Defining Visions: Who's Selling Out?

My office made a small change last month. For all the 70 people who spend much of their days working at their computers, the company decided it was time to "upgrade" our monitors to flat-screen LCDs. Like most of corporate America, we had been using CRT computer monitors for decades. But somewhere in the bowels of the company's system-support offices, somebody got the idea that LCDs were easier on the eyes than CRTs. Or so they said.

More likely, these people succumbed to the powerful wave that has swept across the nation, the one that has convinced every man, woman, and child that they want—indeed, must have—a new "flat-screen" TV.

At work, I generally don't pay much attention to this. Of course, I am an avid videophile who spends far more than I should to be sure I have the very best video experience at home. As a journalist at work, however, I pay full attention to the latest pronouncements from Damascus on the timetable for withdrawing Syrian troops from Lebanon. In other words, I keep my two worlds separate. Or try to.

One day while I was out of the office, the tech-support people swapped out my NEC 17-inch CRT monitor for one of the new NEC 17-inch LCD displays. I came back from my appointment, sat down to see what had arrived in my e-mail, took one look at the screen, and gasped out loud.

The image on screen looked flat, dead! Sure, I know all the conventional wisdom about the shortcomings of LCDs. They cannot produce true black. And without true black, an image will, by necessity, lack contrast. It will look flat. I have never reviewed an LCD, though I have reviewed more than a dozen plasmas over the years and written about the same phenomenon in that technology.

But here I was sitting at my desk, and the change from one hour to the next was as striking as could be. I suspect I was the only person in my office who noticed. I am certain I was the only one in my office who brought in Video Essentials the next day and tried to coax the best picture I could out of this LCD.

Why do I go on and on about this computer monitor? Well, as distressed as I was about the new display, after a while, I got used to it. I didn't notice any longer. And that, I'm afraid, is what's happening in the video industry. Every manufacturer is trying to ride the popular wave that is driving consumers into the stores in search of flat-panel TVs. And they are selling millions of them. In high-end video stores, CRTs are somewhere in the back, next to the service department.

A friend who works in one high-end store says the common view among his colleagues is that the video industry is "selling out, putting these terrible-looking things on the market." To some degree, I agree. There is absolutely no question that nothing on the market today can look as good as a top-quality CRT-based television. And yet the industry is running from CRTs as if they are the source of a plague.

Last fall, I decided to buy a new television for our bedroom. In my home theater, I still have a CRT front projector, and I have no plans to give it up anytime soon. But for the bedroom, I could buy anything I wanted. I had saved some money and could have bought, say, a nice 42-inch plasma. Sure, it would look impressive sitting there, and my wife would be pleased (as long as I didn't show her the bill). I review televisions, so I know well the benefits and liabilities of the competing technologies. And I decided to buy the best 36-inch, 4:3, CRT HDTV I could find. I won't use this column to plug a specific manufacturer, but I have to tell you that I am quite pleased with the picture. It is better than any plasma or LCD could offer.

I must note that another pressure these days is to buy widescreen sets. At least one manufacturer will not even provide 4:3 sets for review any more, suggesting that they don't want to encourage sales of these dinosaurs. But the largest widescreen CRT HDTVs available today give you a 34-inch (diagonal) picture. If you watch a 4:3 TV show on such a set, it will be shown in a window measuring less than 28 inches diagonally. Correspondingly, if you watch a 16:9 DVD image on my 36-inch 4:3 set, the letterbox measures nearly 33 inches from corner to corner—almost as large as the image on the widescreen set. And, of course, 4:3 pictures fill the 36-inch screen.

So what makes more sense, if the picture quality is the same? To succumb to the pressure to buy a widescreen set? Or to buy a larger (and, not incidentally, cheaper) 4:3 HDTV? I think I have the best picture one can get from a mid-sized TV. And the price was quite agreeable.

Is the industry "selling out" by moving away from these products? Maybe. But what industry can afford to ignore the popular mood and put its emphasis on something else? Not mine, and not yours, I suspect. And certainly not the consumer-electronics industry. The truth is, for all the bleating of writers like me, most people don't really seem to know or care that much. A new study by Leichtman Research found that about half the people who report they are enjoying their new high-definition programming are not even watching HDTV.

From the beginning of the DTV transition more than six years ago, many people have bought HDTVs and then used them to watch DVDs and conventional TV, often not even aware that they are not watching HDTV. So I suppose it should not be surprising that little has changed in consumers' use and perception of their TVs.

Yes, the draw of flat-panel TVs is powerful, even intoxicating. None of us can resist it completely. But before you plunk down $3,000 or more for an LCD or plasma, wander to the back of the store and have a look at the big-screen CRT TVs. They will look better than any of the flat-screen models, and they will cost quite a bit less.

It took 50 years for CRT-TV technology to reach its present state. Plasmas and LCDs will reach that state someday—probably in a lot less than 50 years. To be sure, most high-end LCD TVs perform better than my new computer monitor. And I have reviewed many plasmas that have advanced to the point that I would welcome one in my home. But in terms of sheer picture quality, neither technology is yet the equal of a good CRT.