LCD & plasma TVs

3D and connected TVs take center stage

Last reviewed: December 2011
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A TV that can display 3D and connect to the Internet is probably in your future—and it could be sooner than you think. This year, almost one in four TVs 40 inches and larger will be 3D-capable, according to research firm DisplaySearch, and a similar percentage of TVs of all sizes will have some form of Internet connectivity. Both features will become much more prevalent over the next few years.

Even if you never seriously considered such capabilities, you might want to think about them now. Initially available only on high-priced TVs, 3D and Internet connectivity now come on lower-priced models. The recommended 42-inch Panasonic Viera TC-P42ST30 plasma TV, for instance, combines 3D capability, streaming video, and 1080p resolution, all for $800. LCD features such as 120Hz or 240Hz antiblur technology and LED backlights are trickling down to less expensive sets, too.

Here are some strategies to consider:

Strongly consider a 3D TV

There are good reasons to buy a TV with 3D capability—even if you don't plan to watch 3D. Many of the 3D sets in our Ratings earned high scores, and a few of the plasmas are among the top-scoring TVs of any type. You can enjoy superb HD now, and you'll be ready for 3D if it becomes more compelling to you as new applications emerge. You don't need to spend a fortune to future-proof your purchase. As our Select Ratings of 3D LCD and plasma TVs show (available to subscribers), some great models cost less than $1,000.

The newest 3D TVs are not only cheaper than the first generation; they're also better. Many models have greatly reduced the problem of ghosting (double images visible even when you're wearing 3D glasses), so the 3D effect is more convincing than it was on early models, especially LCDs. The bulky, expensive glasses needed with all of the first 3D sets have grown less cumbersome, though they're still pricey, at $50 to $150. And new passive 3D LCD TVs from LG, Toshiba, and Vizio use lightweight, low-priced glasses that cost only $10 to $25.

The lack of 3D content, a big complaint last year, isn't as much of a concern now. There should be about 100 3D Blu-ray movies out by year's end. Three full-time 3D networks carry movies, sports, and travelogues, and many TV providers offer 3D movies and sports on demand. You can also play 3D video games and view 3D photos and videos you shot yourself.

Find more to watch online

Why limit yourself to broadcast TV programming when there's a wealth of online content available to sets that can connect to the Web? You'll find a growing selection of movies, TV episodes, and more from services such as Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Vudu, either pay-per-view or by subscription. And more is coming: The recent deals between Netflix and Dreamworks and Amazon and Twentieth Century Fox greatly expanded their offerings, for example. You can also enjoy free content on YouTube and Internet radio stations such as Pandora and Slacker.

Many Web-connected TVs let you check in with widely used social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, follow auctions on eBay, or share photos on Flickr and Picasa. Some can make Skype video calls if an optional webcam is connected.

Most Internet-enabled TVs are limited to specific sites and services, but "smart TVs" offer all of the above, plus full browsers that give you access to the entire Web, including online app markets.

Caveat: Don't pay more than $100 to $200 just for connectivity. That's what you'd pay for a Blu-ray player or set-top box that could give any TV the same features.

Get Wi-Fi for convenience

We're big fans of Wi-Fi, which is available on a growing number of Internet-enabled TVs. Wi-Fi eliminates the need for a physical connection between the TV and your wireless router or modem, a big plus when they're in separate rooms. It's also handy if you want to connect multiple devices—say, a TV, Blu-ray player, and game console—to your wireless network. Some TVs have built-in Wi-Fi; others come with an adapter you connect to the TV's USB port, or offer it as an option for $70 to $80.

Go with 120Hz for less blur

Ads make a big deal of 120Hz, 240Hz, and 480Hz technologies, which promise to minimize blur and the loss of detail that can occur when LCD TVs display fast-moving images. Higher frame rates reduced or almost eliminated blur on many LCD sets we tested, but a few models with that feature did no better than 60Hz sets.

Still, even when blur reduction works well, it might not make much difference in real-world viewing. Blur is visible in our test videos with continuous motion, but it's much more difficult to see in regular TV programs, in which motion is fleeting. Keen-eyed viewers might notice softening of edges in sports, video games, or a fast-moving text ticker, but they're less likely to detect it in sitcoms and talk shows, which usually have less fast motion.

We believe a 60Hz set should satisfy most casual viewers, but consider a 120Hz TV if you plan to watch sports or action movies or play video games on the TV. All but very basic LCDs now have 120Hz, so it won't cost you much. Don't pay a lot to get an even higher refresh rate unless you're fussy or the TV has other features you want.

On some models the higher frame rate is tied to motion smoothing, a feature that can make film-based content look as if it was shot with a video camera, an effect you might not like. But if you turn off motion smoothing, you also lose the benefit of blur reduction. To avoid that, look for a set that lets you control those features separately. Then you can safely turn off the smooth-motion feature, which is usually enabled by default.

Think about LED backlights

Most LCD TVs with LED instead of fluorescent backlights have the LEDs mounted around the perimeter of the screen (edge-lit). On other sets they're spread across the entire panel (full-array). Most full-array models and a few edge-lit sets have a feature called local dimming, which can darken or brighten individual zones of the LEDs, potentially improving black level and contrast. It works well on some sets, particularly full-array models. Some LCD sets with conventional fluorescents (and most plasmas) have black level and contrast as good as, or better than, LCD sets with LEDs, and cost less. It is worth getting a model with edge LEDs if you want the slimmest design. And both types of LED are very energy efficient.

LCD or plasma?

LCD offers …
  • More brands and screen sizes.
  • Ultrathin designs.
  • Top energy efficiency.
Plasma offers ...
  • An unlimited viewing angle.
  • Blur-free motion.
  • More screen for the money.