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3D TVs: What you need to know

Expert tips and advice about 3D TV for your home

Last reviewed: January 2011

3D TVs arrived in stores last spring to great fanfare, and there are now dozens of LCD and plasma sets with 3D capability in stores. Consumers are intrigued—but also curious. The big question, of course, is whether these new TVs can transport the 3D excitement from movie theaters to our homes.

Based on our exclusive tests of HDTV models with 3D capabilities, the answer is a resounding yes, as our video, First tests of 3D TV, clearly shows. But, there are big differences in 3D TVs, as our Ratings indicate. (Also see video at right.)

Check our Electronics Blog for the latest news about 3D TVs. But if you want the story in a nutshell, here's what you need to know about 3D.

3D looks great on the best sets

The results of our tests on 3D-capable TVs show that the best models are impressive. The high-definition, 1080p images on these TVs have excellent three-dimensional depth, color, and detail—especially with animated content—creating a compelling and realistic three-dimensional experience. (You'll be ducking when that Frisbee comes flying toward you!) But, many of the otherwise top-notch TVs we've reviewed have visible flaws when displaying 3D content. Most notable are double images (ghosting), rather than a sharp, clear, three-dimensional image, even when wearing 3D glasses. So you have to be choosy to ensure an enjoyable experience.

You have to wear special glasses to watch 3D

This is one of the biggest drawbacks to 3D. Without special glasses, you'll see blurry double images. These aren't the old-fashioned cardboard glasses that you used to get at movie theaters. Most TVs use high-tech active-shutter glasses. Some are reasonably comfortable but others feel heavy and are cumbersome, and you might not feel like wearing them for a long period of time. That's especially true if you wear prescription eyewear; you can put the 3D glasses over them, though some might find this especially uncomfortable.

You get one or two pairs of glasses with some 3D TVs, but other sets don't include any. Recent promotions have included glasses with a TV purchase, but it can vary by manufacturer. In some cases, you get glasses only if you also buy a bundle including a Blu-ray player. If you have to buy glasses for a family of viewers, it can get pretty expensive, since they usually cost about $130 to $150 a pair. Universal glasses have just hit the market, and we're testing them to see how well they work with various brands. They're lighter, but they aren't much less expensive: about $130 for XpanD's X103 model and $230 for Monster's Vision Max 3D starter kit plus $160 for extra glasses.

Other TVs announced early in 2011 use passive glasses more like those you get in theaters. They don't need batteries, so they're lighter and less expensive cheaper than active glasses. There are no shutters, so 3D images might be brighter, with less ghosting. They accept prescription lenses, and some serve as sunglasses. We'll have to see how effective TVs using passive glasses are compared with those using active glasses. 3D TVs that don't require any glasses might be here in a few years, but viewing angle and resolution will be a challenge.

A 3D set isn't just for 3D

3D is a new feature on a TV—it's not a new type of TV. So the TV functions like any standard HDTV with regular HD programs in 2D, but can be switched into a special 3D mode when you want to watch 3D content from a Blu-ray disc or TV channel. You don't have to wear glasses to watch regular 2D programming.

3D content is limited but growing

There isn't too much to watch in 3D at this point, but more is on the way. Some early Blu-ray titles were tied to exclusive bundle deals, so they were available only if you bought a 3D TV or Blu-ray player from a certain manufacturer. As deals expire, those movies will be widely available. Also, we expect about 70 new 3D Blu-ray titles to be released this year.

You'll also see more broadcast content as DirecTV expands the offerings on its n3D full-time 3D channel (developed in conjunction with Panasonic), ES PN 3D moves to 24/7 3D broadcasts starting in February, and the new 3Net channel—a partnership between Discovery, Sony and IMAX—débuts this spring.

Other TV service providers—including cable operators, Verizon (FiOS), AT&T (U-verse), and the Dish satellite network—will probably expand their 3D program offerings, either by adding 3D networks such as ES PN 3D, or by delivering 3D movies as video-on-demand or pay-per-view selections. We also expect to see some 3D programs and movies delivered via IP over broadband connections.

For example, Vudu recently began offering 3D movies as part of its streaming video service, and we expect others to follow suit.

Finally, most new 3D TVs have a 2D-to-3D conversion feature, which means they can render regular two-dimensional content in 3D on the fly. Although our initial tests of this feature haven't found it to be especially compelling, some viewers may find it an acceptable way of adding more 3D content.

More TVs, lower prices

Many of the major TV manufacturers already have 3D-capable sets, including LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, and Vizio. Prices have already dropped, now ranging from less than $1,000 for smaller models to $3,000 or $4,000 for the largest screens. Continued price drops are likely.

Buying now makes sense for some consumers

So should you buy a 3D TV now? Absolutely, if you're an early adopter eager for a new experience. If you're in the market for a high-end TV you might want to consider a 3D TV just for its outstanding HD performance, even if you have no plans to watch 3D now. You'll be able to enjoy a great HD experience now, and you won't have to spring for a new set if or when you want to watch 3D down the road. Otherwise, just wait. In coming months, you'll have more models to choose from, most likely at lower prices, and more 3D to watch.

Keep up with the latest developments in 3D TVs on our Electronics Blog.