The Skinny on Flat-Screen TVs

A plasma screen's slim profile is its strongest selling point, but it's not the only one. For starters, the technology (simply put: charged particles of gaslike plasma strike light-emitting colored phosphors on the back of the screen to produce an image) results in an exceptionally bright picture. When paired with a high-definition signal, from a satellite, cable, DVD, or over-the-air broadcast (roof antenna), the resolution is four times sharper than regular analog TV. Plus, its flat screen stops images from bending at the edge of the picture, making for 160 degrees of comfortable viewing. And its rectangular shape, proportional to a movie screen, means films can be viewed in their intended "widescreen" format. Finally, a plasma screen can double as a computer monitor, letting you check your e-mail and the score of the game at the same time.

While prices remain high (the average 42-inch plasma screen runs about $8,000, though some can be had for half that), experts predict that increasing demand will drive costs down by a third every year, until they're as affordable as high-end tube TVs. Manufacturers expect to sell 41.2 million monitors to households worldwide in 2005 alone. A less expensive option is LCD (liquid crystal display), which is as thin as plasma but retails for under $1,500. However, the smaller price tag reflects a smaller screen size and reduced viewing angle: LCDs are typically 15 or 20 inches, compared to the standard 42 or 50 inches of plasma, and many models must be watched straight on, like the screen on a laptop. On the plus side, LCDs almost always come with a tuner and speakers. Though a few plasma manufacturers offer lines with the same plug-and-play capability (including an outboard or built-in tuner), most models still function as a monitor, not a TV. In other words, they require a separate tuner (a cable or satellite box will suffice) as well as a sound system.

Neither plasma nor LCD will become obsolete anytime soon, since they can be adapted to HDTV, digital TV, or any new broadcast technology on the horizon.

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