The Best Flat Panel TV’s

The best models, and what’s next.

The bigger the television screen, the better the viewing experience. Or so popular wisdom would have it. But that’s no longer the whole story. The technology used in the original flat panels—plasmas and LCDs—has become more sophisticated, while even more innovative types of screens have been developed. New TVs are also more energy efficient and interactive, with Internet access bringing online entertainment to the home theater.

The most advanced TV today—Mitsubishi’s $7,000, 65-inch LaserVue—uses red, green, and blue lasers to create images with an astounding depth of color. Equally cutting edge are the superthin organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, some of which are bendable and seem to promise a future where TVs can be neatly folded up or wrapped around an arm like a bracelet.

It may be years before laser and OLED displays become widespread, though, and plasma and LCD screens are hardly antiques. The latest of these have been slimmed down to the point that they’re generally one inch thick or less, meaning they can, for example, slide into a wall recess when not in use. Plasma sets still have the edge when it comes to picture quality, but LCD TV makers like Samsung are replacing the old fluorescent backlighting with LEDs that yield deeper blacks, making the whole picture that much better. LCD producers are also working to eliminate kinks that have caused complaints, especially motion blurring during fast-action sequences. New LCD models will feature 240Hz motion compensation circuitry that processes these sequences at four times the speed of earlier models.

Every major TV manufacturer now offers models that can access a specified menu of Web sites, allowing viewers to stream movies from Netflix or video clips from YouTube directly to the TV screen. In addition, many producers have started adding energy-saving functions. For example, Sony’s new Bravia VE5 models use motion detectors to shut off the TV automatically after a set period, turning back on when a presence is detected. A light sensor also automatically regulates backlighting to reduce unnecessary brightness, thereby lowering power output.

Alas, all these new developments can make finding the right set overwhelming. Here’s a closer look at the best models out there.

Mitsubishi

At the top of the performance pyramid is Mitsubishi’s 65-inch LaserVue, which, as the name implies, uses a combination of lasers (red, green, and blue) to generate images. The company has been coy about how exactly it works, but the results are startling: The color range is double that of standard high-definition TVs. The LaserVue is also a good choice for the energy-conscious. It consumes just 135 watts of electricity, less than one-third that of LCDs and one quarter that of plasmas. A 73-inch version is scheduled for release later in 2009. From $7,000; laservuetv.com

Sony

The future of television is the Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) display, built from carbon-based compounds. While other manufacturers are still working on prototypes, Sony has released an OLED model, the 11-inch XEL-1. What’s remarkable is the TV’s thinness—it’s only three millimeters (0.12 inches) deep. Just as important, OLED displays provide a brighter picture, with better contrast than LCD or plasma models. And, because the screens themselves are light-emitting and don’t require a separate light source, they use less energy. $2,500; sonystyle.com

Pioneer

Pioneer’s Elite Kuro models have set the gold standard for plasma televisions with their ability to reproduce absolute black, a baseline that yields finer picture detail, greater contrast, and deeper colors. Kuro screens also adjust the picture in response to changes in both exterior lighting conditions and onscreen color temperature resulting from changing content. And there are ten AV setting options tailored to, for example, sports, movies, or games. 50-inch model, $4,500; 60-inch model, $6,500; pioneerelectronics.com

Sharp

Making space for a new Blu-ray Disc player is unnecessary with Sharp’s new line of Aquos BD LCD HDTV Series. That’s because the Blu-ray player comes built-in as a side-loading slot. The Blu-ray player also features an Internet connection called BD-Live that allows viewers to access extra disc-related content online. Film lovers will appreciate that Aquos BD TVs automatically adjust a movie’s aspect ratio for optimal viewing. They also feature 120Hz scanning to reduce motion blur. From $1,100 (32 inches) to $2,600 (52 inches); sharpusa.com

Panasonic

Viera Cast, Panasonic’s innovative TV-Internet connection, provides access to a limited number of Web sites, such as Amazon, which offers video on demand, Picasa Web Albums, YouTube, and some news sites. Debuting this summer, Panasonic’s top-of-the-line model, the Z1, has an unusual two-part configuration: It is composed of a 54-inch plasma screen and a separate tuner box. The tuner transmits video signals to the display using a 60GHz millimeter wave radio beam, eliminating the need for any connecting wires. Viera HDTV PZ850 models, $2,500–7,000; panasonic.com

Pantel

Now the truly indulgent can lie back in a tub and channel their inner Michael Phelps as they watch a swimming competition on Pantel’s new Waterproof LCD Mirror TVs. And when not bathing, they can admire themselves in the display, which doubles as a mirror when switched off. Pantel’s waterproof models have the same 1080p high-resolution picture as most standard LCDs, and two external speakers offer crystal clear sound quality. From $2,000 (20 inches) to $4,500 (42 inches); panteltv.com