Nov. 28, 2011 at 8:39 AM ET
By Gary Merson and Geoff Morrison
By now, I'm sure you've heard about 3-D HDTV. However, the poor roll-out and competing viewing formats have made 3-D one of the most confusing features ever.
This guide will help you decide which 3-D-equipped HDTV is right for you.
What it is
3-D TV is more accurately described as "stereoscopic" television. You may recall View-Master slide viewers — these are an early example of 3-D TV, just minus the TV part. The underlying principle is the same: Two distinct views are made of the same object, one as the left eye sees it, and the other as the right eye sees it. To view in 3-D, the left eye must only see the left eye view and the right eye the right view.
If there is leakage between the different views (as in, the left eye sees some of the right image, or vice versa), ghost images appear when viewing. This is known as crosstalk, an obvious issue that degrades the viewing experience.
Types of 3-D
There are two distinct types of 3-D televisions: active and passive.
Passive 3-D requires the cheap, lightweight glasses you get at most 3-D movie theaters. These "circular polarized" glasses are interchangeable among the different passive 3-D TV brands, such as LG and Toshiba. A number of third-party companies now sell passive 3-D glasses as well. The proponents of passive 3-D, like LG, continue to campaign against the active format. Passive 3-D TVs assign half their lines of resolution to each eye, so at any given moment each eye receives 1,920×540 resolution.
Active 3-D uses battery-powered "active-shutter" glasses with simple LCDs as lenses. These block/pass the light when synced to the television. The glasses are manufacturer-specific 3-D glasses, and as they are more complex than passive 3-D glasses, cost more. Most sync to the TV with IR (infrared, like a remote) but a growing number are wireless (Bluetooth, etc). Active 3-D TVs provide full 1080p resolution to each eye.
In addition to a 3-D TV, you need a 3-D source. The most common is Blu-ray. Currently, Blu-ray players with 3-D as a feature command a slight price premium over their 2-D-only counterparts. Even so, inexpensive 3-D Blu-ray players abound. Blu-ray is currently the only way to get full 1080p 3-D. All other sources deliver lower 3-D resolution.
A growing number of cable providers, along with DirecTV, are offering a few 3-D channels.
DirecTV and Comcast have carried ESPN 3-D since its launch. Time Warner Cable and Verizons FiOS followed suit shortly thereafter. DirecTV also offers dedicated 3D channels such as n3D, 3net and DirecTV Cinema (a VOD service).
Starz 3-D is available VOD on Cablevision, Cox, Verizon, Blue Ridge and Comcast. (The latter also has Xfinity 3-D.)
(Unlike Blu-ray 3-D, all other sources of 3-D are partial resolution. This is out of the need to fit the 3-D signal in the same space as a 2-D signal. Geoff has a detailed article about the technology behind this.)
Remember, 3-D is a feature. All 3-D TVs can display a 2-D image. And all top of the line TVs are now 3-D. Most importantly, remember that 3-D TVs make the best 2-D pictures.
Fortunately, 3-D doesn't add much of a price premium over 2-D TVs. Generally speaking, adding 3-D tacks on about $30 on mid-range 46-to-50-inch TVs, and about $100 for mid-range 55-inch. For example, an LG Infinia 55LV5500 55-Inch 1080p LED-LCD HDTV with Internet capability costs $1,290, while the step-up 3-D version, the 55LW5600 is just $89 more on Amazon. And the difference between the Samsung 46-inch UN46D6300 and the 3-D UN46D6500 was just $25 last we checked.
Some other 3-D models to look into are the Panasonic Viera 50-inch TC-P50ST30 and the Samsung 51-inch PN51D550 — two plasmas that are currently selling for well under $900.
(TV prices are of course subject to change without notice, especially between Black Friday and Christmas.)
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