For a couple of years now I have been doling out “expert ;-)” advice to my friends regarding which LCD Television to buy for their home/offices. This festival season we decided to take the plunge, having waited long enough for the cost/inch to drop below Rs. 1000. I guess the time had come for me to practice what I preached.
Buying an LCD TV is way harder than just visiting the store and being wowed by their LCD wall and glib sales-people. That said, I think the quality of technical sales-people in Hyderabad has improved quite a lot. During my exercise to buy the LCD TV, many of them turned up to be quite knowledgeable earned my respect; on prior occasions I would openly vent my frustration at their lack of knowledge by making un-parliamentary comments giving them a disdainful look.
At start, we decided that we needed a TV of 32″ size. I owned a Philips 21″CRT TV and for my small drawing room, it proved to be sufficient. When I bought the TV in 2002, it cost me Rs. 18,500/- (Rs. 880/inch) and the image quality after 7 years of service was as impeccable as the day I had bought it. I would have happily relegated it to be my secondary television had it not been an acute lack of space in my house.
While most LCD TVs being sold in this season are ‘Under Exchange’, the store valuation of my TV varied between Rs. 500/- to Rs. 1,500/-. I found a buyer for my CRT TV at Rs. 3,500/- and to our mutual satisfaction, I let go of my old love.
I checked out LCD TVs from 19″ Wide up-to 47″ and decided that the optimum size which I should go in for would be 32″. Just enough prestige without breaking the bank. Hey! I am not gonna live in this small rented apartment all my life!!
Size being fixed, the other parameters which I considered for evaluation were:
- Image quality
- Full-HD (1920 x 1080) vs. HD-Ready (1366 x 768) resolution
- No. of inputs: HDMI, Component, S-Video, Composite, VGA
- Speakers: Speaker placement, Power Output
- USB: USB Slot, Card Reader, JPEG Player, MP3 Player, DivX / XviD / MP4 Player
The various products on offer were from well-known brands like LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Videocon & Onida. I disregarded brands like Haier since it is actually a chinese manufacturer (like TCL) which goes under a German sounding name. Just like TCL, in India, I don’t expect Haier to survive. For some reason, Philips was not at all available. For a while now, I have been unable to purchase Philips TFT monitors and the only store which displayed Philips TV was e-Zone in Banjara Hills which had a couple of old Philips LCD TVs displaying Sat-TV. Not for sale, I was told.
My first criterion was price. I was willing to pay up-to Rs. 1,000/inch. While I was looking for a better deal, I was not averse to paying a slight premium for an outstanding TV. The Panasonic had a few models on display in sizes from 26″ – 42″. The price being between Rs. 1,000/in to 1,700/in.
My second criterion was image quality. Most stores set the TVs to display images in ‘Vivid’ color. On most TVs this is done by setting the Image quality to ‘Dynamic’. I let this be and requested that all TVs on the wall be tuned to National Geographic. The brand to score the best impression was Videocon. The image quality on the Videocon was very good indeed. Colors were natural and devoid of any color cast (no excess red/blue/greeen). While on every other brand, the sky was a washed out white, on the Videocon it was a pale blue. Sadly though, I have never owned a Videocon and my Videocon CRT TV owners did not have good things to say. So the brand was eliminated.
While the rest of the brands displayed images that were near identical, the images on Sony were lackluster when compared. Also, Sony TVs command a premium which is not justifiable given their less than average bundle of features. Sony was eliminated due to over-pricing & less-than-stellar features.
It is worth noting that on LG, the images looked really good but a look at the menu options revealed that this was at Color & Contrast settings of almost 100%. On other TVs, the settings were just at 50-70%, giving them a lot more head-room enhance images. This in-fact was discovered by my friend Kamal Namburi.
Full-HD. What the ‘F’ is that?
