As the technology that brings light and sound into our homes evolves, today's TV is more than meets the eye.
IF IT has been a few years since you've bought a television set, you are facing a steep learning curve. Few things in technology have changed so much, so fast. Have you heard of OLED? What about 4K? Maybe you know about full HD, but how about ultra-HD?
Televisions now hook into the internet, either through a Blu-ray player or as part of a home wireless network, so you can do your computer stuff on the big screen. Sony has Google TV, accessing the popular search engine directly to allow you to search the web while watching TV.
Many people use their tablets or laptops for this, and according to a Nielsen report, 60 per cent of Australians access the internet while watching television, 36 per cent daily. Now they can do it in a little corner of the screen as the action unfolds.
There's more. The makers of game consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii U are bringing software to the market that allows you to interact with compatible television programs.
While the software designers are talking about viewers having the capacity to change the plot of a show as it unwinds, it's far more likely that such applications will be used to get people talking about a program, or to cast votes instantaneously, or make inquiries about where to buy products seen on screen.
Such technology is used in the US to send suggested questions to interviewers. Voice control and gesture control are already being used; these forms of technology promise to greatly simplify remote control of the television. The remote might soon be a thing of the past, with control being handed over to your smartphone or tablet.
And then there is new screen technology. Organic light-emitting diodes, or OLED, will soon bring super-thin (think two centimetres or less), super-bright, high-resolution screens to the television market. They'll also be more energy efficient than plasmas and LCDs, with faster refresh rates, making them great for fast-moving images. But don't expect the prices to be particularly consumer-friendly in the early days: $10,000 at least.
Meanwhile, a couple of brands are getting behind 4K screens, which have four times the resolution of mainstream full-high-definition screens. Sony has unveiled its first 4K model, a 213-centimetre monster that costs $24,999. That's $9000 more than LG's similar-size ultra-HD television at $15,999, which has been announced but is yet to hit the market.
By the way, ultra-HD and 4K are the same thing, and although the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has suggested all televisions using the technology should be called ultra-HD, Sony has decided to stick with its own 4K moniker.
But be it ultra-HD or 4K, such televisions will initially be hampered by a lack of content, just as 3D has been, and buyers will mostly get standard vision bumped up to ultra-HD resolution by internal electronics.
It won't be quite as good as native ultra-HD source material, which is rare for now.
The emphasis is on large screens, because on anything less than 100 centimetres, ultra-HD would be hard to discern. But you don't need to buy into ultra-HD to get a big screen.
It used to be that to get a screen of truly cinematic scale, one needed a projector hidden away in a wall or a ceiling panel, a screen that could be lowered opposite, and all the other bits and pieces projection demands.
But a growing number of makers are offering LCD screens in sizes only a tad short of projection, the most common of which is 250 centimetres.
You can now buy LCD screens at 200 centimetres and bigger that are as easy to operate as a flat-panel television and which perform beautifully in daylight or dark.
Sharp started this ball rolling with its gorgeous 203-centimetre LC80LE940X Quattron. Samsung has a 190-centimetre screen, its ES9000. When you figure that a 203-centimetre screen offers twice the screen area of a 140-centimetre one, you're looking at a serious piece of real estate on the wall.
These screens may not be ultra-HD but they have all the whistles and bells, including internet connectivity, 3D capability and LED backlighting, making the cabinets extremely slim.
The prices hover about the low five-figure mark. The Sharp, with its four-colour Quattron picture, has a recommended retail price of $10,999 and discounts on that seem rare, although some outlets are throwing in delivery and installation. It seems expensive when the same manufacturer offers a 180-centimetre screen in catalogues for less than $4000.
Nor are they easy to handle, being heavy and difficult to manoeuvre. The Sharp weighs 53 kilograms and measures 1.87 metres by 1.11 metres (its depth is less than 10 centimetres).
Given most of the problems that arise with flat-panel screens result from poor handling, delivery and professional installation is strongly recommended.
These screens are not for small- or average-size rooms. Sharp recommends a minimum viewing distance to its 203-centimetre set of three metres; most of the professional installers we spoke to advised at least 3.5 metres, and a good sound system to go with it.
Over to the panel
OF THE many misconceptions concerning different flat-panel technology, probably the most common is that LCD, or liquid crystal display, is superior to plasma.
In many home applications, a plasma screen is more effective.
Plasmas yield superior brightness in lower light and most people spend most of their time in front of the screen after the sun has gone down.
LCDs look brighter in the store because the brighter the ambient light, the brighter they appear. Stores are very brightly lit; they're usually eight to 10 times brighter than your home. Thus, if you watch your television a lot during daylight, when sunshine is pouring in, an LCD will usually yield a brighter picture than a plasma.
Another popular myth is that LCD is newer technology than plasma. LCD was invented before plasma, it just took longer to get it to work properly in large panels.
Many people think LED (light-emitting diode) and LCD is different technology, but an LED screen is an LCD with different, more-compact LED backlighting, so probably the reason you'd have an LED over an LCD is for the thinner cabinet.
There's nothing new about OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology, either; it has been been used in small screens, particularly those on car audio head units, for years. Just as with LCD, the trick has been to make the technology work on a large format.