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Sony Grand WegaPlasma? Who needs it?

By Jim Bray

Plasma displays may be better, more affordable, and more popular than ever but are they the be-all and end-all in home theater?

Some companies apparently don't think so.

The conventional wisdom appears to be that, once plasma prices come down to the mainstream, their sales will take off exponentially because of their thinness and practicality. But as great as plasma is it still has drawbacks other than price, which is one of the reasons Sony and others are offering alternatives.

Take Sony's new KF60DX100 Grand Wega rear projection TV as a representative example of these alternatives. Sony apparently believes that, for now, liquid crystal displays (LCD) offer the best solution for a practical home theater application. Now, Sony has long been known as a company that isn't afraid to march to its own tune, and its own tune is traditionally pretty interesting if not ultimately mainstream. So it isn't that surprising that, when other manufacturers are trotting out newer and bigger (and smaller) plasmas and rear projection CRT (conventional) televisions, Sony is putting its highest end consumer eggs into a different basket.

And it isn't just Sony. Zenith has also introduced a 60 inch model D60WLCD LCD RPTV (rear projection television) Panasonic and Hitachi offer DLP models which, while not really LCD, share many of the features and advantages of LCD, though as yet they can't match LCD's for price. Can other manufacturers be far behind?

Why is this happening? Besides picture quality (and today's LCD's finally have that down pat, no longer making it appear as if you're watching TV through a screen door), perhaps the most important consideration for the consumer being asked to drop thousands of dollars for a television is longevity. CRT's fade over time (a long time, fortunately!), but LCD's should look the same ten years from now than they do today, at least in theory.

Then there's burn in, where a static image damages the TV over time. This is a big problem, especially for widescreen TV's that are used to display 4x3 programming in its native aspect ratio. You may have seen such displays in stores, beautiful state-of-the-art 16x9 TVs sitting there with a menu screen or TV program on it and grey (or another color) bars to each side of the squarish TV picture occupying the middle of the screen.

Whether CRT or Plasma, if you insist on displaying your widescreen TV's like this for long enough you'll damaging your video pride and joy, regardless of how much you paid for it. This is one of the reasons why manufacturers include stretched or zoomed "wide" settings with their widescreen TV's. It's a necessary compromise between the "normal" and the widescreen aspect ratios and though it isn't perfect it's a lot better than nothing.

Okay, this distorts the picture to a certain extent, but over time you get used to it and eventually you barely notice it.

Burn in doesn't really plague LCD panels, however, which gives them a leg up in the longevity department. Part of the reason is that LCD's use a separate light source (a special light bulb) from the "data source" of the LCD panels themselves, and this light source needs to be replaced every few thousand hours. Under normal use, you should only have to replace the bulb every couple of years, though of course that depends on what you mean by "normal."

Replacing the Grand Wega's bulb is supposed to be easy enough for the consumer to do, and though it means you'll have to spend a couple of hundred dollars every couple of years it's a small price to pay for the added longevity.

And once you replace an LCD unit's bulb, you've returned the TV to its original specifications, and that's not only good it's something you can't do with CRT or plasma sets which, as mentioned, fade over time.

Then there's the size advantage. While plasmas are still the champions when it comes to overall size, or lack thereof, Sony's 60 inch Grand Wega LCD rear projector (as a representative sample of the species) is less than 22 inches deep - as compared with the 27 inch depth of my 57 inch CRT rear projector. It's nearly a hundred pounds lighter than my reference TV, too! This lets such televisions fit into more rooms or venues than the hulking CRT projectors.

And LCD's handle black and white pictures without breaking a sweat, an area that has traditionally been spotty with plasma units.

Then there's front projection, where LCD's are giving CRT's a real run for the corporate and high end home theater dollar. Front projectors allow for Really Big Screen Sizes, though they also require a darker room.

The bottom line for now is that, while plasma is nifty in a sci-fi kind of way, and CRT's are proven technology that's more affordable, there is an alternative.


Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.

 

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January 31, 2006