The next factor to consider was Full-HD vs. HD-Ready. This is something that is not very well understood in India. Technically, Full-HD means the panel can display images up-to 1920 x 1080 pixels (2 million pixels), while HD-Ready panels display images up-to 1366 x 768 pixels (1 million pixels). Thus in a Full-HD panel, while the number of pixels is doubled, it is only wider & taller by 40% when compared to a HD-Ready panel.
Note that Full-HD content is only available in Blue-Ray movies. Television broadcast in India is still stuck at Standard Definition (SD) which is at 720 x 576 pixels (37% of Full HD resolution). DVDs are limited to 720 x 576 too. Video-CDs are even worse at just 352 x 288 (18% of Full HD). This means that when you play SD content on a Full-HD TV, the image is scaled by a factor 2.6 before being displayed. This results in an extremely blurry image. Apart from Blue-Ray movies, a few personal video-cameras too record in Full-HD. Since this kind of usage is likely to be less than 1% of total TV viewing in a month, I shall discount it from being a killer app.
Since it was unlikely that I would be buying a Blue-Ray player anytime soon or would be able to download and play Full-HD video anytime soon, I decided to go for a HD-Ready or Full-HD panel. Full-HD panel would add points in favor but not be a game changer.
Onida Diamond & LG had Full-HD 32″ panels. Samsung & Panasonic only had HD-Ready panels in 32″ size.
While buying LCD TVs for my friends, if there is one thing I have realized, it is the importance of having sufficient inputs. To a LCD, I would typically connect – one or more Satellite TV boxes, DVD Player, Game machine like PS2/3 or Wii, Computer or Media Player device like Western Digital TV & my Canon Handycam. So I would need 4-5 inputs straight away. Satellite TV only uses low-end Composite video & Computer output is over VGA but can be converted to HDMI. DVD Player, Games Machines & Media Players generally connect over HDMI for best performance.
Most TVs had at-least 2 HDMI ports. The Panasonic L32X has 3 HDMI ports, 2 composite inputs & 1 S-Video/Composite input. All TVs had a single PC/VGA input. I prefer that Tvs provide Composite, S-Video & Component Inputs at each input port, giving me utmost flexibility in connectivity. Most TVs had Composite & Component inputs in each port. A few also had S-Video on AV2 & AV3, while the Panasonic featured S-Video only on AV3. Perhaps S-Video is a dying breed since cables for it are expensive and not easily sourced, whereas HDMI is becoming popular and component video-output is present on almost all devices.
In layman’s terms, Composite video (Single Yellow cable) uses a single cable to transmit video signal. This severely limits the color gamut & signal Q factor that can be transmitted due to limited bandwidth. In effect, when composite video is viewed on a large TV, the video will appear to lack detail (blurry), have noise/interlacing/comb effects & appear dull in color.
S-Video uses two cables (single connector has 4 pins) to transmit the video. This doubles the available bandwidth and increases Sharpness & Color gamut of the video noticeably.
Component uses three cables (RGB) to transmit the video. This provides the best video quality.
HDMI has an advantage of using a single cable to transmit the video along with audio. Video over HDMI has the same clarity and color has component. The video signal does not suffer from interference easily and there is no clarity loss even if the cable is extra long (default 5-6 feet). HDMI also carries audio (encoded and compressed digital audio, up-to 7.1 channels) over the same cable and this really reduces the number of cables required to connect. If a DVD Player were to be connected to a Receiver/Amp using conventional cables, it would require (9 cables = 3 for component video, 6 for 5.1 audio); using HDMI this is reduced to just one!
Pump Up The Volume
I had decided to connect my existing basic Home Theater system to the mix and planned an upgrade to a mid-end Home Theater setup. Hence, I was not looking for loud-thumping sound from the TV. The Onida CRT TV (with sub-woofer) that my dad tends to blast has a sound output worse than the Creative SBS 5.1 speaker set connected to my computer. I had decided that sound should be left to a device that specializes in it. However, I was looking for clear stereo audio from the TV. Tinny audio without any semblance of low-end is not acceptable.
