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What Is an LCD or LED TV (and Why Does It Matter to You)?

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Buying a flat-screen TV can be daunting -- not only do you have settle on a brand and screen size, but you also have to choose a technology type. Head to any store that sells TVs, and you're likely to see a lot of LCD and LED TVs. But what is an LCD or LED TV? What does that mean, and why is it important?

What is an LCD TV?
The term "LCD" is an abbreviation, meaning "liquid crystal display." In contrast to the old tube-based televisions or shortly lived DLP TVs, LCD TVs offer a high-definition picture with a very thin screen, and have emerged as the dominant high-definition technology. In recent years, LCD TVs have accounted for almost 90% of the flat-screen market. Put simply, the vast majority of modern high-definition televisions you're likely to see in stores or in people's homes are LCD TVs.

But what about LED TVs? In reality, they're pretty much the same thing. That is to say, LED TVs are LCD TVs -- they just have an extra feature that older LCD TVs lacked. LED TVs, in contrast to older LCDs, have LED backlighting, leading to modest improvements in the picture quality.

A few years ago, this was a serious debate -- was it worth it to pay more for an LED TV? But at this point, TV manufacturers have basically abandoned standard LCD sets, replacing them almost entirely with LED models.

But LCD TVs aren't the only sort of high-definition TVs available -- there are also plasma screens, OLED sets, and projectors.

LCD vs. plasma
In general, plasma TVs offer better picture quality than LCD sets at comparable prices. Unfortunately, they tend to be a bit thicker and heavier, produce more heat, use more energy, and reflect more light compared with LCDs. Early plasmas also had a number of problems, including image retention (a still image left too long could burn into the screen permanently). Later plasmas solved many of these issues, but consumers continued to shy away.

As a result, Panasonic, one of the largest plasma TV makers, exited the business last year. Now there are only two companies that make them -- Samsung and LG -- and maybe not for much longer.

Both companies are betting on OLED, an emerging technology that promises far better picture quality than what plasma and LCD have offered. Samsung and LG have OLED TVs for sale right now, but don't expect to see them in many homes anytime soon. Samsung's 55-inch OLED retails for $9,000, while LG's competing model costs $10,000. What's notable about OLEDs is that they are curved -- Samsung and LG's TVs literally bend inward, forming a half-circle.

The curve might be more marketing stunt than design decision -- HDTVTest, reviewing Samsung's curved TV, noted that it could turn many buyers away. In time, I would expect flat OLED TVs to appear, but for now, if you come across a curved TV, know that it's an extremely high-end OLED.

LCD vs projector
The last alternative isn't so much a competing TV technology, as it is a different way to experience visual content. Projectors, compared with LCD TVs, offer a number of advantages and drawbacks.

On the plus side, projectors allow for enormous screens -- given a large enough room, a projector can output an image literally dozens of feet wide. They're also less expensive than LCDs TVs of similar quality. If you want a fantastic picture that's 100 inches or larger, going with a projector is by far the best bet.

But they do have their drawbacks -- namely, setup. A projector is not like an LCD TV in that you can just stick it in any room and plug it into the wall. Projectors require mounting, and a corresponding screen across the room. If you don't have the space for that, it's obviously not going to work, and if the room is bright, forget about it -- in order to see the picture, you need a dimly lit room.

LCDs are the standard
Because of the constraints, projectors are relatively uncommon -- most high-definition viewing is done on LCD screens. For the vast majority of TV manufacturers, that's all they produce. In fact, LCD TVs are so popular, the term has basically become synonymous with high-definition flat panels.

If you're in the market for a new TV, and you aren't willing to hunt down a plasma or pony up the cash for a high-end OLED, you'll be getting an LCD.

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Read/Post Comments (8) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 4:40 PM, segarolow4 wrote:

    I have a 55"LCD TV,, Had it about 5 years.

    And love it. Not going to buy anything new.And my TV has all kinds of hook ups open on it yet...

    I run NetFlix/RedBox/and W/B's into it...

    And have more then I can watch....

    And cut the cable TV out...

    Retired 61, and having fun..

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 5:53 PM, sammaffei wrote:

    There's more to OLED than just curve (in fact curve has little to do with it). OLEDs have very high contrast ratios because they don't use a backlight at all. The actual pixels emit light the light and the black area is where no light is emitted at all. Many smaller devices (like the original version of the PS Vita) use OLEDs and there is a noticeable positive visible difference.

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 5:57 PM, ManoftheRepublic wrote:

    OLED is far more than a curve, it is as good or better than Plasma for picture quality... for a while,., But OLED has problems with longevity,,,, If you have a lot of money and do not care if you only get a couple of years out of the TV, OLED is for you,,, If you are a SANE consumer stick with LED....

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2014, at 8:08 PM, frellmedead wrote:

    Very disappointed that Panasonic discontinued their plasma TVs, especially after they bought the infinite black technology from Pioneer. I still see the image blur in LED sets.

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 2:16 AM, donlargo wrote:

    4K TVs are a dime a dozen over on this side of the Pacific and the images are just fantastic. The only thing you have to be careful of is not to walk through your TV after mistaking it for the real world.

    Americans these days seem to live with technology the way countries like Mexico used to--about a decade behind the curve.

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 8:50 AM, oldfart139 wrote:

    Don't know why you dismiss DLP sets so quickly - I bought a 60" Mitsubishi several years ago, because it was much cheaper than LED sets of the same size. I am happy with the picture quality and have not had to replace the lamp yet, in spite of much use both for TV, DVDs and as the monitor for my main computer. It just takes an HDMI cable to get the whole internet onto my 60" screen - great for streaming video.

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 8:38 PM, PsiKick wrote:

    LCD TV has a CFL backlight

    LED TV is an LCD with an LED backlight that uses much less power, has a much longer lifetime and better color than a CFL LCD TV

    Plasma TV is emissive, the image is emitted from the screen. All LCD's are transmissive, the image is projected through the screen and has viewing angle problems that emissive displays don't have. Plasma uses more power than an LCD and might have more long term brightness and color issues but it's generally cheaper than a similar sized LCD or LED.

    OLED TV is also emissive but has lifetime issues, the technology is still young. Probably will displace LCD in 15 years as LCD is displacing plasma today.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 2:27 PM, marine777666 wrote:

    LCD is PURE JUNK- same as a Computer and IF you look close and see side ways- it has a BLUE HUE-JUNK! LED/LCD is better but NO WHERS as great as Plasma and when they told you Plasma's are HOT and HEAVY they were SPEAKING of LONG ago- whoever wrote this is a they are paper thin and will last for more years than you will proble use them! BUY Plasma for a GREATR PICTURE..DLP- better than LED----TRY to get the 240 HTZ and NOT the 120 as that is older but it stops BLUR in FAST MOVING vSCEANS BETTER than the 120 and FORGET 3D unless ya have kids- JUNK...

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Sam Mattera

Sam has a love of all things finance. He writes about tech stocks and consumer goods.

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