3D TV Buyer’s Guide: 2011 Edition 2011

Keep pace with the rapidly shifting world of 3D TV with our 2011 3D TV buyer’s guide.

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Owning a 3D TV last year was a lot like owning a puppy. It’s novel, your friends come over to see it, and you can’t wait to get home and play with it after a day at work. But it still makes messes on the floor, whines at night, and doesn’t do Big Dog Things like playing fetch and gnawing the hands off home invaders.

That changes in 2011. The unique thrill of owning a 3D TV may have worn off due to growing numbers (the industry reportedly sold 4 million last year), but the quality, level of content and downright livability has never been better. Which is why, fresh off the show floor at CES 2011 and with a clear picture of this year’s 3D landscape in sight, we’re completely revising our guide to 3D.

Here’s everything you need to know to buy a 3D TV in 2011.

Can I get a 3D TV without glasses yet?

Sorry, still no. But they’re coming. Companies have exhibited glasses-free (or “autostereoscopic”) TV prototypes for years now, but CES 2011 brought the first models destined for consumer distribution from Toshiba. They’ll launch in the second half of the year for a price almost guaranteed to snap credit cards.

All displays of this type (including Sony’s prototypes at the same show) use parallax barrier technology, which basically produces “zones” around the TV where viewers can stand and experience a full-fledged 3D effect. In our experience, the effect was maximized at dead center, and slight body movements sometimes broke apart the 3D image. In other words, even if the first models weren’t prohibitively expensive, you wouldn’t want one in your living room anyway. Not yet, at least. But 3D TVs that require glasses have advanced with the addition of passive glasses.

What’s the difference between active and passive glasses?

Active shutter glasses are heavy, expensive, require batteries, and need to be in constant communication with an IR transmitter on top of the TV to stay in sync. They’ve been the norm for consumer TVs up until now. Passive glasses are the same kind you use at a movie theater when you go see a movie like Avatar, and now, they come with some TVs. They’re lightweight, inexpensive (you can pretty much walk out of a theater with a pair), don’t require batteries, and because they don’t need to communicate with the TV at all, they’re universal. Your passive glasses will work with a friend’s TV.

Active 3D glasses

On a technical level, active glasses work by flicking open and shut LCD lenses thousands of times per minute to make sure the right eyes receives images for the right eye, and vice versa. Passive glasses work with polarized lenses that correspond with the polarization of images shown on the TV. Besides making them much cheaper and lighter, this design also minimizes crosstalk.

What is crosstalk?

Crosstalk occurs when images intended for one eye unintentionally appear to both eyes, producing a flickery, ghost-like image. The symptom mostly springs from the inherent imprecision of trying to get a pair of glasses and a TV to perform a coordinated dance of split-second maneuvers 60 times per second. It’s not always going to be perfect. Since passive glasses aren’t subject to the same razer-slim margins for error, they help minimize crosstalk.

Who makes active and who makes passive?

In 2011, both LG and Vizio will offer televisions with passive display technology – but not every single TV in their lines. LG will migrate all of its new 3D LCD televisions to passive tech, but all of its 3D plasmas will remain active. LG will offer passive technology on its flagship televisions, like its 65-inch Theater 3D edge-lit LED HDTV.

How much do new active-shutter glasses cost?

Pretty much $150 a pair, but you can get them a little cheaper if you shop around at online outlets like Amazon. Here’s a breakdown of MSRP prices for major manufacturers:

Sony TDG-BR100: $149.99

Samsung SSG-2100AB: $149.99

Panasonic TY-EW3D10U: $149.95

LG AG-S100: $179.99

Toshiba FPT-AG01U: $169.99

Sharp AN3DG10S: $149.98

Vizio VSG101: $129.99

Monster also makes “universal” 3D glasses called Max 3D, but they cost $169.95 per pair and you need a $250 base station for them to operate, so you’re probably not going to realize much in savings.

How much do new passive glasses cost?

You can nab cinema-style passive glasses for $5.75 a pair at online retailers like Amazon.com, but a number of companies are also making designer passive glasses, like Oakley’s 3D Gascan, which retail for $120.

What can I watch in 3D?

Last year, the answer was pretty bleak, but this year, we’re happy to say the situation has improved.

Besides high-profile titles like AvatarCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Despicable Me, the 3D Blu-ray scene includes a growing number of smaller titles, like nature films. We would list them all, but 3DMovieList already does a phenomenal job.

As for TV, DirecTV now offers three 3D channels, the joint venture between Sony and IMAX is supposed to start broadcasting in early 2011, and you can view ESPN3D’s schedule of upcoming 3D broadcasts here.

Sony has made a major push with 3D gaming on the PlayStation 3. Besides pushing out the update that allows it to work as a 3D Blu-ray player, Sony has pushed out a number of 3D games including WipEout HDSuper StardustPAINMotorStorm: Pacific Rift and Gran Turismo 5. And there are many more to come.

MotorStorm: Pacific Rift

If you’re a fan of shooting your own home movies and photos, you’ll be happy to hear the selection of 3D cameras and camcorders will increase significantly this year. Sony and Panasonic both announced 3D camcorders at CES 2011, and updated their still camera lines to take 3D shots. Fujifilm makes some, too.

As we reported last year, a number of 3D TVs including models from Samsung, Toshiba and Sharp can convert 2D content to 3D as well, but the technology won’t woo you as much as you think. It’s pretty crude.

Do I need a special Blu-ray player and receiver for 3D?

Yes. Because 3D Blu-rays require extra processing and the signals are fundamentally different, both pieces of hardware will need to be updated with your 3D TV. (Obviously, you’ll only need to update your receiver if you plan to use the HDMI passthrough feature.)

We posted a list of last year’s 3D-capable Blu-ray players and receivers last year when they were harder to find, but most major manufacturers now have at least at a few models in their lines that will handle 3D.

What is HDMI 1.4?

HDMI 1.4 is the data transmission standard required to send full 1080p 3D content. All the actual devices in your home theater network, including your Blu-ray player, television, and A/V receiver (if you have one) will need to comply with the HDMI 1.4 standard to play nice together in 3D. (Note that HDMI 1.3 devices can technically handle 3D content, but only in 1080i, not 1080p.)

Here’s where it gets weird. Oddly enough, you don’t actually need an HDMI 1.4-spec cable to carry 3D content. A standard HDMI 1.3 cable will work just fine. This is made even more confusing by the fact that cables are no longer branded with version numbers. The organization that licenses HDMI now uses a jumble of names including standard, standard automotive, and high speed to differentiate different grades of cable. Any cable bearing the “high speed” certification will do.

How big of a screen do I need?

You may recall from our HDTV buyer’s guide that we dismissed the caveman “bigger is better” mentality when it comes to TVs, favoring one that fits the room instead. Well, grow out your unibrow and grab yourself a club, because the reverse is true with 3D. Let’s state this bluntly: You need a big TV to appreciate 3D. Immersion is the name of the game, and the more the screen fills your field of view, the more you feel like you’re “there.” Fortunately, TV manufacturers seem to realize this as well, since we haven’t seen a single 3D set under 42 inches. If you have the extra money to throw at a luxury like 3D TV, make sure to go all the way and buy the largest screen you can reasonably afford or fit in a room, because it will drastically affect your 3D experience.