What You Need to Know about HDTV & Blu-ray by Black Friday

High Definition TVs and accessories are on the mind of many this holiday season. Here are some thoughts on what to watch out for, starting on Black Friday. For starters, manufacturers play fast and loose with LCD HDTV specs. Also, things to watch out for in the Blu-ray and HDMI cable world.

LCD or Plasma? Manufacturers would have you believe that LCDs, even LED backlit LCD HDTVs are just as good as Plasmas. That turns out not to be the case.

In the September 2009 issue of Widescreen Review magazine, Raymond Soneira, Ph.D. in a series of instrumented and calibrated tests reported that a lot of, ah, specsmanship, if you will, is going on with LCD HDTVs. The biggest exaggerations are with viewing angle and contrast ratios. With contrast ratio, there is a fudge that cuts the backlighting to zero to produce the phony Dynamic Contrast Ratio. When the signal gets close to black, the electronics severely cut the backlighting which results in enormous, artificial contrast ratios. That number, often quoted as high as 100,000, is meaningless.

For viewing angle, the numbers are touted as 178 degrees off axis, but for all current LCDs, "that's nonsense," according to Dr. Soneira. The number stems from a spec that says that if the contrast ratio stays above 10, then the viewing angle is okay. Not so great a spec, considering that it started out at 1,500 on axis. Result: don't even think about mounting an LCD above a fireplace. Where you sit, you'll be too far off axis.

Plasma displays have none of these obfuscations or problems. For example, a Plasma display tested had essentially the same contrast ratio, 3,800->3,500, at 45 degrees off axis and no color distortion. The best LCD from Samsung dropped from 1,877 to 462 at 45 degrees off axis. At that angle, LCD pixels can suffer color distortion.

In the November issue, Dr. Soneira exploded another myth. You won't be able to actually see the difference between an LCD HDTV with 60 Hz circuitry and 120 Hz, but you'll pay a lot more. He wrote: "After extensive side-by-side testing we found that there was no visually detectable difference in motion blur performance for current mid- to top-of-the-line LCD HDTVs regardless of their response time, 60 or 120 Hz refresh rates."

Plasma displays, because of the rapid response time of the gas discharge in the cells, have always had inherently faster response times. The response time is measured in microseconds, not in milliseconds as with LCDs. It's just something the Plasma industry doesn't tout too much. Those in the know just know.

If you must buy an LCD HDTV, LED backlighting is superior to Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lighting (CCFL). That much is true. Spend your money on that, not the 240 Hz hype popular this year.

Summary, if you're looking at LCD HDTV specs, realize that the the specs are often (re)defined by the manufacturer to put their product in the best possible light. Real truth is hard to come by. Just as you ignore the myths about Macs, ignore the ancient myths about Plasmas. Look at one, then decide for yourself.

When you get home, immediately change the brightness setting fron "vivid" to "cinema" unless the HDTV is in a brightly lit room. You'll save a lot of money on your electric bill.

Blu-ray. As predicted, this is the season of the $99 Blu-ray player. Don't do it. You've seen comments here and elsewhere in which customers say they can't see the difference between Blu-ray and DVDs. When pressed, they may admit that they bought a very inexpensive Blu-ray player, use component cables, and display the result on an Wal-Mart special $399 LCD HDTV. I'm being facetious, but only a little. And, for goodness sake, don't buy a $99 Magnavox Blu-ray player (China), and then get hit up for a $79 HDMI cable from Monster. That's crazy.

If you're serious about Blu-ray this holiday, do yourself a favor and select a good quality unit that will give you years of pleasure. Good ones to consider, in the sub- $300 range, are the Sony BDP-S360, the Samsung BD-P1600 and the LG BD390. (The LG BD390 has a better video chip than the BD370 according to CNET.) The Samsung and LG models also include built-in Netflix streaming. Your spouse will love that. Look for sale bargains at Amazon.

As for HDMI cables, use the ones Apple sells. Apple has a stake in making its own Apple TV look as good as possible, and you can buy a good 6 ft Belkin HDMI cable at the Apple store for US$19.95. If it's good enough for Apple, it'll be good enough for you. (I use the XtremeMac predecessor, and it's excellent.)

If you buy a Panasonic 1080p Plasma, 40-50 inches, and marry it with a good quality Blu-ray player via HDMI, you'll be a happy movie watcher this holiday season. I haven't said anything about an A/V receiver, 5.1 speakers, sound handling and so on. But that's another article. Stay tuned.