit farther and you're looking for a bigger screen.


Here are some television models, their pros and cons, and how much you can expect to pay:
  • PLASMAS: Plasma televisions are one of two common flat-panel types, along with LCDs. Many of the problems that plagued plasma displays -- burn in, for example, in which TV station logos eventually would show up as permanent ghosts on the corner of the image -- have been resolved, and they're a popular choice, especially in larger sizes.

They tend to be a little thicker and heavier than their LCD counterparts, but they offer truer blacks and deeper reds at prices that most consumers appreciate. They also offer a wider viewing angle than their LCD counterparts (so people sitting in chairs at the edge of your living room will have a good view, too). A 42-inch plasma TV can run $1,000 online or on sale.

  • LCDs: LCD televisions dominate the small-TV market. Most flat-panel televisions sold smaller than 32 inches are LCDs; most bigger than 42 inches are plasmas. They rarely burn in. Their bright picture makes them a great fit for rooms with bright lighting, and their screens tend to reflect less than the plasmas. They also display true, maximum HDTV resolution (often higher than plasma). At mass-market price levels, they're more prone to subtle digital artifacting on fast-moving, complex images (such as moving water). That means some parts of the image degrade into tiny boxes if you look closely. That doesn't happen to plasma televisions at the same price point. Speed of response time varies widely; if you plan to watch a lot of fast-moving video -- or someone in your house plays high-resolution video games -- you'll want to shoot for one with as low a response time as possible. (Video games, with their static menus, could cause burn-in problems.) A 32-inch name-brand LCD TV can run $800 online or on sale.
  • OLEDs: OLEDs are not widely available commercially, but when they hit the market in bulk, expect a big splash. They are made from special plastics that enable them to be very, very thin -- thinner than current plasmas and LEDs -- and very bright.
  • REAR PROJECTIONS: Also called "microdisplays," rear-projection televisions are bigger than flat-panel televisions, but smaller than the CRT-based big screen televisions they've come to replace. They're cheaper than flat-panel televisions, and can have a good price, especially in larger sizes. But they're doomed to extinction, eventually, as the flat-panel market continues to dominate. Their bulb, a $200-$300 part, typically needs replacing every few years. Rear-projection televisions come in three primary flavors: DLP (digital light processing), LCD (liquid crystal display, not to be confused with LCD flat-panel televisions) and LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon). DLP televisions offer deep blacks (as opposed to grays) and an even-looking picture, but cheaper models can have a subtle "rainbow" effect when your eye moves across the screen. LCD types typically have worse blacks and less-even pictures, but don't suffer from the rainbow. LCoS displays come in extremely high resolutions, and at the right price, will give you deep blacks and no rainbows, but they can suffer from uneven pictures. The tag? About $1,400.
  • FRONT PROJECTIONS: Typically installed in home theaters and other large rooms where the size of the picture is king, front projectors require darker conditions and a separate display screen or wall. Their images are not always as bright or as crisp as some of their competition. Prices tend to run less than $1,000.