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If there's one thing that's crystal clear about big screen high-definition televisions -- aside from picture quality -- it's that now is finally the right time to invest in one.
Not only has fierce competition forced prices to drop considerably, but these HDTV displays look much better than ones available just two or three years ago. Plus there's a lot more HD content to justify the purchase, whether it's "high-def" television shows, movies, video games or camcorder footage.
HDTVs feature many more scan lines (up to 1,080), compared to up to 480 active lines offered in your old "standard definition" set. Another, more accurate way HDTVs are measured is in the number of pixels that make up the image. A widescreen DVD, for example, is displayed at 852 x 480 resolution (measuring 852 pixels across each of 480 horizontal lines from top to bottom), but a high-definition television can offer up to an incredible 1920 x 1080 pixels on the screen. Compared to your box-like TV (4:3 aspect ratio), HDTV screens offer movie theater-like viewing (16:9 aspect ratio) -- giving you more to see.
You already know all this, you say? Well, there are a few other tech phrases and industry jargon, you'll want to know before you buy your next HDTV. Here are a few biggies to consider.
HDTV Must-have #1: 1080p
An HDTV with "1080p" technology means all 1,080 lines are shown "progressively," or displayed in sequential order (1, 2, 3, etc.), opposed to the older 1080i ("interlaced") method of alternating between even and odd lines to make up the image. Therefore, the image will look sharper. Blu-ray movies and Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 video games can deliver 1080p visuals on a compatible television.
"In larger screen sizes, including 40 inches and above, 1080p is a must," says Randy Waynick, senior vice president of Sony's home products division.
HDTV Must-have #2: 120Hz
This relatively new LCD TV-based technology helps reduce motion blur. Pronounced "120 hertz," 120Hz technology essentially doubles the speed at which frames are displayed, from 60 frames per second to 120 frames per second, resulting in a clearer moving image. Some LCD TVs offer 240Hz motion technology. Plasma TV shoppers need not worry about this as plasma TVs handle motion well natively.
"If you're a sports or action movie fan, motion compensation technology like 120Hz or 240Hz, which Sony calls MotionFlow, is important because it increases sharpness and detail in fast-moving images," says Waynick.
But not everyone is sold in 120Hz technology. "I personally find 120Hz abhorrent as it can make movies look too much look like cheap video, like a soap opera," says Eric Haruki, research director for TV markets and technologies for the IDC market research firm. "I'm not sure if 120Hz is here to stay as not everyone likes the way it looks. See for yourself at the store before you buy into it."
HDTV Must-have #3: LED backlighting
Until recently, plasma TVs held a discernible advantage over LCD TVs when it came to contrast ratios -- the difference between the brightest whites and the blackest blacks -- but this gap has been bridged considerably with LED backlighting. This LCD-embraced technology places light-emitting diodes behind the liquid crystals, resulting in high brightness, darker blacks and far more vivid colors. LED-backlit TVs cost more than regular LCD TVs but are preferred among movie lovers.
"The next big thing on the horizon in LCD technology is LED backlights -- it's a legitimate, genuine advancement," says Haruki. "If vendors can bring down the costs, it'll improve black levels, contrast and color fidelity, but right now only the top-of-the-line Sharp, Samsung and Sony TVs have this feature."
On a related note, Sharp enriches its color by using separate RGB (red, green, blue) pixels versus a white backlight system, to provide darker blacks and 150 percent of the NTSC color gamut.
HDTV Must-have #4: Internet connectivity
"Another consideration is a TV that can be connected to your home Internet network," says Sony's Waynick. "From photos, music and video that reside on your computer, to Internet-based video, more and more content is migrating from the PC to your living room television, so being connected is essential."
It's unclear how online connectivity will develop, says Haruki. "Online connectivity will be huge in the future," says Haruki, "but right now the whole movement in online content is like the Wild Wild West, with everyone having their own philosophy and methodology."
Coming in the future also is 3-D TV, perhaps a decade away. Plasma and LCD might be the current high-def display types today, but a couple of others are on the horizon. Your next TV after this one just might be an OLED, using organic light-emitting diodes. OLED TVs offer incredibly thin panels with rich color and unprecedented contrast ratios of 1,000,000:1. Problem is the only consumer model at this point, made by Sony, is only 11 inches wide. So, knowing your way around HDTV technology is enough for right now.
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