Cool stuff: Your 2007 holiday gift guide

More than 50 amazing gifts for the technology lovers in your life

Home theater

Yes, we know: You're not really likely to buy a plasma HDTV or a high-def DVD player for a friend. But these home theater knockouts make great family gifts -- which means you get to enjoy them, too.

Large-screen HDTV: Will that be plasma or LCD?

Plasma: 50-in. Panasonic 1080p TH-50PZ700U

In a world in which the real-world performances of hot new consumer electronics products rarely live up to their billings, we have the antidote: Plasma HDTVs really shine.

Early this year, leading plasma HDTV makers issued the first 1080p plasma TVs, an advent I'd been waiting for. After an intense round of specification and visual comparisons, I selected Panasonic's 50-in. 1080p plasma HDTV, model number TH-50PZ700U.

I paid more than US$3,000 for it, but you won't have to. The prices have dropped, and you can buy it online for US$2,200 or in big box consumer electronics stores for around US$2,600.

Over the six months I've owned this HDTV, I've been extremely happy with this it. The picture quality is superb, the sound quality is very good (even with just the built-in speakers), and it does a very good job with standard definition TV.

Just recently, independent testing by Consumer Reports confirmed my assessment of this model, picking it as the best-performing plasma in its test. This is the one to get if you want the state of the art without paying for features you don't really need.

But do you really need 1080p? That depends on what kind of programming you want to view. You can get away with a 720p plasma screen -- such as Panasonic's 50-in. 720p plasma HDTV, model number TH-50PX75U, which will save you US$1,000 or so -- if you're mostly focused on HDTV and not all that interested in watching movies at their very best.

If you're a movie buff, however, the first time you connect a Blu-ray or HD DVD player to this plasma model, you'll experience the proverbial "aha" moment. That's what 1080p is all about. (1080p sets also handle HDTV just as well as 720p sets.)

There's no question that if you want the best picture quality, plasma is the way to go. The other flat-screen technologies are improving, and they come close. But nothing matches the overall plasma experience. Go to a Circuit City or Best Buy and compare with your own eyes. You'll see what I mean.

LCD: 46-in. Sony Bravia 1080p KDL-46V3000

Plasmas are for quality purists. Practical people should give strong consideration to the very best LCD flat-screen HDTVs too. For one thing, many 50-in. plasma TVs suck up 600 to 700 watts of power whenever they're turned on, while comparably sized LCDs run in the 200-to-300-watt range. Plasmas are also much heavier than LCDs, a factor that complicates installation and leads to safety concerns. And the reliability of plasma over time is less well known.

On the other hand, LCDs don't display shades of black as well as plasma, and their colors are less saturated. And HDTV LCDs tend to display ghosting and lack plasma's crisp edges when playing standard definition TV.

Sony's Bravia line, however, successfully compensates for these minor shortcomings. Bravia LCDs are very bright, but the light is controlled so it doesn't wash out the colors. Up close, you'll see some pixelation, but Sony's Bravia HDTVs do a pretty good job on fast-motion scenes, such as sports action.

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