The Onida had the best sound of all. Two large speakers placed at the back of the LCD, producing nice large sound. All other TVs either featured side-panel speakers or down-firing speakers. Miraculously, despite the tine size of the speakers, these TVs produced audio that was clear and could be heard over the loud din of the various shops I was visiting. The Panasonic has basic equalizer controls and surround modes. The surround modes were disappointing but the equalizers were ok to boost up the treble.
Note that it was essential that every TV provide at-least one ‘audio-video output’ (aka Monitor-out), so that I could connect the audio output from the TV into the Home Theatre Amp. All TVs that I checked had this feature.
A few confusing features found scattered across brands were Memory Card Reader, USB connector, Divx compatibility, 100/200 Hz scan, Bluetooth, Device Linking etc.
Samsung, Panasonic featured a SD Card Reader which could display JPEG images stored on it. I think the Samsung also plays MP3 files stored on the card but the Panasonic does not. Onida & LG featured USB ports. Onida Diamond could read MP3 audio & Divx movies stored on a USB key and play them flawlessly. Since I was going in for a new DVD player that featured a USB port & Divx compatibility, this feature was not important to me.
While most TVs display TV broadcast at 50 Hz (the screen is redrawn 50 times a second), A few models in LG featured 100 Hz & 200 Hz refresh. The Panasonic featured 100 Hz refresh. The utility of higher refresh speed becomes evident if you set the display to a financial channel that a fast moving ticker the bottom of the screen.
On most TVs, the ticker tape information appeared quite blurry. The LG 100 Hz TVs displayed an image that was reasonably sharp & the 200 Hz TV displayed a sharper image. The Panasonic 100 Hz TV displayed a image as sharp as the LG 200 Hz TV. Please also note that I was comparing a Panasonic 32″ TV with a LG 47″ TV. Hence, in all fairness I would give equal marks to LG & Panasonic on this count. Increased refresh rate should also be matched with low pixel-response times. A LCD panel with 2-4 ms response times will give you an outstanding image even in fast moving scenes.
She’s Got The Look
Aesthetics wise, Samsung has a dated look. Their curved-crystal look came to the scene almost 3 years back and has not changed since. The Panasonic had a glossy rounded all-black look while the LG had a funky look with curves, highlights, glowing lights at front. I ranked the Panasonic higher since I wanted the TV to have contemporary looks with the least amount of distraction it’s face. The Videocon in-fact had a blue LED in front which glowed really bright. This would completely spoil the fun of watching a movie in a darkened room.
I carried my Asus EeePC 900HA Laptop (Netbook featuring a 8.9″ screen) with me to test PC connectivity. No store I visited had a VGA cable or Computer/Notebook at hand to demonstrate PC connectivity. Their concept of high-end demo was to play a Blue-Ray demo disc. I in-fact saw a LG Demo disc on a Sony TV and vice-versa.
I plan to connect a computer to this TV permanently an use it extensively. Imagine being able to switch between watching TV, playing a movie and checking an email by the press of a button. Imaging being able to read the review of a movie on IMDB just before begining to watch it on TV. Imaging being able rave/bitch about a program with friends over instant messenger just as you are watching the program.
To my horror, PC connectivity gave me a lot of pain. To the extent that I resigned myself and stopped testing. For starters, it appeared that except LG, none of the TVs were returning DDC information. This meant that the Intel Graphics present on the laptop was unable to determine the display resolutions & timings supported by the TVs. The Intel driver by default allowed me access to mostly 4:3 resolutions, while all TVs were 16:9. Display resolutions like VGA (640×480), SVGA (800×600) & XGA (1024×768) were supported by all TVs. The Onida momentarily switched to SXGA (1280×1024) and refused to enter the mode again. Panasonic switched to SXGA but you could make out that it was not the optimum resolutions (flickering lines). None of the TVs switched to a 16:9 resolution (1280×720) and the display drivers did not have an option for WSXGA (1366×768).
I resigned myself to using 1024×768 on which-ever brand of TV I purchased and either tweaking Windows to support SXGA to using a Graphics Accelerator with HDMI output to achieve HD-Ready or Full-HD resolutions.
