Friday, August 11, 2006

My Favorite Televisions: Part 1

After having started MicroDisplay a few years back, every now and then, someone asks we which television they should buy. Assuming you can convince your SO to tolerate some new living room accessories, now is actually an excellent time to be thinking about investing in a large number of new pixels. The prices are actually starting to become reasonable for some serious high-quality screen acreage.

There is a new wave of televisions arriving on the market supporting the latest high-definition "standard" DVD players coming out. The nice thing about standards today is that there are so many of them to choose from, what with Blue-Ray and HD-DVDs and all.

As far as the television sets go, if you happen to wander into a Fry's or Magnolia Hi-Fi (The Best Buys and Circuit Cities of the world tend to stock the lower-end mass-market models) and ask for one of the better sets, the average commission-seeking sales associate will probably steer you towards one of the new 1080P sets. This means that the set supports the highest-resolution progressive (not interlaced) video modes being output by the new DVD gear, and hopefully by some of the forthcoming cable and satellite boxes (but don't hold your breath on those.) I've seen two that I really liked, and a few that didn't impress me.

The first unit that actually made me stop in my tracks as I was walking by, was the new 56 inch Samsung DLP rear-projection unit (HL-S5688W). It was being driven by a demo Blue-Ray DVD running in the Samsung player in the back of the Concord, CA Fry's Electronics. This was easily one of the best consumer televisions I had every seen, and the price was just over $3,000. The only flaws I could point out were issues intrinsic to all rear-projection televisions:

a.) The screen gain was still a little high, meaning that the rear-projection screen was designed to focus the light from the projection optics to those areas from which a viewer was most likely to be watching to the point that the extent of the acceptable viewing angle was narrower than I would like in my living room, and as a result, the image characterstics still change notably as you walk across the room.

b.) As with most rear-projection systems, it's great in a dark room, but when the lights come up for any reason, you get a lot of reflected ambient light on the screen, which significantly lowers the contrast and apparent brightness of the image.

But note that these flaws are only really noticeable by someone who has literally spent years looking for even the minutest flaws in displays with serious analytical optics, and the TV is one of the best available for any price despite these issues.

I ALMOST purchased the unit right then and there. I then discovered that Samsung's new line of 1080P LCD screens was scheduled to reach the stores in a couple of weeks and decided to see what they would do without the rear-projection limitations. Given that their 1080i LCDs already looked pretty damn good (brighter and with better color saturation, in fact, than Plazmas now) I had rather high hopes.

Much to my surprise, when I returned to the store to compare the new Samsung 1080P LCD with the older 1080i set, which thankfully were sitting right next to each other, the older one looked MUCH better from normal viewing distances of 10-15 feet when viewing either HD or SD video via Echostar . Even after spending over half an hour fiddling with their respective color, contrast and brightness settings, it was clear that while the newer one did have very slightly better resolution (almost impossible to distinguish), the newer 1080P set had only about 70% of the other's peak brightness, and under the normal ambient illumination of the showroom floor, that made all the difference in the perceived image quality color saturation and whatnot. Interested in the odd reduction in key image metrics, I wandered to another aisle and picked up a loupe magnifier and went back to look at the screen architecture under about 50x magnification. As I suspected, when you look REALLY closely, it becomes apparent that to fit so many more pixels into the same area, each pixel was much smaller. And since there is a fixed minimum line with the manufacturing processes can print the pixel electronics and color gel filters, the fill-factor, or ratio of transmissive area to total area is much lower. Hence the drastically lower brightness. But there was no really good apparent reason for the worse (higher black levels.)

The bottom line is that there is just no motivation whatsoever to pay the extra $800 for a worse image under those source and environmental constraints. While it is true, that the real beauty should be revealed in the newer set when driven by a true 1080P source, like Blue Ray or HD-DVD, there is precious little content out there today in the new formats. So no purchase after all, with the DLP unit still standing as my favorite.

Pioneer Elite PureVision PRO-FHD1Then I saw the new Pioneer Plasma display in the Emeryville Magnolia Hi Fi. All I can say is WOW. Absolutely flawless. This is really the best consumer television I have ever seen. Even the scalar from SD wasn't bad. And it won a Best of CES award. I was thinking, "finally, an HD set that can unseat my current heavyweight champion." ( A 37" Sony XBR CRT behemoth that ways about 400 pounds and takes four people to move.) I was ready to whip out my check book until I noticed the price, a whopping $10k. Ouch. Maybe when Mobi goes public. (knock on wood.)

So far, the Pioneer Plasma is the one. With budgetary or wifely constraints, go with the DLP. A friend of mine from Mobi recently purchased the Samsung and is ecstatic with the set, though he tells me his wife occasionally complains that the unit is too bright. Sigh.

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