After work on Thursday the 12th I sat down to watch some motorcycle racing I had TiVo'd a couple of weeks ago. About 10 minutes into the race I hear an electrical "snap!" come from my TV, the picture goes black, it makes a rapid series of "mewing" sounds like a litter of newborn mice for a few seconds, and then it turns itself off with a clunk. By this point I had hit pause on the TiVo, and I sat there in dumfounded silence as the TV blinked its standby light at me.
Bad words! I had just replaced my Sony home theater setup a few months ago after it gave out, and now my Sony TV blows a transformer. (The key to deciphering the blink codes is here, BTW.) I really didn't want to buy a new TV right now, either, as both the display technologies and the signal formats are rapidly changing and improving. The means the market is full of partial solutions, untested technology, and plentiful traps for consumers. Also, stepping up to HDTV means more expensive DIRECTV service fees, a new dish and receiver, and since my DIRECTV receiver is integrated with a TiVo, it would mean buying a new HD TiVo, too. Beacoup bucks! Gah!
So, I called the local repair shops that could do in-home service, and they averaged about $200 at a minimum to fix the set. Well, heck, for $400 I could buy a new 27" CRT TV; who knows when something else would give out on my five-year-old TV? But, at that price point I'm still stuck with the 4:3 display ratio tube that's rapidly disappearing in favor of the 16:9 ratio that movies and most HDTV broadcasts are done at. To step up to 16:9 CRTs more than doubles the price, and I'm still looking at a large, heavy unit most likely made by Sony. Call me soured on Sony; I don't want to own another Sony piece of junk.
After doing a lot of research at the AVS forums and elsewhere, I narrowed the list down to the Sharp Aquos LC-37D40U, the Panasonic TH-37PX60U, and the Samsung HL-S4266W. The seemed to be the best representatives from the LCD, plasma, and DLP technology camps that were available locally.
One lucky coincidence was that Circuit City was offering 18 months free financing on big screen TVs, plus they had a sale going on that offered lower prices than Best Buy/Magnolia. I'm a sucker for interest-free financing, so I headed down to Circuit City to see the TVs in person. Now, this is a rather limited exercise as the signal quality that is fed to the dozens of TVs on display is usually iffy, and the TVs come out of the box set to grab your attention by scorching your eyeballs will outrageous brightness, color and contrast levels. And, true to form, Circuit City was showing a 60's spaghetti western (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)—really poor quality material to try and show off the high resolution screens.
I was looking to see if I could see any of the drawbacks that each display technology can suffer from. For LCDs you can get a screen door effect, they can suffer from blacks that are a bit grey, the colors sometimes aren't that accurate, and the refresh rates can be slow enough to leave ghostly trails after fast-moving images like tennis balls, hockey pucks, etc. Plasmas can also have a bit of ghosting and some minor color problems, but the big concern is burn-in, where if a static image is left on display—especially during the first 100 hours—the image can remain as a permanent after-image on the screen. DLPs can exhibit the screen door effect, the rainbow effect, a silk screen effect (images look silken), and possibly black grass (spiky shadows at the bottom of the screen during dark scenes). Plus, they have bulbs that need to be replaced every three years or so for a couple hundred dollars. (Whew—I told you these are immature technologies!)
Circuit City was out of the Aquos, didn't know when they'd be getting more and didn't even have a display model at the store I visited, plus my concern about ghosting predisposed me to not like LCD displays. The Panasonic plasma looked great, and by all reports they aren't likely to get burn-in with a little bit of care. But, heck, who wants to baby a TV like a new car engine for 100 hours? (Note that if I won the lottery I'd definitely go for a plasma, probably one from Pioneer.) The Samsung DLP looked wonderful as well, and although I could see some silk screen effect it didn't really bother me. For a little more money I could get a Samsung HL-S5087W with a much larger screen that displays 1080p, as opposed to the 720p of all the rest of the screens. The 5087W is one of the least expensive 1080p displays around, but it gets good reviews and looks good in person.
1080p? In a nutshell, 720p displays are around 1280 X 720 resolution all the time, while 1080p displays run at around 1920 X 1080 all the time (exact resolution varies by display technology and manufacturer). The display upscales any signals that are of lower resolution to the TV's native (1280 X 720 or 1920 X 1080) resolution. Home Theater Magazine's Geoffrey Morrison has a nice article describing the human perceptual system and how the higher resolution of 1080p really isn't visible until you get to around 50" displays if you're sitting 10' away from the screen. So, if you're looking for something smaller than 50", save your money and stick with 720p.
I'm going to live with my standard definition TiVo and DIRECTV service for now. I can't afford to upgrade everything at once, and I'm not sure that I want to stick with DIRECTV, either—their picture quality, while much better than cable the last time I had cable (about 2.5 years ago), still is pretty heavily compressed. You don't notice it that much on smaller TVs, but blow it up to 50" and you definitely do. They also currently transmit in HD-lite (as does the Dish Network), so I don't see any value there. To be fair, DIRECTV is launching additional satellites to increase their bandwidth and they're moving to MPEG-4 compression (from MPEG-2) to increase the picture quality, but the rollout of all those improvements is still 3-6 months away (at least).
Sold on the Samsung 50"--and don't forget the over-the-air antenna for the HDTV broadcasts!