Technology moves fast, doesn't it. The interest in 3D TVs and 3D technology seen in 2010 has shown no sign of declining so far during 2011, with the major manufacturers working hard to introduce multiple new 3D TVs to their ranges. Whereas only 18 months ago you might have laughed at the idea of getting a high quality entertainment experience from watching a 3D TV at home, but now the latest breakthrough developments in technology - and the resulting improvements in picture quality and the experience itself - are bearing fruit.
The latest releases of 3D TVs from the major manufacturers are ensuring that the technology is taking its place on the 'must have' list of gadgets we want in our homes, with recently published surveys of US based and Middle East based TV owners showing that they rate their 3D viewing experiences very highly, with the majority reporting watching 3D TV as a positive experience.
So now seems like a great time for anyone who has been considering whether to buy a 3D TV to jump in. But if you are venturing into the world of 3D TVs for the first time you are going to find that it's not a particularly straightforward one. There are multiple manufacturers, models, sizes, display types, and a wide variation in prices. Panasonic alone have 14 new models, LG a further seven, with displays ranging from 32 up to and over 70 inches.
The choice gets further complicated because there are different technologies involved in driving how the 3D TVs actually work. Plus you'll need to consider if it's right to wait for the recently announced Sony PlayStation 3D TV or no glasses models to hit the shelves. Add to that the issues surrounding 3D glasses and the questions over what content is available to watch, and anyone would be forgiven for feeling they're facing a bewildering amount of choices.
However, as with any series of choices that look complicated, there are ways to simplify and it all becomes much clearer when you start to break them down. In this article I'll try to cover each main area you'll need to consider when trying to understand 3D TVs and the technology that drives them. Hopefully this will give you a good starting point to finding out exactly which 3D TV is right for you.
1. 3D TV Technology - Active vs Passive? - Which One Is Best?....
We need to start at one of the areas of 3D TVs that is the most critical to understand, so let's tackle the technologies. Watching 3D TV requires the viewer to wear glasses, and will do until no glasses 3D TVs become commercially available. 3D TV without glasses is still some way off, and though there are models under development it could be years before one is available at the quality levels and price points of current with glasses models.
So when we look at the technology used in 3D TVs the choice you face is between active shutter and passive models. These terms actually refer to the way the 3D glasses work with the TV, and could have a huge impact on how you approach all the other choices you'll need to consider.
Passive models are a fairly new innovation, with LG Electronics causing a shake up in the market with the recent release of their LG Cinema 3D TV range. The passive 3D glasses are lightweight and cheap to buy, in fact very similar to the ones you get at the cinema. LG claim their new sets are flicker free and have significantly reduced ghosting, two of the problems which have traditionally affected the better known active shutter glasses TVs. The main drawback is that they work at half the resolution of active sets, though this does not necessarily mean that there are significant picture quality differences. LG's 3D technology combines the image presented to the left eye with the image to the right to form one picture with the 3D effect. The passive glasses then filter the correct image to the relevant eye using by use of simple polarised lenses.
Active 3D TVs use glasses that are heavier, more uncomfortable, and much more expensive. Roughly a hundred times more expensive in the case of some models. They need batteries as a power source whereas the passive glasses do not. They work by using built in shutters in the glasses to display alternate frames to each eye at ultra high speed. The speed in which these alternate frames are delivered creates the 3D effect, and the shutter glasses interact with the TV by using either a built in or external synchronisation transmitter. The main benefit of active technology is that images are displayed at full HD resolution. The problems, apart from cost and discomfort, are that they can reduce brightness levels and are more prone to producing flickering images on some sets. Another issue is that some active glasses only work with the manufacturers set they're supplied with, although there are some universal makes available.
Let's not make a big deal about these issues though, many viewers wear active glasses without problems and millions of sets have already been sold worldwide. Clearly they work, and work well.
But what about the end result, do active or passive 3D TVs give the best overall image quality?
Yes, the glasses used in passive 3D TVs are cheaper and more comfortable to wear. But does this spell out the reason why you'd want to go passive rather than active? Surely quality is the overriding factor which needs the most consideration?
Well, that's not totally true. There is another difference emerging between the two technologies, and that's the potential of health issues. The way the active glasses work - by alternately showing images to left and right eyes at turn - does cause headaches and occasionally nausea for some people. The experts say this is unlikely to cause real long term damage, though it's early days still for 3D TV and we may not be absolutely certain about that for some time. The reduced flicker from passive models does mean that headaches and are strain are less likely to be experienced.
But now to the quality. Definitely the most important factor....and the reality is that there's not much in it. The most recently released active 3D TVs from the likes of Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic have all been subject to improvements which reduce flicker and crosstalk. They look good. The LG Cinema 3D TVs have got great reviews in general, but the most telling reviews indicate that when viewed side by side with high quality active models, the active sets still just win out. For any of us who want a great 3D experience, it's clear that both active and passive 3D televisions will give us what we're looking for.
2. Display Types - Are Plasma, LCD or LED 3D TVs Best?
First it's a good idea to understand what these display types mean. The CNET article on 3D TVs describes gives a good basic description of LED, LCD, and plasma displays.
But for now let's look at the different types of displays from a 3D perspective. One of the major differences is in the processing capability or speed of each type, often known as the refresh rate. Plasma 3D TVs have historically performed at higher refresh rates, though LCD and LED 3D TVs have been catching up over recent years. Recent LCD/LED models work at anywhere between 120 and 480Hz, whereas the best plasmas are now operating at anywhere up to 600Hz.