A point of note here: Except Samsung, No TV provided a dedicated audio-input for the PC. The audio of the PC would have to be shared with AV2. This meant that if you have a computer connected to the TV, you would essentially sacrifice the video ports of AV2 in favor of PC audio. On the Panasonic this reduced the effective number of Composite & Component inputs to just 2 & 1 respectively (Component/Composite AV1, Composite/S-Video AV3).
The Panasonic used an In-Plane Switching (IPS) panel which promises better colors across a wide angle view (178 degress). While IPS panels were available in LG, Samsung etc., the Panasonic was the only one to claim ‘Panel Made in Japan’. It turns out that Panasonic makes it’s own panels while other TV manufacturers source their panels from OEM suppliers such as LG & Samsung. Read more
The way IPS panels are displayed in the market is quite misleading: LG invites you to knock the panel. True enough, gently knocking/pressing the LCD panel on the LG TVs featuring IPS panels does not introduce any image distortion, while on the non-IPS panel TVs, there is characteristic LCD distortion. Though the Panasonic uses a IPS panel, knocking/pressing actually displays a distortion of the image which disappears quickly. This can be explained by the fact that LG panels feature a glass layer in front which prevents pressure on the glass from being transmitted onto the LCD.
IPS panels were not invented to prevent image distortions caused by viewers continuously knocking the panels. It was invented to provide much better angle of viewing without any significant loss of brightness or color inversions. Score 1 for Panasonic for not using bull-shit to explain IPS technology.
The million dollar question
At the end of the day when it came to making the decision, I chose the Panasonic TH-L32X15D. This model displayed the best image quality and the settings left plenty of headroom for me to tweak the image. The number of inputs was ok, the aesthetics, sound quality optimum. Panasonic also had a lucky draw in which won a Benetton Men’s Watch. Also included with the TV was a wall-mounting kit. No connecting cables were included. The remote included batteries. The package was compact enough to load into my Maruti 800 and bring home and install by myself.
While the retail price of the TV is Rs. 44,000/-, the festival offer was for Rs. 41,500/-. After rather severe haggling, my friend Kamal managed to bring the price down-to Rs. 38,000/-, giving me a cost per inch of Rs. 1,187/in.
The Bad, The Ugly and The Evil
I love trashing technology and the first thing I did after I installed the TV at home was to look for bad aspects of the TV which are easily overlooked in the showroom.
Color Casting Couch
The first thing I noticed that the image being displayed from the Tata Sky set-top box (connected to AV1 over composite cable) had a red-cast. Tomatoes look bloody and Indian women look like Russians at a sauna. This color-cast is absent if viewing images off a SD-Card or over PC/VGA input. It appears that this color-cast affects images that are received over Composite video. The solution to this problem is to set the Color Temperature (from the Picture menu) of the image to ‘Cool’ instead of ‘Normal’ or’Warm’. I would be testing this TV using a Onida DVD Player (over HDMI & Component) in the next few days and will have an update on this issue.
SD Card Limitations
The included SD Card reader images JPG images up-to 10 MP and scales them well to display on the screen. The TV in fact has a slide show option with 3 types of transitions and 3 looping music clips in-built. On the flip side, the TV does not support playback of MP3 & popular video formats like Divx. The TV supports playback of AVCHD video from the SD Card.
AVCHD is the video format used by Blue-Ray discs and Video cameras by Panasonic that record on Hard-discs & DVDs in HD-Ready & Full-HD formats. While I will be using either the DVD Player or Computer to play the various Divx & MKV format movies that I have, if I choose to use the SD Card I would be required to convert all the videos into AVCHD format.
Though the paper advertisement claimed 3 year extended warranty for Panasonic televisions during their ‘Bollywood Dreams’ offer this festive season, I was informed by company personnel that this TV only featured a 1 year warranty. In fact, all TVs I checked only had 1 year warranty. The same TVs in USA feature a 3 year warranty. Company policy on dead-pixel LCD replacement was also unclear. It is neither mentioned in the manual (just says that some dead/stuck pixels are normal) nor on Panasonic’s website.
