March 05, 2005

TECH-ADVICE BLEG: I'm thinking of buying a flat-panel TV for the bedroom. I've been looking at this one, though the Insta-Wife, somewhat more ambitiously, wants this one, instead. (I stayed in a hotel that had the first TV on the wall recently, and it was quite nice).

I want to mount it on the wall, too. Is a wall bracket like this one a good idea?

But my main sense is that this is a purchase where waiting a few months is probably likely to lead to big improvements on the price-performance curve. Or are we past that phase now? Any advice?

UPDATE: TV Repairman reader Joe Reynolds (no relation) emails:

Both of the models that you linked in your weblog do not contain an HDTV tuner/receiver. These can be purchased as a seperate unit and run generally $250-500. Until June of this year they are legal to be sold w/o the broadcast flag function that controls DRM and may be used legally as long as you own them. I mention this not to encourage piracy, but to let you know the feature will make it really inconvienient to tivo and transfer to any other equipment you may want to use. These units are also available as PCI cards and External USB devices. The bottom line is if you want HDTV with the TV's you are considering you will need another device. Also LCD-TV prices are plummeting in the current market, you may see even larger discounts soon.

Yeah, you can surf the price-performance curve forever, but I don't want to move too soon. This has inspired LOTS of email, which I don't have time to digest now, but I'll update with it later. Meanwhile, Will Collier weighs in on the side of waiting longer, and reader Tom Westberg sends this link to a review of the Insta-Wife's fave. Finally, Roger Simon shares his own experience but adds this caveat: "Of course all this advice is already outdated. We did this two months ago!" Indeed.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Wow, lots of people care about this. And Jonah Goldberg emails: "Please! Let me know what you hear about the flat-screen TV thing. I'm researching it too and I can't make heads or tails of all this. My understanding though is that CRT tvs still have better pictures, which surprised me considering all the hullabaloo." Yeah, CRTs still have the best picture -- and the best price-performance -- but they get HUGE as screensizes get bigger. For a big room I'd still get a CRT, or a DLP, but for the bedroom I wanted to save some space.

MORE: Updated below -- hit "read more" for more. And here's a big article by Ed Driscoll from PC World, found via NewDave, who observes: "It looks as though the market is about to reach that critical point where demand gets in line with supply. Once that sweet spot hits (somewhere under $750 for 30 inches), things will slide down with a vengeance." Let's hope.

Jeez did I get a lot of email on this. The consensus seems to be to wait a few months. A few readers seem to think that I have a bottomless budget for high-end electronics, which, alas, is not true. To give you an idea of where I am on the TV front, my fanciest TV is a 32" JVC that's "HD-Ready," which I bought from Sears as a floor model closeout for $799. So prices actually do matter to me. Bill Gates, I'm not.

Here's what reader Chris McCanles emails:

A few quick thoughts about your TV dilemma. I own a very high-end custom electronics company and do roughly $300K a year in TV’s with Sony. I’ve put flat panels into a wide variety of installations (e.g. on walls, above fireplaces, motorized out of ceilings, cabinets, floors, etc.). Anyways, here’s my take:

Don’t buy via the Internet. No (or bad) tech & warranty support. These products do arrive DOA, break soon after installation, etc. Shipping is a pain, finding a warranty service center has gotten a lot harder in the last 10 years.

Never heard of the brand you’re interested in. Awfully cheap price. You know what they say…

Buy a fully-compatible HDTV model. In the price range you’re looking in you’ll commonly find EDTV (enhanced definition) sets that will “downconvert” hi-def programming to a lower resolution. May not be a bid deal now if you’re only planning on watching the news before sleeping but I would avoid it.

Regarding the LCD vs. plasma vs. DLP, here are my thoughts. LCD is the oldest, cheapest, and most reliable technology out there. The knock on LCD used to be picture quality (“chalky” looking blacks, “screen door” effect where you’d see the picture’s structure as though you we’re looking out of a screen door, etc.). This has been overcome and new LCD stuff by and large looks just as good as DLP without having to pay Texas Instruments’ fee (they own DLP currently). Plasma probably has the best flat panel picture right now though they use a lot of power (twice as much as LCD), can have burn-in issues if you watch a certain news channel or play video games long enough. By and large, NEW models have overcome the lifespan issue; most will have no problem lasting for 10 years at full brightness. CHEAP models typically use older parts. These should be avoided. Gateway will be bumming it in a few years with all the crap they’ll be getting from customers. My take: In the size you’re looking in, look at LCD. The only area where LCD is behind plasma (for the moment) are the really big sets (i.e. 50”+). Plenty of LCD sets available in 15 – 32” in size.

