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Shortcuts: How to buy a television

By Greg Duke for CNN
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(CNN) -- The world biggest television went on sale in London this week. Made by Panasonic and costing a wallet-busting £50,000 ($98,460), the plasma screen set is 103 inches (8.7feet) wide and weighs in at a whopping 220 kilograms. This latest piece of high-tech home entertainment kit may be out-of-reach for most of us, but there are still plenty of other alternatives on the market to tempt the modern television-buying consumer.

What's the difference between plasma and LCD?

When choosing to buy either a Plasma or an LCD (liquid crystal display) TV, you're actually comparing two competing technologies. Both modes are essentially two sides of the same digital coin and are attempting to achieve similar results -- crystal-clear and color-filled pictures. Plasma TV's emit light from individual cells and are able to manage subtlety of color shades with more detail, while LCD screens use backlight from fluorescent tubes which is emitted through blind-like shutters that open and close to let the light through. These rivals systems have cornered the market in recent years and if buying a new TV, the likelihood is it will be one of these two.

Which one is better?

In simple terms, because of the way plasma screens emit light, the picture quality and color resolution from those screens has a much greater effect in a room where the ambient light is darker... for example, in a living room. However, that premise also works in reverse, so if buying a TV for your kitchen, an LCD screen has greater effectiveness. Although manufacturers have denied that plasma screens use up more energy, independent experts claim they can consume as much as double the amount of electricity, regardless of the screen size.

Is bigger more beautiful?

There is no doubt that screens are getting bigger and bigger, culminating in Panasonic's world record screen, but there is a consensus within consumer groups that manufacturers are putting style over substance and there is no evidence at all that the bigger the screen, the better your picture. However, for sheer flashiness, big is certainly more impressive. Either way, there is no doubt that if an average family goes to an electrical shop to purchase a telly, the size, color and even remote control design are going to catch the eye far more than the intricacies of how the images are brought to the screen.

Should you hang your telly on the wall?

What appeared to be almost a space-age look into the future five years ago, is becoming more commonplace nowadays. No longer are rock stars and famous sportsmen the only ones who are hanging their flat screens up in place of the family portrait or an ornate mirror. Beware though, a lot of flat screen TV's are sold minus some of the components (brackets, fixings) which allow you to hang them up in the first place. There is also the extra cost involved in getting an expert to install it properly -- and of course the glossy brochures conveniently airbrush out all the wires that dangle down to reach the plug sockets. Finally, make sure your wall is actually strong enough to take the weight of your hefty new purchase in the first place.

What is high definition?

High definition, or HD, is the means of broadcasting TV signals with a higher resolution than traditional formats allow, resulting in cleaner and crisper pictures and images. For instance, in the U.S -- where the system was first introduced in the mid-1990s and is more commonplace -- HD sets have over five times the video information than that of a conventional TV set. In the UK, more and more sets have integrated HD, whether they're plasma or LCD. Yet most people are unaware that purchasing one of these does not guarantee you automatically have the HD image. This is because only satellite and cable subscribers offer channels in HD form (for which there is an extra cost outside your regular monthly fee), and although likely to follow in the future, experts believe the arrival of terrestrial HD is still not set in stone.

How long can I ignore this revolution and keep my old telly?

In the UK, the old analogue signals will cease completely in 2012, which means if you have a non-digital TV and are not a subscriber to satellite, cable or its various formats, your telly will be rendered totally useless. This is because all cable/satellite/freeview services run on the digital format which will become the norm eventually. As long as you subscribe to one of these formats your ancient TV will work perfectly and there will be no need to worry yourself with HD, LCD, plasma or the like. You can still purchase non-digital analogue TV's, especially in portable form for bedrooms etc, but you will be doing so in the knowledge that they simply won't work when the digital revolution truly arrives.


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