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Viewing angle still the Achilles heel for most LCD TVs

Consumer Reports News: July 17, 2009 11:47 AM

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LCD TVs are known to have problems with viewing angle, something to remember when you go to make that television purchase.

Many of the LCD and plasma TVs in our latest Ratings (available to subscribers) do an excellent job displaying high-definition images in all their splendor. But with the LCD sets, you might not always see the top-notch picture quality we describe, because most of them have a stingy viewing angle.

While viewing angle plays a small part in the overall score in our Ratings, the picture quality scores are based on the ideal viewing position--smack in front of the screen. As soon as you stray from dead center, either off to the side or up or down, the screen on most LCD sets starts to look dim or washed out, and the colors shift. In extreme cases, the picture can become almost unwatchable. On some models, the horizontal viewing angle is the bigger problem, while on others it’s the vertical position.

Every single LCD TV in the Ratings suffered from this to some extent, so none earned an excellent score for viewing angle. In fact, more than half the LCD sets we tested had only a fair or good viewing angle—two or three steps below the excellent score earned by every plasma set tested. And it’s not just small, low-priced LCDs that fall short. One of the best, and priciest, big-screen models in our test group had fabulous picture quality, but the viewing angle was so narrow it could seriously impede your ability to enjoy that quality in normal use.

The problem is glaringly obvious to us, because we have a few dozen LCD and plasma TVs set up in the lab, side by side, at any given point in time. As we walk around the room, the picture quality on the LCD sets keeps changing, and we have to stand directly in front of the screens to see optimal quality. The plasma TVs show the same rich colors and deep blacks from any angle.

You might notice the same things at home if you have a big sectional, chairs on opposite sides of the room, a flat screen above your fireplace or the kitchen counter, or kids who watch TV while lying on the floor. As Dr. Raymond Soneira, owner of testing firm DisplayMate Technologies, observed in a New York Times article recently, “The ‘sweet spot’ for seeing an accurate picture on an LCD HDTV is only one person wide, even for top-of-the-line models.”

But it’s entirely possible that you wouldn’t notice any problem if you routinely watch your LCD TV from front and center. Even if your favorite easy chair is at a slight angle, you might not realize you’re seeing a subtly different image than you would from directly in front of the screen, where the blacks might appear deeper and the colors would look richer and more saturated.

And as we said earlier, some sets do reasonably well with side-to-side viewing, but fall down on the job with the up-and-down angle, or vice versa. For that reason, it’s a good idea to look for a TV base or wall mount that swivels and tilts. What you’re watching also comes into play. Bright, colorful images like you see at sporting events—the type of programming retailers tend to display—mask the problem, which is more obvious with indoor scenes and flesh tones.

We’re hoping manufacturers can solve this problem, just as they have improved black levels, another weak point for LCD technology. We have seen a few LCD sets, notably some 2008 models from Panasonic, with a very wide viewing angle, approaching that of a plasma. (Subscribers can check our Ratings to see which models have the best viewing angle scores.) But that’s still the exception rather than the rule, and none of the latest models are that good.

We’ll continue to recommend LCD TVs, because in the right setting, these TVs are a great choice. And flaws that leap out to folks who test and report on TVs for a living might not be as noticeable, or as bothersome, to many consumers. Judging by LCD TV sales, that’s a pretty safe bet.

But personally, I’m sticking with plasma. The technology is not perfect, but when the picture quality is judged excellent, I know that’s what I’ll see no matter where I sit. That outweighs any minuses in my book.

LCD fans: Why did you choose LCD over plasma? Have you noticed any problems with off-angle viewing? Would you buy the same TV again? Let us know. — Eileen McCooey

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