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Operating Systems

Is rear-pro the way to go for a large-screen TV?

In his latest installment of Fully Equipped, David Carnoy discusses how a tough economy may help save rear-projection, a dying breed of TV that has seen a small resurgence as consumers are lured in by bargain prices on DLP-based large-screen HDTVs.

Around the holiday season we get a lot of e-mails from readers agonizing over what TV to buy. With the economy the way it is, consumers aren't completely shying away from buying new TVs, but they're on tight budgets and appear to be predominantly interested screen sizes 52 inches or smaller. The big problem with going bigger is that you jump into a whole new price class when you start looking at the Panasonic 58-inch plasma--and it gets worse when you check out Pioneer's 60-incher. The exception to all this is DLP-based rear-projection HDTVs, where Samsung and Mitsubishi are the only real remaining players. Remarkably, Best Buy is selling our editors' choice Samsung HL61A750 for $1,600 and the 67-inch inch model in the same line goes for $2,000. Meanwhile, Best Buy has the 65-inch Mitsubishi WD-65735 for a mere $1,500.

Baby got back: On the surface, Samsung's 61-inch 1080p LED-Powered DLP HDTV looks like a plasma or LCD--but it's not. Samsung

But rear-projection is a dying breed, right? Or, as one reader commented, "Everyone seems to be getting out of the rear-projection market. What happens if Samsung completely kills it? What happens then? Will they service my TV?"

Yes, most pundits agree that rear-pro is indeed on its way out. I've said as much in earlier columns. And in his review of the Samsung HL61A750, senior editor David Katzmaier wrote, "The way things are going, 2008 or 2009 may be the last year for rear-projection, lasers notwithstanding." As for lasers, he was referring to Mitsubishi's Laser TV, which, at $7,000 is a whole other beast we won't get into (Mitsubishi hasn't sent as a unit for review, but we hope we get our hands on one at some point). But with Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, and others exiting the rear-pro market, things look pretty bleak. We used to have three technologies to choose from in this category (LCD, LCoS, DLP) and now we're down to DLP (the aforementioned Laser TV is actually a laser-powered DLP set).

Ironically, the bad economy may save rear-projection. That Samsung HL61A750 is one of the most popular products on CNET and it would appear that many people are willing to give up the whole thin factor of plasma and LCD for more screen size at a lower price point. The Samsung solves a couple of problems inherent to rear-pro DLP: it uses LEDs instead of a conventional bulb, which eliminates the rainbow effect (some people can see brief streaks of color with bulb-based DLP). The LEDs also last much, much longer than bulbs--they give you about 20,000 hours of life.

Rear-projection still has its disadvantages, aside from the obvious fact that it's not flat and so usually can't be hung on a wall. RPTVs lose brightness and picture fidelity when seen from off-angle--to either side or especially above and below. Than again, so do flat-panel LCDs. RPTVs can also be subject to geometry errors, where some lines that should appear straight, such as the bars to either or above and below the screen, are instead subtly curved. The middle of the screen on DLPs is usually brighter than the edges, and other uniformity problems can be seen on some models.

In reality however, most of these picture quality issues are subtle and well worth the savings to big-screen shoppers. So, the big question simply is, if the manufacturers jettison the remaining rear-pro TVs, will they keep servicing them should they break down?

I'm not in the business of making guarantees, but if you look at Sony, they've continued to support and provide parts for their LCoS-based SXRD TVs in the field (there are plenty of them), so I think that's a pretty good indication that Samsung and Mitsubishi will do the same. All I know is that I'll soon be in the market for a new large-screen TV and unless 58-inch and 61-inch plasmas get a whole lot more affordable over the next 6 months, I'm strongly considering rear-pro. It's hard not to at these prices.

Anybody agree or disagree? Please comment.