Buy a widescreen model; this new aspect ratio (16:9) is part of the digital TV (DTV) standard. Yes, your favorite Love Boat episodes will appear with side bars or stretched to where Julie doesn’t look as hot as you remember, but most prime-time network stuff is shot in this format and practically all DVD’s are as well. The old 4:3 aspect ratio is leaving us though this will take some time. Guessing you don’t have a ton of local HDTV options in TN currently.

Don’t worry about surround sound unless you’re truly an audio geek who plans on viewing lots of DVD’s while laying in bed. Not worth it for most broadcast programming. This from a guy who regularly installs $50-100K home theaters. YOU WILL NEED a model that has onboard speakers.

How to hang a flat-panel TV on a wall (keep in mind we’re more than a bit AR about this stuff):

Once location is chosen, cut out drywall/plaster and install wood “blocking” that will support a heavy TV. This obviously is not a painting we’re dealing with. Subsequent drywall/plaster patch will be hidden by TV, but before you fix the hole you must…

“Fish” wiring to support an electrical outlet and wiring to support your audio/video cables. You’ll want to “stub” these wires out of the wall so that they won’t get in the way of the wall bracket but will remain hidden by the TV once it’s hung. Good brackets make provisions for this.

Invest in a decent bracket. There are a bunch of companies out there. I like Chief a lot. Well made, easy to install. If you’re going to see your installation from the side, say when you’re walking into the room, you’ll want to pick a model that keeps the TV tight to the wall otherwise it will look kludged. Chief makes a couple brackets that do this well.

Assuming you’re using cable TV, you’ll need a “set-top box” if you’re planning on viewing HDTV programming or premium channels (e.g. HBO). Some new TV models have a built-in cable tuner that only requires that you get a smart card from your cable provider to get full access to the programming you’ve purchased without the separate box. This “Cable Card” feature as it’s known is very useful in this situation, but is new and is not commonly found on cheapo models at this time. Using a separate set-top box is a pain; locating it is difficult especially when retrofitting it into a room. You will need this if you use Directv, Dish Network or other satellite services.

Hope this is helpful, Glenn, but don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have any questions.

I may, though it's helping to convince me that waiting is probably the best option.

I just might. Reader Pat Kelly emails:

Have you considered buying a projector instead? I don't normally go out of my way to sell a product, but projection is such a cool thing it is hard to not mention it to you. Anymore, a really good projector costs ~$1,300 and the unit itself is about the size of a Tom Clancy hardback novel. The nifty thing about them is you can project directly on a wall (preferably with white or off-white paint), they can be used with your PC for PowerPoint presentations, and they now come with HDTV compatibility or component video. Best part is you don't have to make it the focus in your room - if you have it off, no one knows you even have a TV in that room. I have one and we show back yard movies in the summer for the kids because it is so transportable. Imagine watching Casablanca projected on your ceiling while relaxing in bed - no more crooked neck syndrome!

That's kind of cool. TV on the ceiling. But will it project properly onto the mirrors? . . . .

Matt Volk emails:

Glenn, you need a VESA 200 wall mount bracket for either TV. It’s a standard size for plasmas and big LCDs. The 200 stands for a four hole mount in a 200 mm x 200 mm pattern. Here’s a link for a good explanation: Link

Amazon doesn’t seem to sell a VESA 200 wall mounting bracket.

Have you looked at the new Dell 2405FPW? It has a 1920x1200 resolution, a ton of video inputs & a built in 9 in 1 card reader. Not sure if it can display pictures from the card reader. No tuner built in & it’s $1200.

What's the point of a card reader if it can't display pictures? Meanwhile, reader Ben Ziller cuts to the chase:

This is a question that transcends political and social lines.(I am a gay liberal democrat) Buy the tv insta-wife wants. It is nicer and it will improve your relationships. This is a win win situation that everyone should dream about having. lucky you.

That's usually how I feel about my marriage. But the Insta-Wife, beyond a general bigger-is-better philosophy, doesn't have especially strong feelings on this. Otherwise I'd just get the TV she wanted. I'm no fool.