LCD, Plasma, DLP: Making Sense of TV technology

If you’re buying your first TV set in a long time, you may be surprised at the range of options now available. Before spending your hard-earned cash on a swanky new set, it pays to know the basics behind new technologies. Here’s a simple guide to help you out.

Buying a TV in this age can take as much thought as a full-blown private investigation. Where there used to be just color and black-and-white, buyers are now involved in some high-level decisions concerning display type, body size, color fidelity, and energy efficiency (to name just a few). It’s too easy to get swayed by marketing ploys and waste your dollars on the wrong TV set.

And then there’s budget—a growing concern now that decent TVs can go well past the $1,000 mark. How do you make sense of the jargon and make sure you get your money’s worth? Read on to learn more about your options.

CRT: Trusty and classic

CRT stands for cathode-ray tube, a glass gun that fires high-speed electrons onto a screen to produce your image. CRT TVs actually remain superior in terms of color range and clarity, which is why it hasn’t been completely phased out despite the influx of newer technologies. Their main advantage is their ability to produce “true” blacks, whereas the more popular flat screens can only achieve a very dark gray. Of course, size is the primary drawback: a CRT TV can be thick and bulky, although screen sizes seldom go beyond 22 inches. And because of the slightly curved screen, you lose a bit of the picture around the corners.

LCD: Economy-class flat screens

Liquid crystal displays have dominated the flat screen market for years, but have become significantly cheaper as plasma and other flat screen technologies emerged. They work by opening and closing microscopic “windows” arranged in a grid, letting in just the right amount of light to produce the right colors. Screen burn-in is not a risk, as the pixels don’t get as hot as they do on plasma displays. LCD TVs range in size from 19 to 65 inches.

Plasma: Home-theater quality

Plasmas and LCDs have always competed closely in the flat-screen market, although the plasma’s larger screens and better viewing angles make it a far better choice. It works by activating a phosphor coating underneath the panel, which then produces light to match the image signals that come in. It has slightly better black contrast than LCD, but is more prone to burn-in especially in the older models. Before the advent of the DLP, plasma was considered the closest match to the color fidelity of the CRT. The plasma screen can also reflect the room lights, so it’s best to view it in a dimmed room or home theater.

DLP: Lifelike colors

DLP or Digital Light Processing is a trademark technology that works on the same grid concept as the LCD. Instead of little blinds, it uses a Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) made up of tiny mirrors that move rapidly to let in precise amounts of light. The resolution is directly proportional to the number of mirrors, so a high-resolution DLP will contain several million mirrors on its grid. The main advantage of DLP is its lifelike colors, which can match or even exceed the quality of CRT. They’re not wall-mountable, however, and screens over 65 inches are seldom available.

LCoS: Groundbreaking quality

Liquid Crystal on Silicon is basically an upgraded version of the LCD. The same grid pattern is shrunk into a little silicon chip, allowing light to pass through the crystal itself. This allows much clearer images, more realistic colors, and a slimmer form factor (although not all models are wall-mountable). Screen burn-in is not an issue, and viewers are less likely to experience the “rainbow” after-effect common in older TV technologies. Screen sizes range from 50 to 70 inches. LCoS technology itself is cheaper than the traditional LCD, but being fairly new, it has yet to be adapted into mainstream TV sets. Most of your options will be home-theater-caliber sets that cost $1,600 or more.