Weapons of mass entertainment

Part 2

What do you use your television for? This is the key question that should determine what you buy. If your television watching consists of vegging on the couch in front of the evening news, then an analog 4 x 3 set is fine. On the other hand, if you watch a lot of DVD movies, or want to subscribe to digital cable or satellite TV, then digital is the way to go. If you love movies, you should consider a wide screen TV that doesn’t lop off scenes at the edges the way narrower 4 x 3 sets do.

How much do you want to spend? If all you want is a reliable television at the lowest possible price, consider a traditional analog unit with a curved screen and trusty cathode ray tube. These are the televisions that most of us grew up with. Yes, they’re as big and heavy as a squatting sumo wrestler, but at $1,400 for a 32″ unit, they’re dead cheap and should provide years of happy viewing no matter what happens on the technology front. “An analog TV set,” says Bernoff, “is not going to be obsolete for a long, long time if it’s connected to cable or satellite.” The transition to digital TV isn’t expected to be completed until after 2006 in the U.S. In Canada, analog signal transmissions are expected to continue beyond 2010. And you can always buy a digital-analog converter to ensure that your analog TV won’t be rendered suddenly useless.

A more personal issue is screen shape. While curved screens may have a bit of retro appeal, most buyers these days are moving up to flat screens (not to be confused with flat panels). Flat screens replace the traditional viewing surface that’s rounded at the edges with a screen that’s straight as a table top from end to end. The advantage? They reflect about a third less light than curved screens, cutting down on annoying glare. A 27-inch analog flat screen will set you back about $800, while a 32-inch unit goes for about $1,400. Flat screens are also available in digital versions and come both in standard 4 x 3 ratios as well as 16 x 9 wide screen versions. A 32-inch, 16 x 9 wide screen digital TV typically sells for about $2,000.

If you want to move further up the technology curve, be prepared to pay a premium. Flat panel televisions, such as liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma televisions, use radically different technologies to create televisions that are no thicker than a dictionary. Typical of what’s out there is Sharp’s Aquos line. Its 13-inch LCD model will lighten your wallet to the tune of $1,000, while its 20-inch cousin costs $2,500. Both LCD and plasma have drawbacks — for instance, LCD screens have below-average black levels, while an image displayed too long on a plasma set can become burnt into the screen — but there’s no denying the designer appeal of being able to hang a television on the wall like a picture.

On the other hand, if you like big screens, consider going with a projection television. These units use projectors and lenses to deliver huge images. Some include the projector and screen in one box; others use a separate projector. Particularly impressive is Sony’s 50-inch Grand Wega, a $6,500 rear-projection LCD that’s a comparative bargain when you consider that a similarly sized plasma TV can run upwards of $20,000.

Choosing the right television depends on whether you view the set as occasional companion, home theatre or designer furniture. After repeated visits to her local television store, Mihalcheon took the plunge and bought a Hitachi 32-inch plasma TV. It had the size and picture quality she craved, and also the aesthetics. The ultra-thin wide screen retails in the neighborhood of — wait for it — $8,500. It is, as Mihalcheon says, an investment. “When we lit up a film the first night it was installed,” she says, “my God, the whole house came together.”

Part 1 Part 2

From the June/July 2003 issue.

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