Adam Hartley
04/07/2011 16:10 | By Adam Hartley, contributor, MSN Tech & Gadgets

3D TV: active v passive

We consider the pros and cons of the two leading 3D technologies currently available.

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LG 42LX6900

If you are a fan of the latest 3D movies at your local multiplex from the likes of Disney Pixar, then it is highly likely that you have already considered investing in a new 3D TV at some point very soon.

With loads of new 3D Blu-rays already available in addition to 3D sports, documentaries and more from British broadcasters such as Sky and Virgin Media, the 3D content you can enjoy in the comfort of your lounge is growing all the time.

However, as is too often the case with "the next big thing" in consumer technology, there is a lot of confusion around the best 3D tech on offer. So what do you need to know to ensure that you buy the best 3D TV in your budget range? And, more importantly, how might you avoid buying the "Betamax" of 3D?

Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about before buying a new 3D TV is the difference between active shutter and passive polarisation 3D TVs, because these are the two main competing 3D TV technologies fighting for your hard-earned cash right now.

Sony 3D TV (© AP Photo; Shizuo Kambayashi)

What is 'active shutter'?

Firstly, active shutter technology - already used by the likes of Panasonic, Samsung and Sony - uses slightly different 3D specs to those you will be used to from the cinema, in that the 3D glasses are powered by a small battery. Right now, this is the best quality 3D experience on offer in the home, as it can deliver a full 1080p high definition image to each eye. For gaming, in particular, active shutter tech is by far the best option.

"Both technologies have pros and cons but I'm a firm believer that, for the home, active glasses is the way to go," says Ben Berraondo, PR manager for gaming graphics specialists Nvidia. "In the cinema, passive solutions are good because there are large audiences so you want an extremely cost-effective solution.

"However, in the home I think consumers want the best. Active glasses crucially do not impact on the quality of the picture; there are no lost lines of resolution. For gamers, it's a no brainer; active glasses mean full HD gaming and deeper 3D images that last for the hours a good gaming session demands."

Christian Brown, senior marketing manager in Sony's Home Entertainment division, explains why Sony currently favours active shutter 3D TV tech right now, informing us that: "Sony uses active shutter technology along with the high frame rate of 200Hz to create vivid 3D images.

"This technology is compatible with any upcoming 3D TV services or content broadcast by both Sky and Virgin Media. Sony has chosen an Active 3D route as the technology enables consumers to encounter a unique viewing experience and it enables incredibly realistic depth and vivid 3D images. Furthermore one is unable to get a Full HD 3D picture with passive technology."

Costly 3D specs

Passive 3D glasses (© AP Photo; Julie Jacobson)

While those aforementioned brands currently favour high-quality active shutter 3D TV tech, it is not without its faults. To be fair, it is great if you and one or two of your mates want to get the best out of 3D Blu-ray movies or PlayStation 3 gaming. Yet at around £100 a pop for an extra pair of glasses, it can soon become a costly affair, should you want to equip everybody in your extended family with a pair of 3D specs. This is why TV manufacturers such as LG are pushing passive 3D TV tech.

"LG is the driving force behind passive 3D," says Mark Craven, deputy editor of Home Cinema Choice magazine. "Last year it launched a single passive screen, primarily for UK pubs, but in 2011 it has expanded the lineup under a new branding, Cinema 3D. It still sells active shutter 3D plasmas, but you wouldn't know it from its ad campaigns.

"Toshiba and Philips have also been signed up to the passive cause, and LG Display claims to have had discussions with Sony (so far an active 3D brand only) about becoming a passive 3D partner.

"On the other side of the fence, Samsung is vigorously pushing active 3D as the only system that can deliver Full HD 3D images, and is fighting a heated war of words in South Korea with LG over which format is better - so don't expect Samsung to release a passive 3D TV anytime soon. However, it is working with Real3D on a system that uses lightweight passive glasses to view Full HD active shutter sets, although there's no word on when the new tech will make its debut."

LG Cinema 3D TV (© AP Photo; Ahn oung-joon)

The benefits of passive polarisation

Stephen Gater, consumer electronics marketing director for LG in the UK, explains more.

"LG's Cinema 3D is the next generation 3D technology, delivering 3D in the same way as cinemas across the UK. It uses polarised glasses to separate the images displayed and filtering the specific imagery intended for the left and right eye through the relevant lens.

"This is different to active 3D technology found elsewhere in LG's plasma 3D range and used by other manufacturers, which uses active shutter glasses that are battery powered and require synchronisation with the TV."

So if you really don't want to plump for pricier battery-powered active shutter 3D lenses and are prepared to give up a bit of quality in exchange for a more comfortable viewing experience (passive glasses cause less eye fatigue), then LG's Cinema 3D TV range might well prove to be the best option - particularly for those with bigger families or lots of friends who are movie fans.

"One of the key features for consumers is that LG's Cinema 3D TVs use the same polarised glasses as are currently used in most 3D cinema screenings nationwide and are sold at a very accessible price point, from £2," says Gater. "This means consumers can easily buy extra pairs in order to share the 3D experience with friends and family - and can of course replace pairs that might get lost or broken too."

LG's latest 3D TVs also use the same side-by-side frame format as Sky's new dedicated 3D channel, which makes passive screens "the perfect choice for watching the latest content available via your Sky HD box in the best picture quality."

Ultimately, deciding to plump for an active shutter or passive polarisation 3D TV really depends on what your 'use case' is. If you want to use your TV to watch sports and movies with big groups of family and friends, then passive may well be the best choice. However, if you need a 3D TV for fast, high-resolution 3D gaming and Blu-ray viewing, then the active shutter route is most definitely the one for you.