No longer the "latest thing," high-definition TV is nonetheless still an evolving technology, with improved displays making already sharp...

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No longer the “latest thing,” high-definition TV is nonetheless still an evolving technology, with improved displays making already sharp pictures even sharper. LCD TVs are among the leaders in this advance, with many models incorporating the new 1,080p resolution. Close on their heels, however, are plasma sets.

Noted for their thin profiles, large screens and wide viewing angles, plasma sets have so far been slow to incorporate 1,080p. (The designation refers to the number of pixels per inch. The higher the number — standard HDTV is 720p — the greater the resolution and the sharper the image.) That pace is expected to pick up in the second half of next year. Meanwhile, there are lots of very good 720p plasma sets on the market.

Top picks in plasma

Our latest tests of plasma sets looked at 42-inch and 50-inch models. Many have peculiarities that have long dogged plasma TV: reflections from shiny screens (antireflective coatings help minimize this) and burn-in from static images such as news tickers or video games (screensaver-type features offer some protection). Yet plasma remains a good buy for anyone who wants a thin, big-screen bargain in HDTV.

42-inch models. Our top-rated smaller set, the Panasonic TH-42PX600U ($2,500), featured good picture quality when tested with high-definition signals and good quality in standard definition. It comes with a CableCard slot (enabling reception of scrambled cable channels) and PC input.

The Panasonic TH-42PX60U can’t decode scrambled signals on its own, and scored slightly lower overall, but costs $500 less.

With a resolution of 1,024 by 1,080, the Hitachi UltraVision 42HDS69 ($2,000) has enough pixels vertically to display all the lines in an HD signal, but horizontal resolution falls short of true 1,080p.

For fine value in a 42-inch set, we like the HP PL4260N ($1,700). It has very good picture quality in high definition and excellent sound quality.

50-inch models. Like its 42-inch brand mate, the Panasonic TH-50PX600U ($3,600) leads this pack. It offers CableCard capacity and a PC slot to go along with very good HD picture quality and excellent sound.

Although not as feature-laden, the Panasonic TH-50PX60U ($3,000) did very well with high-definition signals.

With a built-in DVR (digital video recorder), CableCard and very good HD picture quality and sound, the LG 50PC1DR offers a lot for $3,300. Plus, it comes with a 24-month warranty on parts and labor.

The Fujitsu Plasmavision P50XTA51UB has a 36-month warranty, CableCard slot and very good HD picture quality, but even all that may not justify its $5,500 price.

Better values are the lower scoring (but still good) HP PL5060N ($2,600) and Zenith Z50PX2D ($2,500).

Worth the wait?

Although we didn’t include any in our latest ratings, the average price of a true 1,080p plasma set (50 inch) is expected to hover around $5,400 this month, according to DisplaySearch, an Austin, Texas-based market-research firm. If you’re willing to wait awhile for potentially the best HD picture quality, that price is forecast to fall to $3,100 by late next year.