You Know You Want a Big Screen. Now What?

Sorting the data on the latest digital TVs

Panasonic PT-AE500 LCD

6.4-pound projector. Three 1,280 x 720 LCD panels effectively display 2.76 million pixels. Brightness: 850 lumens. $2,500Charles Masters

Replacing your TV today is more complex than buying a new PC--and a lot more expensive. You can still get a CRT set, but typically not with the size and sharpness you deserve. The myriad digital technologies address every pixel with a precision and clarity befitting a large-screen, high-definition picture. First decide which type best suits your needs: rear projection, front projection or flat panel. Native resolution is no longer a limiting factor; now you can find the superlative 1,080-line picture in any of these technologies. Next you'll face a series of choices about key features. Here's a step-by-step guide that'll have you back on the couch in no time.

STEP 1: CHOOSE YOUR TECH

Rear-Projection Microdisplays
This category encompasses a range of technologies and offers the best price-to-quality ratio for large-screen TVs. The two best options are liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) and digital light processing (DLP), both of which use microchips to create an image that is bounced through a magnifying lens onto a transmissive screen. There's no danger of burn-in, but on the downside, the lamp needs to be replaced every five years or so, and that can cost several hundred dollars. The optics take up some volume, but these TVs are far less bulky than a CRT, and newer sets are getting thinner in order to compete with flat panels. Manufacturers are framing screens in thin bezels and concentrating the optics in the center, literally crimping the edges of the set. In the 42-to-46-inch range, you can save hundreds of dollars or more over an HD plasma TV; in the 60-inch range, thousands.

Philips Cineos 44PL9523 LCoS
44-inch picture. Includes DTV tuner. 1,280 x 720 lines. $3,000; philips.com

Front Projectors
If it's a true cinematic experience you're looking for, you'll need a spacious, dark room and a front projector pointed at a big screen. You can scale the image as large as your wall allows, though typically at the expense of resolution and brightness. The disadvantage is that you have to completely seal out light, which tends to discourage casual TV viewing. You'll need a DTV tuner to receive programs and an audio system to hear them. The best deal in front projectors is an LCD model because it's a mature technology; for high-resolution models, you'll save money over DLP or LCoS models.

Panasonic PT-AE500 LCD
6.4-pound projector. Three 1,280 x 720 LCD panels effectively display 2.76 million pixels. Brightness: 850 lumens. $2,500; panasonic.com

Flat Panel
Still the TV technology that generates the most buzz, plasma is appealing thanks to its consistently bright picture--no need to close the shades--wide viewing angle, and improbable thinness. (You can also get an LCD flat screen, but they don't come in the large sizes you can get with plasma.) Unfortunately, plasma can't show black as darkly as a CRT or DLP, and there is the potential for burn-in, when a bright, stagnant image becomes permanent. New models (including the LG at right) imperceptibly shift images a few pixels at a time to lessen the likelihood of this happening. Plasma is the most expensive technology available. Don't be fooled by big-screen models that cost much less than $3,000; they won't contain enough pixels to display anything close to high definition.

LG DU-42PZ60
42-inch screen. Includes tuner. 1,024 x 768 pixel resolution. $3,500; us.lge.com

STEP 2: CABLE-CARD READY, YES OR NO?

Some new TVs sport a slot for a cable access card that replaces the set-top box. This first generation of cable cards won't support an interactive program guide or video on demand, but they're nice if you have a flat panel with nowhere to put that box. One good option: Panasonic's TH-50PX25U/P 50-inch plasma, which has 1,366 x 768
pixels of resolution. $8,000; panasonic.com

STEP 3: WIRELESS, YES OR NO?

Your TV can receive a wireless high-def signal from an external tuner, which gets rid of the video and audio cables--an aesthetic bonus worth considering for a wall-hanging plasma. Our pick: Samsung's HPP5091, a 50-inch wireless HD plasma that accepts a 802.11a signal from up to 30 feet away. It has a resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels. $13,000; samsungusa.com

STEP 4: THE KITCHEN SINK, YES OR NO?

Integrated models are no longer junky white boxes meant for countertops. An outlandish option: the humongous 82-inch Mitsubishi WL82925 rear-projection LCoS TV. It can display a lush resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, and it comes with a 120-gigabyte hard-drive recorder, a multiformat memory-card reader for showing digital photos, and great speakers. $21,000; mitsubishi-tv.com