I have the TV installed on the stand provided (compact, swivelling, heavy) in the drawing room and the wall-mouting bracket in my bedroom. Should I get cranky, I can easily shift the TV from it’s drawing room stand and relocate it to the bedroom.
There’s ton of issues that I am yet to test. HDMI connectivity from PC, tweaking VGA to support WXGA /WSXGA resolutions, Color-cast test, pixel response test etc. etc.
Updates if any will be available right here. So be sure to check back.
It’s been close to 3 weeks that I have been using the TV now and now understand it’s limits. Here are a few gripes:
- Computer Connectivity: This model does not transmit DDC information to computer via VGA port, hence it’s a royal pain to connect a computer to the TV and being able to select the optimum resolution of 1366×768. It however connects to HDMI enabled computers quite well. I connected a latest HP Laptop to the TV using HDMI cable and not only did the laptop detect the TV& it’s optimum resolution, but the TV also received audio from the laptop via HDMI (thanks to HP for sending audio via HDMI port).
- Color Gamut: The TV has a good color gamut & passable contrast. When watching movies with a mix of dark & bright areas, images appeared lively but dark grays turned out to be blacks. Playing ‘Half Blood Prince’ via computer-over-HDMI bought out details very well and the experience was really enjoyable, but shadow details were missing. Playing games using the HP Laptop & the PS3 (connected using HDMI) really demonstrated the vivid picture quality of the TV. Images jumped off the screen and color were so vivid, they hurt.
- Sound: Sound is pathetic. Nothing even remotely good can be said about it. Any sound that has even a slight bass in it, made the speakers flutter horribly and completely destroyed the fun. While watching House M.D. on the TV was fun, the flutter of the speakers in the title music (Teardrops by Massive Attack) gave a bitter taste. Have to connect a Home Theater /External Speakers for decent sound.
Over the last few weeks I have been noticing the degrading image quality on this TV. The color gamut of the TV has narrowed considerably to a point where the image on it looks like that of a 15 year old CRT! To visualize the bad image quality, remember the red-background image on which Discovery Travel & Living announced the program name (when returning from a break). The image has delicate shades of red-gray, forming a web like pattern. Well, I don’t see any shades. Just a fluoroscent red background on which the program name appears in white.
Technically (I have demonstrated this to Panasonic Service Centre using PC connectivity), if you view the test pattern #1 on this TV, the leftmost 4 blocks of each color are reduced to black and the righmost 3-4 bars of each color are reduced to a single colour. In other words, I don’t see fine gradations in colours anymore. As a result, in Raymond’s ads, I no longer see a man wearing a suite with fine fabric detail and highlight – just a man wearing a ink-black suit. No other details visible.
I have demonstrated this fact to Panasonic technical staff and I am waiting for a resolution.
I was invited to a brand new Panasonic exclusive showroom by the company service staff. I connected my Asus Netbook to multiple 32″ TVs to check the image quality. I used Test Pattern #1 & #2. Most of the TVs displayed a marked lack of gray levels. The bottom (up-to 4 bars from left) of each colour & gray is just pitch black. The top end (up-to 4 bars from right) of merged into the brightest shade. This means that if a person wears a navy-suit in the image, you will see pitch black. No details (fibre, shadows, highlights). Also in images of Tomato, you will see the entire tomato as fluorescent red! No shades of red.
Also, the upper end models of Panasonic suffer from this problem very acutely, while the lower end models fare slightly better. In their attempt at making images vivid on more expensive models, Panasonic has messed up the electronics to an extent where the only color bars you see in the test pattern are the ones in the middle of the spectrum. In light of this events, I will advise you to steer clear of the Panasonic TVs until they sort these problems out.
Now that the local service personnel understand the problem, I will have a tough challenge of convincing the Panasonic babus at Head-office.
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