Why a flat-screen TV could prove a costly own goal

Buying a trendy telly for the World Cup? Screen out the sales patter, says David Prosser
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Football fans may be looking forward to the World Cup - metatarsal anxieties aside - but electrical retailers are even more excited. Sales of new televisions are expected to soar as the countdown to kick- off continues, buoyed not only by the football but by the increasing hype around high-definition television.

Business is already booming in many shops. For example, DSG, the company that owns Dixons and Currys, announced on Wednesday that its profits for the past six months were 7 per cent higher than expected - it is currently selling a new television every 15 seconds.

But viewers need to be careful not to get carried away by the hype surrounding the World Cup, which starts on 9 June, or seduced by the slick marketing of flat-screen televisions. Many of the latest models cost several thousand pounds - vastly more than traditional televisions - and there all sorts of traps awaiting anyone who doesn't have at least a basic grasp of the technology.

The first choice if you want a flat-screen television is between LCD and plasma models. Both dispense with the cathode-ray tube, the component in traditional televisions that necessitates the box shape, but work differently.

With LCD, light is shone on to tiny liquid crystal cells that let varying amounts of colour through to produce the picture that you see on the screen. Plasma televisions, on the other hand, rely on tiny gas cells that emit ultraviolet light.

Prices start at around £1,000, but even though you'll be shelling out at least three times the cost of a conventional TV, you may be disappointed by what you'll get. Mike Briggs, a television expert at the consumer group Which?, says: "Chances are, normal TV programmes won't look as good on a flat-panel set as on a conventional box."

Which? says that picture quality has actually declined in recent years, with many flat-screen televisions suffering from poor definition or jerky pictures. Flat screens can also be a problem for families, because the screens' viewing angle is narrower - viewers who aren't straight on to the set may not be able to see pictures properly.

As well as the quality issue, pay close attention to the price quoted to you by retailers. One of the attractions of flat-screen models is that you can mount them on a wall. But you may have to pay extra for the fittings required - several hundred pounds in some cases. Even a stand may not be part of the price.

Flat models come with a larger viewing screen than old-style TVs - models with screens above 40in (the measure is taken across the diagonal) are common. But be careful: in most people's home, the viewer is no more than 2.5m to 3m from the screen, so anything bigger than a 32in screen is likely to strain the eyes.

However, despite these downsides, there is no doubt that people want flat-screen televisions. And to be fair to providers, the advent of high-definition television should address concerns about picture quality. So, what type of television should you buy?

Fraser Macdonald, technology editor of Stuff magazine, says that the battle between the LCD and plasma camps is likely to rage for some time. "Roughly speaking, LCD is cheaper and better with smaller screens, say up to 37in," Macdonald says. "Some can handle the highest-resolution high-definition signals and the screens are brighter, so they're good for daytime TV-watching."

On the other hand, plasma screens have their advantages. "They're better for bigger screen sizes and you get a better contrast level, which is especially good for films," Macdonald adds. "Plasma is not as high-resolution as LCD, but most can handle high-definition signals."

These "high-definition signals" are the next big thing in television - and another important issue you need to consider before buying a new screen. High-definition TVs have more detailed pictures - the screen is divided into more of the lines that make up the pictures - so you get much sharper images and less jittery movements.

However, not all televisions, even flat-screen models, are high-definition compatible. Look for models that are described as "high-definition ready" if you think you might want to receive this kind of picture in future. High- definition-ready status won't necessarily add to the price of your new TV, but if you buy a non-ready model, you may have to upgrade in the future.

However, even those models that are ready won't show high-definition pictures unless you also have a receiver picking them up from a broadcaster with a service. That will mean buying additional equipment - chiefly, a set-top box from your cable or satellite company - though, for now at least, there is very little high- definition television being broadcast in the UK.

However, Telewest, the cable-TV provider, did launch a limited pay-per-view service in March to certain subscribers. The BBC doesn't expect to start broadcasting high-definition pictures until next year at the earliest, but Sky is heavily advertising its high-definition service, to be launched next month in time for the World Cup.

Sky's service will include high-definition versions of its sports and movies channels, but at a price. In addition to a television that can receive the signals, you will need its high-definition set-top desk, costing £299. You will also have to pay £10 a month for the high-definition service, on top of whatever channel subscriptions you may choose to sign up to.

High-definition televisions may also be attractive to people who like to play a lot of computer games. Microsoft, for example, will next month launch a high-definition-compatible version of the X-Box 360, and is promising some amazing new graphics.

If that is of interest, your new television will ideally have two "HDMI" sockets in the back. This is where you would plug in the cable from your high-definition components, and you will also want one for your set-top box, though Scart cables will also work.

Best-buy televisions

* There's so much choice in the new television market - and at such hugely varying prices - that an independent guide is invaluable. We asked Stuff magazine's Fraser Macdonald to give us his pick of the crop.

* Best budget choice Toshiba 32WLT66, £1,100

Toshiba's investment in LCD has enabled it to push price points down and down. The WLT66 has twin HDMI sockets, a brilliant picture and a reasonably classy black finish.

* Best mid-range LCD Sony V40A12U, £2,300

This is the Bravia TV range made famous by the advert with the bouncing balls and the José Gonzalez soundtrack. The TV matches the marketing budget. Stylish, with an excellent picture and sound, this TV also has compact dimensions. It's a 40in screen that might suit someone who thought 37in was their max.

* Best mid-range plasma: Panasonic TH37PX60 £1,900 (or there's the TH42PX60 £2,045, 42in)

Panasonic's Viera range of plasmas hits a sweet spot of technology, design and affordability. Movie-enhancing contrast levels and, with the curvy floor stand, this is a beautiful thing. The PX600 range, about to launch, can record TV to an SD memory card.

* Best mid- to high-end LCD Loewe Individual 32 Selection £2,300

Loewe makes classy, high-end TVs. The Individual adds further exclusivity by being customisable: side and fascia panels are interchangeable, and come in a variety of colours and finishes. You can get it with a satellite decoder, a hard drive and a variety of stands.

* Super high-end f money is no object: Bang & Olufsen BeoVision 7-40, £7,900

Into silly territory, maybe, but this TV has a motorised stand, integrated DVD player and speakers. It's a real lifestyle experience - if you can afford it.

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