Should I Buy a TV Online or In-Person?

The season is upon us! TV-buying season, that is. But before you welcome a flat panel of joy into your home, you've got to make a choice: buy online, or buy off? Here's how to make the right choice.

Where are the best deals?

Generally speaking? On the Internet. And I'm not talking about podunk, bait-and-switch, hidden-shipping-charge, steal-your-credit-card retailers, either. I'm talking about the big boys, like NewEgg, Amazon, and even sometimes the websites of major big box retailers. Gary Merson, Editor of HD Guru, echoes the sentiment: "Bottom line, without negotiating, you're gonna find a better deal online." This is especially true in states with high sales tax. Amazon and others don't charge state sales tax in places like North Carolina, but do in others, like New York. That alone can knock 8-10 percent off a purchase price, which is a lot of scratch when you're spending a couple grand.

Where Amazon Charges Sales Tax

• Kansas
• Kentucky
• New York
• North Dakota
• Washington

ALSO: Some Amazon merchants charge sales tax in even more states. See a full breakdown here.

Wait wait wait wait: "without negotiating?" What the hell does that mean? Well, when it comes to prices, all retails stores are not equal. You've got big box stores, like Best Buy, which have fixed prices. You've got warehouse stores, like Sam's Club or CostCo, which also have fixed prices. Then you've got smaller regional chains, like PC Richards in New York and TigerDirect in Florida and Texas. In some cases you could have a real edge at places like these. "Commission stores often have negotiating sales floors, particularly for big ticket items," says Merson. Those negotiating sales floors are where you can get the best deals, because motivated salespeople might be willing to work with you on price.

The secret to getting the price down, generally speaking, is knowing what you want. To a commissioned salesman, a customer with a model number, a price, and a printout from an online retailer is his workday dream date. A know-it-all customer sounds like the last thing a salesman wants, right? Wrong. To him, you, informed shopper, represent a quick sell: a sure thing. He won't have to spend more than a few minutes with you before moving onto his next target. He might have to cut into his commission a little to lower your price, sure, but those handful of minutes were a lot more lucrative than trying to explain cable to the old mumbly dude who's not fully convinced that a LCD set isn't powered by evil spirits.

That said, pricing is the one category where there are no hard rules, aside from, "do your homework." That is to say, never buy from a store without checking online first, and to a lesser extent, vice-versa. There are deals to be found everywhere.

What about shipping?

Saving $50 on the Internet is pointless if getting the TV delivered costs $100. Today, though, this isn't usually a problem. In the same way that Best Buy's prices have the cost of retail space, employee salaries, and advertising built right in, large online retailers like Amazon absorb the cost of shipping big-ticket items, such that the price you see listed truly is the price you'll end up paying.

A couple examples? Most, though not all, of the cheap sets on Amazon, BestBuy.com and NewEgg come with free shipping.

It goes without saying you need to check on this before you order, but don't let the prospect of shipping costs alone drive you to a brick-and-mortar.

What about service and repairs?

So, this is actually sort of surprising: on the whole, your prospects for service are almost exactly the same, online and off.

Most major brands—like Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, and Toshiba—have a nationwide networks of independent servicers. So no matter where you buy your set, it'll still get serviced under warranty the same way: by a local shop that's been certified to work on a certain brand of TV. In other words, the idea that buying from the Best Buy or Target or WalMart nearby will ensure better repair service is almost completely bunk.

Aside from increasingly rare local and regional retailers that handle TV repair in-house, some of which have in-house teams, few stores will figure into servicing your TV at all.

But I want to see the TV first!

For a lot of people, this is a seriously compelling reason to buy from a store. And one sense, it should be. In another, it really shouldn't.

This verges on common wisdom by now. HD Guru ran a series of tests on the lighting conditions in retail displays, and found the light levels to be five to ten times higher than in a typical home viewing environment. This changes how customers judge the TVs; things like color depth, black levels, and contrast don't really figure in to viewers' impressions, says Merson. There is only one variable left in the stark fluorescent light of a store: "The brightest set will always win."

There are plenty more reasons to ignore in-store picture impressions: the sets are often seen from funny angles; the content being displayed might not be representative of what you'll watch; the signals could be sent over long, analog cables; the aspect ratios are often screwed up; the TVs are calibrated in all kinds of different ways. Basically, ignore what you see, and trust the reviews. Figure out if you want a glossy set or a matte screen, trust stalwart reviewers like CNET and Consumer Guide, not your eyes.

And if you're concerned about how the TV will look as a piece of furniture, though, it's worth taking a look in person. A bezel might look subtle in an online thumbnail, and seem shiny and thick in person. A thickness listed on a spec sheet could sound acceptable in theory, but in practice, might cause the TV to protrude from your wall more than you'd like. A finish might look classy in a 360-degree, professionally photographed video, but cheesy in the harsh light of a showroom. This is a monster piece of hardware you're going to have to share your house with for a few years. It pays to check one out at the store, if only to make sure it's not ugly. Just don't feel like you have to buy it there.

What about delivery and setup?

Buying a TV online means that you're not just going to be plugging it in yourself—you're going to be carrying it up the stairs, mounting it and running through its setup routines. I'm guessing setting up an HDTV is no problem for most Giz readers, and even a half-assed friend will help you drill your wall mount and lug your 60" plasma into your apartment for a six pack. A lot of the time, setup won't be more complicated than putting the new set "here", and running a few cables in from over "there".

Even more ambitious goals are totally attainable if you've got enough manpower, know-how and time. DIY mount instructions are available for everything from simple stands to subtle wall mounts to full on fireplace displays. Call in a favor from a handy friend. (Important: Handy, not handsy.)

But it's always worth running through the logistics of taking delivery and setting up a TV before clicking "Confirm" on an online order, or swiping your card at a big box store under the assumption you won't need help. You might be surprised.

A typical 42-inch LCD TV will ship in a box that's about 45 inches wide, 32 inches tall and 12 inches deep, give or take. Loading this into the bed of a truck will be no problem. Carting it home in the back of your Civic without folding down all the seats and having to send your kids home in a taxi will be basically impossible. Once you get it home, you might have to take it up some stairs. No big deal if you've got some help and happened to buy a lithe little LCD set—the aforementioned LCD won't break 60 pounds. But if you splurged on a 100-pound monster plasma, there's no shame in opting for home delivery. You're not going to want-or be able-to bring your 60-inch panel of aluminum and glass to your fourth floor walkup alone. Neither will your FedEx guy, for that matter.

It's not that you'll be surprised or anything. Just make sure you don't send a giant TV to your grandma's house at Christmas without a game plan. For her, having a set delivered and configured by a store is necessary, even though it can be expensive. Likewise, don't overestimate yourself, and make sure the help you need is available, even if that means paying for it, or missing out on a specific online deal.

So, Online or Off?

If you take on thing from this piece, make it this: There are very few reasons to be wary of buying a TV online. It's fine. If you go with a reputable online retailer, your TV will ship safe, you won't get screwed on repairs, and you'll have customer service recourse should you need it. Just know what you're getting into. That is, an important purchase that you may be making sight-unseen, that will be dropped off at your door, whether you have someone around to help you carry it or not. Buying a TV is a big deal and a complicated decision. I can't tell you where to buy a TV. I can only tell you how to figure it out on your own, based on your circumstances.

If you take a second thing from the piece, make it this: take your time, and do some research. Buy a set based on reviews, both professional and customer, and never, ever, ever buy something that just seems like a good deal. Context is king.

Original illustration by Gizmodo guest artist Shannon May. Check out more of her work on her website.