So you’ve mapped out the perfect spot on your wall for a shiny new flat screen display? The next step is to figure out what exactly what you’re looking for.
Plasma comes in two flavors – TV and monitor. Here’s the bottom line – TVs have a tuner, something that attenuates the channel you want to watch. TVs also have speakers and a table stand, but it’s the tuner that’s important.
Plug a TV into your standard cable outlet, plug in the AC, and you’re done.
Monitors are a little different. They are just that – monitors. Think of a great big beautiful computer monitor, because that’s what they are. No tuners, no speakers, no table stand. It’s essentially a picture frame – hang it on the wall as part of your home theater. Their simplicity can be misleading, so don’t rush into something quite yet.
Benefits – less expensive, typically more adjustable. Upgradeable with optional video cards.
Drawbacks – requires additional equipment for best effect
Monitors are the classic home theater piece – simple, elegant and very powerful. It’s part of a home theater system and does nothing more than show you pretty pictures. Home Theater systems can be incredibly simple or hugely elaborate, depending on your tastes and budget.
Panasonic and Pioneer stand out in this category. They both use Video Expansion Cards, some provided by third part companies like Alcorn McBride, Aurora and Key Digital. Swapping out a card in the Pioneer is a little like giving it a brain transplant, as most of the video processing is actually done on the card. Panasonic allows you to completely customize your jack pack. This not only helps in tailoring your unit for your exact application, it also provides you with the ability to update your connectors as standards evolve. HDMI itself has gone through several revisions, so being able to choose your “opt-in” point makes a lot of sense. Your display can keep pace with changing technology.
Monitors tend toward being plain. Their bezels are a flat slate grey, almost black color, ideal really, as they tend to fade into the background and not provide a visual distraction.
You require –
External HDTV source, like a digital cable box, ATSC tuner or satellite box.
External Audio System, like a surround sound system, 2 channel amp, etc.
Mounting system, either by way of a wall mount or table stand
HDTV is broadcast in a few very distinct ways. First is Digital Cable, available either via Digital Cable Card Tuner (aka “DCR” or Digital Cable Ready) or set top box. Digital cable is QAM encrypted. The Digital Cable Card allows the HD Tuner in your display to de-code QAM TV signals. You typically get a TV Guide branded graphical menu. Satellite receivers work much like the digital cable box does, with different encoding. If you have satellite, always use the box supplied by your provider. The set top boxes are preferable, given that they support the best features digital cable has to offer, like Video on Demand. ATSC tuners, typically built into a HDTV or set top box provide for free off-air HD TV. Currently, the biggest drawback is lack of content. Check http://www.antennaweb.org for channels in your area.
Digital Cable Tuner (DCR)
Benefits – no box
Drawbacks – limited advanced features, like Video on Demand, Pay-per-View, and of course, no PVR for HD recording. Not supported in all areas. Available in some TVs only.
Digital Cable Box
Benefits – always current technology (no obsolescence), may include multiple HD tuners and HD Digital Recorders
Drawbacks – one more box to hide.
Benefits – it’s HD and it’s free!
Drawbacks – the transition to HD is costing broadcasters billions so they’re a little reluctant to give it away. Limited channels. Requires a tuner box and antenna.
External Audio System and External Speakers
The sky is the limit here. A basic system costing a few hundred dollars would consist of two quality bookshelf speakers, maybe a subwoofer, and at least a 2 channel amp with RCA inputs. Recommended it a more pricey surround sound system, 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1. If you’re at the planning stage, 5.1 will get you by, but plan at least for 7.1. Run the wires. You’ll thank us later.
You’ll need a Dolby surround sound amplifier if you’re planning on surround sound. We typically recommend something that supports at least component video switching and occasionally HDMI switching. More money generally gets you better audio, but you may not need to or want to overspend on an amp. If you’re spending more than $700 on your receiver, look for HDMI switching.
Run all the audio and video sources into your Home Theater (HT) amp. Run one or two connections from the video output on the Home Theatre amp into your monitor. This allows you to use your Home Theater amp to switch between sources.
Benefits – enjoy High Definition the way it was meant to sound
Drawbacks – can be expensive and difficult to wire. Plan to incorporate speakers as a design element.
This is the kind of thing we all grew up with. Simple, functional, a turn-key solution. They’re completely self contained units that can be used as stand-alones, or incorporated into a home theater. Their strength lies in this adaptability – they can grow with you. Many brands offer audio enhancements, like expanded bass and surround “mimicking” to get the most out of your package. Don’t rely on the built in speakers for surround sound though - Remember, it’s not really High Def unless your enjoying 5.1 Surround Sound.
Televisions use the exact same plasma panel as their monitor counterparts, and as a result, most if not all of the same electronics. This means you get the same great picture on both, although as previously mentioned, monitors tend to have better picture adjustments, controls you can’t access on a TV without an RS-232 cable and a PC.
TVs are not expandable the way monitors are (by way of swapping out the video cards), which is a double edged sword. TVs feature a wide array of connections and will feature the latest version of HDMI (currently 1.3a). The drawback with this is that as standards change, a TV remains with whatever was current when it was built - older units equipped with HDMI don’t support the same functions as the newer units. A good example of this is HD-SDI – not likely to become a popular consumer format, but it has the ability to move uncompressed digital HD from point to point without all the messy HDCP and DRM issues (examined in another article). If HD-SDI were to become a viable consumer format, TV owners are stuck, where monitor owners merely swap out the video card.
Home Theatre Integration
Better units, like those from Pioneer and Panasonic, feature an optical audio out put (Toslink), allowing you to switch your HDMI audio sources through the plasma, then use one input on your HT receiver. Currently, neither company supports surround inputs from non-HDMI sources, like a 480P DVD player or X-Box 360. In this case, you’re using an external Home Theater amp to do your switching.
A TV can be used exactly the same way as a monitor for a full Home Theater set-up, but you tend to pay more for the stuff you can’t use or won’t need, like the speakers and tuners. Their initial flexibility however, allows for a gradual progression into a home theater, without the initial cost and complexity.
TVs given their initial connectivity and their other features, like SD Card readers to display photos without a PC, make them a strong choice regardless of application.
Benefits – simple, works almost anywhere. Great initial connectivity. Lots of tuners, although you probably won’t be using any of them after a year or so..
Drawbacks – you paid for High Definition and you’re only using 2 speakers??? Can’t be upgraded with new cards and connectors as technology changes. Don’t bother with the integrated NTSC tuners. They’re being phased out and regular cable on a High Def display won’t impress you. ATSC offers free off-air HD, but few channels. You’ll probably want to use an external HD cable or satellite box for maximum flexibility and zero obsolescence.
The bottom line is that there are great advantages to either unit. Which one is best really depends on your budget and your initial plans, as well as where you want to end up. It’s important to consult with a knowledgeable sales rep who can help you get the most bang for your buck. Done properly, a great Home Theater doesn’t have to cost a small fortune for the best effect. Someone who is familiar with the product can provide you with helpful advice, and maybe even save you a few dollars along the way.