Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Our Next TV?

Our TV is now five year old, and it is clear that we will soon need to decide on its future. An LCD rear projection TV, it is becoming more and more obvious that its lamp is getting towards the latter stages of its 8,000 hours rated life: light output is getting lower and lower, and new types of distortions/halos keep showing up with time; nothing spectacular, but it is clear the lamp is no longer strong enough to outshine some of the TV’s inherent issues.
What is spectacular, though, is the cost of a replacement lamp: once upon a time when I inquired I was told Sony sells them for $600 to $800 a pop. That assumes they are still in stock in the first place and Sony wouldn’t want to use the opportunity to force us to buy a new TV instead.
That question is still relevant, though: is it worthwhile to buy a new TV instead of investing significant monies on technology that is five long years out of date?
Given my affection to technological gadgets and to home theater, I set out to find my answer to this question.

The starting point is the preferred technology. I am still of the opinion that, in general, projection gives a much more realistic looking picture than flat panels. While a proper front projector is too expensive and generally unsuitable for our needs, a modern DLP or LCOS rear projection TV would offer us the best picture suitable to our room. Especially DLP TVs powered by LEDs or lasers, where the TV is rated to last 20,000 hours and there is no need for costly replacement lamps.
Alas, you cannot get rear projection TVs at Australian shops anymore. You can get some models if you go to the manufacturer directly, but then that manufacturer charges an arm and a leg (last I’ve seen, the cheapest model was selling for $6000), whereas the entire point of rear projection is its potential for good value for money.
We are therefore back to mainstream flat panel technology, where the options are either plasma or LCD (whether conventionally back-lit or LEDs back-lit, it is still LCD no matter what marketing departments want you to think). I will say it again: I don’t see what the entire fuss over flat panels being flat is; unless you hang the TV on the wall, which I won’t, it takes up just as much space as a rear projection unit.
The choice between LCD and plasma is actually fairly simple. Plasmas tend to offer better picture for the dollar than LCD, with some models out there being able to produce images as good as the best projector. LCDs, on the other hand, perform better in rooms with light, while suffering from directionality (the steeper the angle of viewing is, the less bright the picture would be).
My interpretation of these qualities is simple: plasma is better for critical viewing while LCD is better for viewing in casual conditions. I’ll [generally] take the plasma, thanks.

The next question is, which plasma? Or rather – which TV should I get while bearing in mind that it is likely to be a plasma model (but still remembering that there are many LCDs that beat many plasmas)?
Reputable reviews would tell you quite unequivocally that Panasonic makes the best plasma panels around. However, for the last couple of years their models have been plagued with various issues that manifest themselves when playing Blu-rays in particular (that is, at the time you want them to be at their best behavior). Those issues relate to flicker effects showing up when the screen has to cope with the cinematic rate of 24 frames per second while the plasma panel was originally designed to cater for 60hz refreshes. Since Blu-rays came out the problem was solved by running at 120hz or 240hz (multiples of both 24 and 60), but for some reason Panasonic has a problem there.
Rumor has it Panasonic’s newest models, coming out shortly, have addressed these issues to make Panasonic the very best again. Rumor also has it these models would start north of $3000, which is more than I am willing to pay.
Who should I turn to next?
Sony would have been my natural second preference if it wasn’t for their PlayStation Network fiasco: it would take something truly special for me to touch a Sony product again. Besides, Sonys tend to be severely overpriced.
Moving on, the next manufacturer I would put my eye on is Samsung. Samsung offers good plasmas and LED backlit LCD TVs, of which I would go for the plasmas due to value (picture quality) for money. Looking at Samsung’s plasma offerings, one can see them divided into “familles” where a 50” model ranges in price from less than $1000 to north of $3000 from family to family. When looking at the features each family provides I couldn’t avoid noticing the basic panel has similar specs whether you’re talking about the $1600 per 50” family or the $3000+ per 50” family.
What are the differences between families, then? From what I can tell these are all to do with extra features (emphasis on “all”). The more prestigious the family is, the more likely you are to get integrated wifi, Skype and Facebook facilities, as well as various picture enhancement modes with flashy acronyms. What is common to all those families is that they all feature 3D.
Let us discuss these differences. First for wifi and internet features: sure, they’re nice, but do I really want them on my TV? My answer would be no, or rather – not as long as I have to pay an extra. I can get the same functionality by connecting my laptop to the TV; in fact, I already have a PS3 connected to my TV, with its own browser. Besides, have you tried entering a URL with your average TV remote?
Moving on the picture enhancement modes, the answer there is very simple: the critical viewer does not want these features, not even for free. They are pure gimmicks that give you one good thing (say, brighter picture) on behalf of another (say, details level in the dark parts of the picture). Usually they’re not even a trade off; usually they are all bad. If there is anything you should take out of this post, it’s this: if you want the best picture on your TV, don’t resort to three letter acronyms; calibrate your TV instead. There are many guides to tell you how to do it as well as professional tools, but the best way for the laymen to achieve good calibration is to get a professional to do it or to copy professionals’ recommended settings for your TV off the web. After setting contrast, brightness, gamma, color temperature and other advanced parameters properly, you would be surprised how good the picture from any crappy TV looks like: sure, it would be much dimmer than the way it was at the show room, but it wouldn’t generate a picture where everything looks like it’s computer animation all the time with stupidly enhanced colors to boot. It would look real.

A word or two about 3D.
I don’t think the technology is there yet, and I don’t think it’s worthwhile investing money in it yet. There are several reasons for my opinion there:
  • Contents is generally lacking. To date there are only a few compatible Blu-rays. Some, like the most anticipated release - Avatar - are only available through exclusive agreements with Panasonic or other manufacturers (that is, you can only get Avatar if you buy a Panasonic TV).
  • You would need a Blu-ray player supporting 3D and a receiver supporting it as well. By "supporting" I mean they need to have HDMI 1.4 connectors, which doesn’t tend to happen often even with the very latest equipment. In my case, my PS3 supports 3D (at 1080i only due to lack of HDMI 1.4) but the receiver doesn’t, which means that if I want to watch a 3D film I would need to use TV’s internal speakers rather than my hi-fi for the sound. Between giving up on 3D visuals and sound quality, I’d dump the former.
  • I don’t know about you, but 3D gives me a headache after a [short] while.
  • Those glasses are annoying, expensive and generally incompatible across manufacturers.
  • With glasses normally supplied in batches of two, what would the third person of the house do? And what do you do when you have guests over?
Regardless, the manufacturers are effectively forcing you to buy 3D if you want to buy anything close to the latest technology.

Given all of the above, my choice of a future TV (to be bought upon the death of our current TV’s lamp) is the Samsung 50” plasma selling for an RRP of $1600. I think they call it “series 5”, and I suspect I’d be able to get it for around $1300.
It’s interesting to note just how much TV prices came down. When we bought our current one we paid around $3000 for it; when I bought the significantly smaller 29” CRT I had before I paid $1000. Now the initial price explosion of the big screens has subsided, and once again common – but good – models are there to be had for around the $1000 mark.
Sadly, one of the implications of these prices coming down is that our existing 50” rear projection TV has an absolute zero resale value. I think buying a “modern” TV for $1300 is better than investing $600 to $800 on a lamp for the old one, but I do mourn the extra landfill to be occupied by what still is a very decent TV in need of a spare part.

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