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HDTVs Scaled Down To Size


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A year ago, just in time for the Super Bowl, my pal Scott Culpepper plunked down a small fortune for a 60-in. Sony (SNE) high-definition television. The rear-projection microdisplay looms like an aircraft carrier on one side of the huge TV room over his garage, which has, not surprisingly, become his friends' favorite spot for viewing sporting events.

But Scott, who travels frequently for work, bemoans the fact that his wife still prefers watching TV in their much cozier master suite, home to a basic 27-in. tube. "I never get to watch it," he complains of his prized big-screen HDTV.

If you love it in the living room, it's time to spread high-def around the house. Smaller 32-to-37-in. sets, which run from $1,000 to nearly $3,000, come loaded with the same features as their big brothers, greatly improved picture quality, and handsome new designs. The best part: Prices are falling fast.

Sure, there are even smaller HDTVs. You can find them with screens as small as 15 inches (measured diagonally). Some great 26-inchers cost less than $1,500. But anything smaller than a 30-inch set may look like a computer monitor once you're watching from a distance of six feet or more -- which may be the case in your bedroom. At the same time, a 42-inch flat screen may feel like overkill unless you have one massive master suite. Besides, if you're too close to a big HD set, the picture won't appear sharp.

To save space, you may want to choose a set that incorporates the requisite HD tuner. Take note, too, of the lighting in your viewing room. It could be brighter than the showroom where you'll watch a floor model, so look for a set that performs well in lots of ambient light.

BEWARE OF GLARE

Chances are those requirements are going to land you in the liquid-crystal-display aisle. Flat-panel technology is brighter in bright rooms than plasma and offers much higher resolution in small sets, meaning it will produce a sharper image and do double duty as a PC monitor. While plasmas render dark shadows more accurately and offer deeper details and better contrast, it's likely you'll be more concerned about glare off a plasma's glass when you're trying to watch CNBC as you get dressed in the morning.

Another advantage of LCDs: At the modest sizes that are right for a second HDTV, they're plentiful and relatively cheap. The average price of LCD sets ranging from 30 in. to 35 in. dropped 23% last year (to $1,540) and should fall 18% more (to $1,260) by the second quarter, according to El Segundo (Calif.) market researcher iSuppli. "LCD is a good value," says Paul Semenza, a vice-president at iSuppli. "There's an oversupply."

Take the 37-in. Westinghouse Digital LVM-37W1. Despite a street price of less than $1,600, it sports smart looks, a variety of valuable input jacks, and 1080p resolution (1,080 lines, with progressive scan), a new flavor of HDTV that most manufacturers are offering only in much larger and more expensive sets. You'll probably hear about 1080p when you go shopping. In theory, the higher resolution will produce a sharper, clearer picture in high definition and will be able to render every detail of 1080p content when it starts appearing on DVDs and TV.

Spending for this feature now is a way to be sure your set isn't obsolete in a couple of years. Says Semenza: "If you want to really future-proof yourself when it comes to HDTV, you want 1080p." Still, in smaller sets, 1080p may not look much different from the lower-resolution LCD screens -- nor will it matter much if most of what you're watching is standard- definition analog programming.

Lower prices have their trade-offs. The Westinghouse model doesn't include a tuner, so for HDTV you would have to get a set-top box from your cable or satellite company or buy a separate HD receiver, about $150, which lets you pick up the broadcast signals with an antenna. While it boasts impressive features in this set, Westinghouse has been selling LCD TVs only since 2003. It's one of a host of old-line industrial names recently revived as bargain electronics brands, including Sylvania and Polaroid, none of which has much of a track record in their current incarnations.

For peace of mind, consider downsizing to the 32-in. Dell W3201C, which you can buy directly from the manufacturer for $1,699. Want to see it in person? Dell (DELL) has kiosks in malls across the country where you can get up close with its TVs. Or you can pony up for Sony's 32-in. Bravia KDL-V32XBR1 -- as low as $2,090 at online discounters.

Sony calls the Bravia line the first TVs designed for women as well as men. Whatever the company is thinking, they're hands-down the most attractive LCDs on the market. Now that even $29 DVD players come bathed in garish silver paint, Sony has put the emphasis back on the picture by framing the Bravia in a sophisticated matte-black case with understated stainless-steel trim. By placing the 13-watt speakers underneath the screen, Sony saves room, which helps the set fit into tighter spaces. Like all LCDs, it's slim enough to hang on the wall.

ADJUST TO TASTE

Fortunately, beauty isn't only case-deep. The Bravia produces a wonderfully crisp, detailed picture in HD and better-than-average analog images while offering a multitude of ways to adjust for such things as room brightness or type of program. Sony gave it a built-in HD tuner that lets you pick up the big networks' signals with an antenna, as well as a CableCard slot, which lets cable users get HD without a set-top box. That feature also is available on worthy 37-in. rivals, such as JVC's (MC) IT-37X776 (street price $1,888), and Sharp's (SHCAY) LC-37D7U ($2,137). Both come in 32-in. versions, too.

Of course, for some HDTV enthusiasts, only plasma will do. They love its realistic, three-dimensional picture in their home theater and will settle for nothing less in other rooms. For them, Panasonic (MC) makes a 37-in. version of its best-selling big-screen plasmas, the $1,900 TH-37PX5OU. Plasmas in this size can be hard to find, and you won't find a better picture than the one on Panasonic's. Watching high-def coverage of the drizzly Tournament of Roses parade, I could almost feel the rain on the back of my neck.

Before you buy any HDTV set for any room, carefully consider what kind of shows you'll be watching and when, and where you'll be sitting or lying. The answers will help you avoid buying a snazzy new TV you seldom get to watch.


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