Televisions have changed radically since the late 1990s when Philips introduced the first flat panel model. Up until that time, TVs were big, bulky and heavy. Since the dawn of the flat panel TV era, cabinet size has shrunk dramatically, while the image quality has improved exponentially. LCD, plasma and LED TVs deliver crisp, vibrant images that are incredibly lifelike. Colors are bold, contrast between darks and lights is high and image blurring is greatly reduced. The latest TVs are known as HD, or high-definition, models as opposed to the standard-definition TVs of the past.
LCD, Plasma and LED TVs
Flat panel TVs produce their spectacular pictures using a number of different technologies. LCD TVs feature a vast array of tiny cells or liquid crystals that, when lit by an external fluorescent source, produce a visible image. Plasma TVs consist of two glass panels between which neon and xenon gases are injected. The gas is electrically charged during use, which causes it to light up in color combinations that produce the image. Innovative LED TVs utilize the same basic principle as do LCD TVs, but instead of a fluorescent light source, they feature blocks of light-emitting diodes either along the back or the edge of the panel. This technology allows for a thinner, lighter cabinet, brighter picture, higher contrast ratio and a more environmentally friendly design.
Another HDTV option is a rear-projection TV. Basically, with this type, a source projects an image from behind a screen, where it is reflected for the audience. Rear-projection TVs are not nearly as thin as flat panel TVs, but they produce outstanding pictures. Digital light processing (DLP) technology is primarily used with this type of HDTV. DLP technology is also found in many front digital projectors, which offer another high-definition alternative to a flat panel TV.
While plasma TVs are generally considered to produce deeper blacks and all-around better contrast than LCD TVs, LED back- or edge-lit screens have closed this gap to a certain extent. Plasma screens have better color saturation and excellent motion tracking, making them ideal for sports and video games. LCD and LED TVs are, however, lighter, cooler running and not subject to burned-in static images. The best plasma screens are also quite a bit more expensive than comparably sized LCD and LED models.
Brands and Prices
Numerous manufacturers offer LCD, LED and plasma TVs. The heavyweights include Panasonic, Sony, Sharp, Philips, Samsung and Pioneer. Other choices include LG, Magnavox, Sylvania, Vizio and Polaroid. The smallest, least advanced flat panel TVs start around $150 in late 2010. Prices climb up from there, meeting a wide variety of price points. Depending on the type, size, brand and features, a flat panel, high-definition TV can cost $6,500 or more.
Depth and Size
Flat panel TVs, as their name suggests, feature flat screens with comparatively thin cabinets. The latest and most advanced LED TVs come as thin as 0.31 inches, unheard of a few years ago. On average, flat panel TVs are between 3 and 5 inches thick. LCD and LED TVs range from 19 to 65 inches diagonally, while plasma TVs generally range from 40 to 60 inches but can be larger.
Image Quality: Resolution
The defining feature of all flat panel TVs is the quality of image they reproduce. Colors are more vibrant, blacks are deeper and movement is clearer and more realistic on a high-definition TV. Arguably the most important image characteristic is resolution. Standard HD resolution is 1280 by 720 pixels, which equals 720 horizontal lines and nearly 1 million pixels. Full HD resolution is 1920 by 1080. It features 360 more horizontal lines than standard 720p resolution and over 2 million pixels. Other resolution types include XGA (1024 by 768 pixels) and WXGA (1366 by 768 pixels).
This feature of all HDTVs refers to the difference between the brightest whites and the deepest blacks that can be reproduced onscreen. Contrast ratios range from 1000:1 up to 8,000,000:1, as of 2010. The numbers mean that the brightest whites are 1000 (or up to 8,000,000) times brighter than the deepest blacks. Each TV has static and dynamic contrast ratios. They are not the same and not entirely important for a buyer. When comparing contrast ratios, be careful the comparison is not between static and dynamic types, for that would be misleading. Use the eyes as the ultimate judge or be sure to compare like ratios.
As images flash across the screen from side to side, motion lag becomes a problem for some flat panel TVs. In other words, images may not appear fluid during movement. To combat this, HDTV manufacturers have upped the refresh rate or the number of times per second the screen is "redrawn." Sixty frames per second (60Hz) was considered fast up until a few years ago when 120Hz became the new high-end standard. Select TVs now achieve a 240Hz refresh rate. While some feature true 240Hz motion, others produce the appearance of it through manipulating the backlight. The higher the Hz rate, the smoother the motion. In select TVs, the high rate, which is most effective when watching sports, can be turned on or off.
Connectivity and Features
Flat panel HDTVs are fully connectible to everything from surround sound audio systems to optical drive playback components, video game consoles and PCs. Standard inputs include one or more HDMI ports, stereo audio in, PC input and component ins. Select HDTVs feature built-in WiFi or are compatible with a WiFi adapter. This transforms a TV into an Internet-accessible device, great for streaming video, listening to music or even checking the news. Some manufacturers offer Internet apps and widgets with select models that let a user customize a navigation page and instantly access Twitter, Facebook or countless other sites via remote.
TVs with an integrated USB input are usually compatible with MP3 players, in some cases converting stored video files to 1080p resolution. With an SD card reader or adapter, use the TV to scroll through digital photos. Other flat panel TVs feature an integrated side-loading DVD or Blu-ray disc player for convenience. Advanced HDTVs feature a 3D-ready processor. With an HDMI 1.4 input, 120Hz or better refresh rate and 3D-enabled content, viewers wearing 3D active shutter glasses can enjoy television and movies with images that seem to jump out of the screen.
Placement and mounting options for flat panel TVs include using a pedestal stand and positioning the TV atop a cabinet or shelf. There is also an entire aftermarket selection of heavy-duty steel mounts for wall and ceiling installation. Fixed, corner, tilting, swiveling and articulating mounts are the primary options. A wide assortment of furniture pieces are also available. Shelves, cabinets, shelf/mount combinations and carts are just a few of the options. They come in all sizes and styles, providing the perfect multipurpose installation solutions for a flat panel TV and other A/V components.