Thin & glamorous, flat panels are the supermodels of TV land

Television sets have never been thought of as gossamer. Slender, lean, gaunt, or skinny don't come to mind, either. But all that is rapidly changing.

In case you haven't noticed, TVs have hit the salad bar. Tubby the tube TV is out. Thin is in. Plasma or LCD (liquid crystal display) sets have squeezed down to about a size 4 (as in four inches deep) and are light enough to be mounted on a wall.

At the same time, some of their screens have spread out to four or more feet wide, allowing for the home-theater experience without the need for gigantic rear-projection apparatus backstage.

"It's 'in' to have a flat-panel TV," says Stanton Kilpatrick, an "in-home specialist" for a branch of Tweeter, the high-end electronics chain, in Boston's affluent Back Bay neighborhood.

Nearly every TV sold in his store is flat panel, he says. "People just don't have space in their homes for a 24-inch-deep TV that weighs 500 pounds." Conventional TVs take up too much real estate in city apartments where square footage is at a premium.

For many of Mr. Kilpatrick's customers, price is not a barrier. "[They] want something that is lean, beautiful, aesthetic, and has a great picture as well," he says. They want a flat TV to mount on the wall that "floats there magically and looks like art."

These new TV sets may be flat, but their sales aren't. About 3.4 million plasma and LCD TVs were sold in the United States last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). That's expected to soar to about 5.3 million this year.

At the same time, sales of conventional TVs with cathode-ray tubes are projected to plummet from 19.9 million in 2004 to just 8.6 million in 2005. These trend lines point toward flat-panel TVs possibly outselling tube sets sometime this decade.

Big drawback - the price

But first those elegant, skinny sets will have to get cheaper - a lot cheaper. The average selling price for a plasma TV in 2004 was $2,952; old-fashioned tube sets averaged $176, says the CEA. That's a big gap.

Still, the CEA and other observers see flat-panel prices, which slid nearly 30 percent in 2004, falling that much or more again in 2005 as factories in Asia ramp up production.

"Prices are definitely coming down," says Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst at Jupiter Research. "I wouldn't call them cheap, but they certainly are affordable."

By Christmas 2006, consumers will see plasma TVs priced under $1,000, predicts Bill Swann, an author and speaker on TV technology and president of But more than the high price is holding back customers, Mr. Swann says. The dizzying array of technologies makes figuring out what and when to buy a major research project.

Along with LCD and plasma, for example, TV buyers may consider digital light processing (DLP) sets, rear-projection TVs that have slimmed down to about 16 inches thick. If you have the room and don't demand the aesthetic pleasures of a thin set, traditional rear-projection and large tube TVs are now at bargain prices and offer outstanding picture quality.

Then there are the temptations to wait for future tech: On the way shortly or under development are new flat-panel technologies like liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS), surface- conduction electron-emitter display (SED), and field effect display (FED) that may produce even sharper thin-TV pictures at even lower costs.

"The consumer is just lost in this spaghetti of terms and technologies, and it's a huge reason ... why people don't make the plunge," Swann says. A flat-screen TV is a big purchase, "and when you start to get to four digits - $1,000 or more - you hesitate if you get confused."

Adding to buyer confusion is the "digital revolution" now under way in TV broadcasting. Sometime this decade all TV broadcasts will be in digital form. All TV sets will have to be capable of receiving a digital signal; older sets will have to be fitted with a converter device to keep working.

One of the capabilities of digital television is high-definition TV, or HDTV, which has many more scan lines than conventional broadcasts and produces a much sharper picture. HDTV sets have been sold for several years, and more and more HDTV programming is available over the airwaves or through cable or satellite TV companies.

Is it really HDTV?

But not all flat-panel TVs are HDTVs. "There's a lot of confusion out there that if it's digital, it must be HDTV," Swann says. Many of the lower-priced thin models use a system called Enhanced Definition. Their pictures will be better than the standard quality, but not as good as HDTV, a difference that may be noticeable only on a very large screen.

More things to consider: The pictures on some flat-panel screens may be poor when viewed from an angle, so shoppers should test that before buying. LCD displays can have trouble with blurring fast movements, such as in sports events, so consumers should check that, too.

Early plasma screens had problems with a "burn in" ghostly image if a stationary image (such as a news bar across the bottom) was displayed for several hours. Manufacturers say that has been solved, as have questions about a limited lifespan for the screen. (If a plasma set is rated to last for 30,000 hours of viewing, for example, that's roughly 12 years of service at seven hours per day. You'll probably want a new set by then.)

And as hip as a wall-mounted flat TV sounds, keep in mind that wall mounting will prevent adjusting the screen angle for different light conditions or the location and number of viewers.

For people who want large-screen HDTV but don't mind the bulkier rear-projection technology, now is a great time to buy, Swann says, with prices as low as $1,100 or $1,200.

The pictures on his two rear-projection TVs are so lifelike, he says, that his cat will try to pounce on birds it sees on the screen.

Because HDTV broadcasts include high-fidelity stereo sound as well, the whole experience is more intense.

Big sports events, such as the Super Bowl, are leading the way. "Early adopters are often young men who enjoy sports," Swann says. But other HDTV channels emphasize nature shows with exotic locales. Much of CBS TV's prime-time lineup is available in HDTV, as was coverage of the recent presidential inauguration.

People watching HDTV find that it changes the way they perceive TV."It's truly dramatic. It's a whole new experience of watching television," he says. "The shows are going to be a deeper experience, more emotional."

Appearance vs. better picture

To people who care more about how the TV set looks, rather than the picture on the screen, he recommends they "wait a year or two" as flat-panel prices plummet.

As for HDTV, it's a "want, not a need," says Steve Hoffenberg of Lyra Research in Newtonville, Mass.

His company recently surveyed Americans, asking if they intended to buy an HDTV within the next year. Only 9 percent said they were very or extremely likely to do so. Still, Mr. Hoffenberg points out, if that happens it would represent a near doubling of households with HDTV.

Though respondents said the No. 1 reason they would buy an HDTV was if their current TV broke down, that doesn't jibe with the company's earlier surveys. "They buy because they want one," he says.

In the same way, owning a plasma-screen TV has become "a status symbol," Swann says. "You hear [plasma] thrown around like BMW - 'Oh my gosh, you've got a plasma television.' It's that kind of status."

Whether that's worth thousands of dollars is a question people must answer for themselves, he says. "You can always wait."

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