The Well-Wired Home

Flat-Screen TV
Plasma or LCD?

What You Need to Know
If you’ve been sitting on the flat-screen fence, it’s a good time to jump off. The biggest price drop has already happened: On average, prices fell more than 20 percent last year; a $9,600 50-inch Hitachi plasma can now be had for $4,300. Although prices will continue to drop at a projected 10 to 15 percent annual rate, you can buy now and feel safe that you won’t look like a fool in a few months.

And the shift to high-definition television is finally happening, with networks airing 4,800 hours this year, including Lost and ER (on cable, much of ESPN is already HD, as is HBO). Many flat-screens have HDTV as standard, so you’ll get a better as well as bigger picture.

If you decide to buy a flat-screen TV, the main choice you’ll face is, plasma or LCD? Aficionados debate the two technologies endlessly. All you need to know is that unless you play video games constantly, plasma is the way to go. LCDs have a slightly clearer picture, but plasma is cheaper and bigger (up to 70 inches, as opposed to 50). Don’t be scared off by stories of “image burn” on plasmas (which happens when the pixels inside the TV get hot enough to scorch an image that’s been displayed for several hours—say, Super Mario or CNN’s ticker—permanently onto the screen). You can easily avoid this with a screen saver (built in on some models)—or by just turning the damn TV off occasionally.

Unless you have a dedicated home theater, stick to the 42-to-55-inch range. Get an HDTV tuner built in so you don’t have to buy an extra box. Same goes for a surround-sound decoder, which lets you hook up the TV to multiple speakers. Forget a space-hogging stand. Get a multidirectional wall mount instead.

When you judge picture quality, stand about ten feet away to check brightness and contrast. Look at the edges of the images as they move. If they bleed, go to another TV.

What You Don’t Need to Know
During your research, you’ll encounter many sci-fi-sounding terms. Cd/m2 refers to screen brightness: Understand that this count should be high (at least 400:1), that’s all. Don’t worry about aspect ratios—they refer to the dimensions of your TV’s wide-screen mode. Ditto for progressive scanning, which makes the picture richer—most HDTVs have it.

Don’t worry about how thin the TV is: They’re all just inches thick. Ignore talk of calibration and the ISF to optimize color. TVs come with adjustable presets. If you’re fussy, call a professional to set perfect tones.

Sales folk will hawk home-theater systems and treat you as an audiophile. But not everyone needs surround sound. Live with the TV speakers for a month, then decide if they’re good enough. You can always install more later.Unless you live in the suburbs, don’t bother with rear-projection HDTVs. They’re inexpensive but too big for most New York apartments. And don’t worry about SED or OLED TVs—the next generation of flat-screen technology—until at least 2006, when the price will come down.

(1) Best
Hitachi 55HDX61 55-inch plasma HDTV, $8,000
Terrific brightness and contrast, excellent speakers, and all the trimmings (Sixth Avenue Electronics; 201-489-0666).

(2) Very Good
Toshiba 42HPX84 42-inch plasma HDTV, $4,500
The cinema series is Toshiba’s best. You can’t do better for the price (J&R Music & Computer World; 800-806-1115).

(3) Budget
Norcent PT4231 EDTV, $1,700
Enhanced-definition is still better than regular (if not as good as true HD). This 42-inch model has decent stereo speakers and a ton of inputs (B&H Photo; 212-239-7765).

Satellite Radio
Sirius or XM?

What You Need to Know
If you’re a serious radio listener, you should subscribe to satellite radio. Consider the few hundred dollars you’ll pay for a new receiver and the $12.95 monthly fee a small price to pay for freedom (mostly) from commercials—with no static reception and a far greater range of music choice thrown in.

You have a choice between two major providers, XM and Sirius, which are going head-to-head to attract big-time talent and exclusive sports events. Most of you will want to choose Sirius: Although the subscriber base is much smaller (1.2 million versus 3.5 million), the programming is superior. With 150 channels, XM has a ton of Christian rock stations and NASCAR broadcasts—great for Middle America, but not for most New York residents. At 120 channels, Sirius has pro and college basketball and NFL football (XM has baseball) and better talk and edgier music stations: Air America, NPR, a hip-hop channel run by Eminem, the E Street Band’s Little Steven’s fantastic Underground Garage channel, and, in 2006, Howard Stern.

Activating your radio is as simple as logging on to a Website: To get started, all you’ll need is a receiver and a credit card. Make sure you buy a model with a plug-and-play receiver that detaches from the radio—then you can easily move it from home to car to beach (XM does have an advantage here—it’s a standard option in more car models). Be prepared for the occasional signal dropout, even though the newest receivers have a special antenna to minimize this.

What You Don’t Need to Know
On their Websites, both XM and Sirius explain how their satellites are the bee’s knees. Save your eyes. A satellite is a satellite. Both offer great digital signals. Similarly, don’t worry about receiver specs; there’s little difference between them. Don’t even think about the enticing video services each company says they’ll roll out; you’ll probably need a new receiver to get the shows, and they won’t be available until late 2006 at the earliest.

Top: Best
Tivoli Model Satellite No. 175, $299 If you still want AM-FM integrated with your satellite programming, this Sirius radio, with its pretty cherrywood cabinet, is for you (Harvey Electronics; 212-575-5000).

Bottom: Budget
Sirius Sportster, $99
Geared toward sports enthusiasts, this receiver prompts you with a beep and an onscreen message when your team is playing; it’ll also hunt for your favorite song (Circuit City; 718-399-2990).

Home Phone
Landline or Broadband?

What You Need To Know
Your landline is often clogged with static. Your cell phone is unreliable and expensive. It might be time to switch to an Internet line—much hyped since the mid-nineties, now finally ready for neophytes. It’s cheaper—especially on international calls—and often clearer, too.There are about a dozen services to choose from, but the best is Vonage, which has 550,000 subscribers. At $24.99 monthly for unlimited local and long-distance calls within the U.S., it’s cheaper than your landline, with much better functionality than free services like Skype. Vonage has a 911 service (many broadband plans don’t) and a slew of free add-ons like voice mail and caller I.D. If you make a lot of international calls, it’s a bargain: 3 cents a minute to London versus 93 cents from Verizon. And it’s easy to keep your old phone (it plugs into an adapter) and number (although it won’t be published in the book). Installation takes ten minutes: Plug Vonage’s router into your cable modem, then plug your phone into the router, and you’re set.

What You Don’t Need to Know
If you encounter acronyms like PSTN, RTP, and SIP, forget them. They’re all shorthand for the technology protocols that bring the service to you. You don’t need to know how the phone works without slowing down Web surfing or downloading: Just be thankful that it does.

The Well-Wired Home