HD Television Shopping Guide

HDTV prices keep falling, but the buying decision gets increasingly complex

Photo: Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg/Getty Images

CHANNEL-SURFING SURFEIT: TV buyers are overwhelmed by choice—not just by brands and size but also by complicated features like LCD backlighting, refresh rates, and pixel density.

This holiday season, the rise of 3-D televisions has made it a buyer's market for plain old HD. To be sure, it's as easy as ever to get lost in a confusing tangle of technologies and acronyms. So let's simplify things. The first question involves just three letters: LED or not LED?

LED-backlit LCD screens are the premium display technology this year. They cost at least 10 percent more than the standard fluorescent-lit LCDs, but the best ones can't be beat. "The color balance is just so much better," says Randall Hand, editor of VizWorld.com.

TNT video service
Image: Google
NET GAIN: Many new sets offer Internet connectivity to a confusing abundance of new services such as Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and Google TV, shown here.

Shoppers often begin and end their search with screen size, but pixel density and refresh rate are at least as important. Even on a low budget, it's probably worth paying for a full 1080p screen, which refreshes 1080 horizontal lines of pixels once per cycle. The 1080i sets have the same number of lines but take two clock cycles to refresh the entire screen. Here, Hand says, the price differential is so small that 1080i sets are getting rather difficult to find. "The hardware difference is minimal. Both have 1080 horizontal lines on the screen; it's just the internal guts that differ."

However, the rate at which the clock cycles is price sensitive indeed. It'll cost you "about [US] $1000 each time you double it," Hand says. TV programs with a lot of motion—sports and action movies—are noticeably smoother at 120 hertz than on a 60-Hz set, Hand says. But going even higher—rates of 240 Hz or even 480 Hz—may not be worth the extra premium, unless you're also getting into 3-D—which is another story altogether [see the August online special report "3-D in the Home"].

When Scott Steinberg of Seattle-based tech consulting firm TechSavvy Global bought his HDTV, he decided against a 50-inch model with so-so specs and instead bought a comparably priced 42-inch TV that had a higher refresh rate and better picture quality.

"The reality is, once you get used to the set, you're not going to say, 'God, I miss those 8 inches,' " he says. "If the picture quality across the board is better, who cares if it's 42 or 50 inches?"

To be sure, screen size does count for something. Less than about 32 inches—the exact number depends on the manufacturer—probably means the screen wasn't even made by the manufacturer whose brand name graces the front of the set.

"Once you go above a certain size, the company actually builds the screens themselves," Hand says. Below that, "they're just buying them from some no-name Chinese or Taiwanese redistributor."

Once upon a time you could avoid getting stuck with the subpar output of an anonymous subcontractor by finding the manufacturer's signature model—Sharp's Aquos line of HDTVs, for instance, or Sony's Bravia—and noting what the smallest screen size was for that model line. It was a good bet that any screen below that size would be knockoff priced and knockoff quality. Today, though, Bravias come as small as 22 inches—a size that Sony itself is unlikely to manufacture.

Although there's no substitute for seeing the television on the showroom floor, Steinberg says, extra points go to the savvy shopper who goes home afterward, researches the alternatives, and buys the chosen set on the retailer's Web site. (When searching the Web by the name of the desired set and retailer, it pays to include the phrase "coupon code"; you might be able to knock another 10 to 20 percent off the retail price.)

Finally, consider the merits of putting the Internet on the TV itself. Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio are among the manufacturers adding net connectivity to their top-tier HDTV models—complete with apps that provide access to social networking sites, Netflix and other streaming video, and online music services like Pandora and Last.fm. But, Steinberg adds, remember that the best deal might still be to buy a "dumb" set and connect to the Internet via another box.

"If you purchase a PlayStation 3 for $300, for example," he says, "You're getting a Blu-ray player that also has a massive library of content with the ability to stream music, movies and photos, and download games."

This article originally appeared in print as "TV Guide, HD Edition."

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