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How to choose a flat panel TV

1:52 PM, Sep 10, 2012   |    comments
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By Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY

Question: Should I get a plasma or an LCD TV? What about LED?

Answer: Choosing between plasma and liquid-crystal-display screens was once the "Mac or PC?" of the flat-panel TV business, easily worth entire consumer-tech columns.

More recently, plasma, the first commercially successful flat-panel technology, has been fading: NPD DisplaySearch's data show that after peaking at 7.4 percent of the total TV market, plasma sets will drop to 5.3 percent this year and keep skidding. But plasma's continued relevance in larger screen sizes, combined with the swift rise of LCD's LED offshoot, keep this choice from getting too simple.

So when the topic came up yet again in a shared taxi ride last week, I started with my usual question for a TV shopper: Where will you put the set?

The glass coating on plasmas usually makes them more liable to glare in a well-lighted space -- not that LCDs are immune, since many of them ship with glossy screen finishes that look terrific in a darkened showroom but can double as a mirror in a living room.

You'll also have a smaller selection of plasma TVs: Most manufacturers either don't sell them at all or ship far more LCD models. Samsung, for instance, lists 29 Samsung LED sets and five conventional LCDs but only nine plasmas, while LG offers 39 LEDs and LCDs against 12 plasmas; Panasonic is the one exception, with its plasma sets easily outnumbering LCDs and LEDs.

Plasmas also weigh more than LCDs, which can make mounting one on a wall slightly more complicated. But contrary to what you might hear, plasma sets don't automatically use more electricity than LCDs or suffer from "burn-in" that leaves ghosts of network logos visible on their screens.

And in return, plasma can delivers deeper blacks and faster response times -- meaning you're less likely to see credits or a news ticker blur as they scroll -- although years of steady improvements in LCD technology have chipped away at those advantages.

Increasingly affordable LED panels -- starting last year, NPD found that they made up more than half of all LCD production --get much credit for that.

Light-emitting diode backlights are brighter than the fluorescent lamps in older LCDs and allow for a more responsive display. High-end sets can also turn off some LEDs to further darken areas of the screen -- although when I've talked to display experts, they counseled that it was still possible to get a subpar set even with LED technology. And LED backlights don't incorporate the trace amounts of mercury found in fluorescents.

(Don't confuse LED with OLED, a much newer technology that allows ludicrously thin screens at an absurd expense. It has looked great in demos at trade shows like CES in Las Vegas or last week's IFA gathering in Berlin, but it also costs as much as ten times more to make.)

So for a TV in a sunny living room, I'd get an LED with a matte screen finish. For a media room or some other place where the TV will be the main attraction, I'd consider plasma as well. For anything smaller than 40 inches, LED or LCD would be my only option.

Tip: "DLNA" can link your phone to your TV

If you have a "connected" TV that runs Web apps like Amazon and Netflix, that set probably also supports a standard called DLNA, short for Digital Living Network Alliance. And if you have an Android phone, that probably speaks DLNA too. (The iPhone and iPad do not.)

In that case, you may then be able to share photos, videos and music from your phone to your TV as long as both devices are on the same home network; the phone's storage will appear on the screen as if it were a USB flash drive plugged into the set.

The trick is figuring out how. Individual TVs and Android models can hide DLNA support in various places; on a Samsung Galaxy S III, for instance, it lurked two layers deep in the Settings app, under the "Wireless and networks" section's "More settings" link. But it's also easier and cheaper than running a micro-HDMI cable from a phone to a TV, assuming your phone supports that output at all.

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Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.

USA TODAY

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