This means that Plasma 3D TVs are able to show the full range of 1080 lines of resolution to both our eyes, although the difference in quality between the two as a result of this is only important to anyone who is looking for the absolute best. For many viewers this difference in quality is not critical, and is most obvious only if you set the two different types side by side and compare them. It could become more of an issue when watching fast paced action such as sports in 3D, but with most 3D content at this stage being of the animated movie type that's not a current problem.
The biggest differences in overall quality are apparent in three main areas - crosstalk or image ghosting, depth of images, and brightness/colour levels.
Crosstalk -or ghosting as it's sometimes known - is the slight blur you'll sometimes see around the edges of 3D images, and is one of the main quality issues encountered with 3D TVs. It's very similar to the effect you see when watching 3D images without glasses, and is caused by seeing the two images (which are supposed to be delivered at slightly different times to each of you eyes separately) too close together so they partly merge into one.
You can also encounter crosstalk if the glasses are not properly synchronised with the TV. With their higher refresh rates the best of the plasma models are better at eliminating or at least significantly reducing the ghosting effect, however LG's recently released passive 3D TV models - the LG Cinema 3D TV range - perform very well in this respect as the glasses don't need to be so well synchronised with the TV.
Other positives for plasma include its ability to show depth in images and give a better or wider viewing angle. These aspects are of course hugely important in the viewing of 3D where immersion is the key to a great experience. Depth enhances this immersive quality, and the wider viewing angle gives an overall better experience to the viewer.
But when we consider brightness and colour it's the LCD/LED 3D TVs that start to come out on top. The difference here is caused because plasma TV displays tend to show darker images, though recent top if the range models have seen improvements and yet again there's not much in it when you compare the two side by side. The LCD sets do win out though when compared to the cheaper plasmas with more clear and vivid images.
As a summary, it's easy to see that in the quality stakes the plasma 3D TV sets win out in most important areas, and generally perform better than LCD/LED. And it'll be no surprise to see that it's a Panasonic Plasma 3D TV - the PVT30 - that consistently gets the best reviews and recommendations.
3. The Manufacturers - Who Makes The 3D TVs?
Without the major manufacturers we all know, there would of course be very few 3D TVs on offer. There are nine major TV manufacturers that have 3D TVs in their ranges, and a handful of other that operate on a smaller scale. Quality varies as you'd expect, though almost every manufacturer has at least one model that has attracted good reviews, either from a pricing or quality perspective. The manufacturers have cleverly engineered their 3D TV models so they sit at the top of their ranges, meaning you get a stunning quality traditional 2D HDTV at the same time as getting the option to watch in 3D too.
4. How Big Do You Need It - What Difference Does Size Make?
Finally we need to look at display size. Bigger is generally better as far as 3D TV viewing is concerned, but when considering display size you really need to think your the home environment. Room size is what counts as well as budget. You're unlikely to get the benefits of a huge screen in a small room, so you need to make the choice based on what will fit and where you can sit in proximity to the display. Also the bigger screens tend to make small flaws in pictures more obvious the closer you sit. The ideal seating distance looks to be around 3 or 4 times the height of the TV. Getting a good balance is essential for the best viewing experience, and ideally it's best to aim to get a 3D TV that can fill your vision, but be positioned at a distance that still gives sharp and clear images. As an example, the minimum seating distance recommended by Panasonic for their 65 inch model is 8 feet.
5. Get The Best Deals - Pricing Levels of 3D TVs
Prices of 3D TVs are falling all the time, though of course there is a wide spread in pricing between the cheapest and the highest quality models. If you think back to the introduction of HD Tvs, initial prices of those were sometimes in the $10,000 range. That's vastly different now, with many available at less than $1000. When Samsung released the first of their plasma 3D TVs the 40 inch set cost roughly a third more than the equivalent 2D set, but now the cheapest 3D TV is very close in price to a standard 2D HD. Prices start at around $600 - $700. The new PlayStation 3D TV - due to be released late in 2011 - will reportedly retail for around $500.
6. Know What You Can Watch - 3D Content Availability
There are a number options for watching 3D content on your new 3D TV. These include either watching 3D Blu-ray discs via a Blu-ray Player, streamed content via 3D TV channels or 3D video on demand services, or by taking advantage of the 2D to 3D conversion capability that's built in to various 3D TV models. I don't propose to cover these in depth here, just click on any of the links for more info.
7. Summary - How Do You Tie It All together
I've simplified it in some areas, but you can see there are a number of choices to make if you are considering whether to take the plunge and buy a 3D TV now. The best option, certainly for anyone new to 3D TV, is to first spend some time studying. Read up on the technology at a site like 3DTVGuide.org, study a number of real buyer reviews at Amazon, and then visit a store that carries a wide range of demo models and try them out live. With such a huge choice of 3D TVs to work with, that's pretty much the only way you'll guarantee to get a set that suits you best and meets your needs, at a price you're comfortable with balanced against the quality you'll receive.
As far as the future goes, we're not far off the point where we don't say ''3D TV'' any more. We just say TV, because that's what we all expect a TV to be capable of. 3D TVs are still very much at the start of their journey. Successful mass acceptance cannot be achieved without focus long term focus and relentless attention to innovation and persistent development, two qualities which the TV manufacturing industry clearly possesses in abundance.
Steve Cross is the webmaster of the comprehensive 3D TV guide website at http://www.3dtvguide.org/. The site contains detailed easy to read info on 3D TVs in general.