How to Buy an HDTV Today (or Any Day)

Illustration for article titled How to Buy an HDTV Today (or Any Day)

Despite this month looking like the kick-off to the next Great Depression, a bunch of you are probably still planning to (finally) hop on the HDTV bandwagon. And all things considered, that's not a totally stupid move. A great HDTV—one that will blow away the standard definition puke you've been watching for years—can be had for a damn good price. But if you're planning on checking out HDTVs tomorrow (or ever), read this first:

LCD, Plasma or DLP?
Yes that's right boys and girls, despite popular imagination, you really have three delicious choices for a brand new HDTV tomorrow. Here are the current ups and downs of each—not those trite increasingly dated "facts" you've heard a million damn times before.

The biggest reason to go with DLP is it's the biggest—that you can afford. Do you want a 73-inch 1080p HDTV for $2500? DLP, baby. Hell, a premium 61-inch LED-backlit model is just $1900. If you're looking for a set over 50 inches, as a rule, you should look at DLP rear-projection. They've got great blacks, so crappy contrast isn't an issue, and LED-backlit models are instant-on, with better color accuracy and a longer lifetime than earlier light-bulb-based sets.

DLPs aren't perfect, like any other TV tech. The majorest thing you have to watch out for is the viewing angle. If you're sitting in the sweet spot, DLP's picture beats ass. If you're off too far to the side, and especially too high or low, you won't be able to see anything. This means buying one means determining its placement first—this isn't a TV you watch from the family room while making dinner in the kitchen.


In cheaper sets, you can also see what's called the rainbow effect, where the colors flicker as they change on screen (some people notice, most don't, and technology has made it less of an issue). Finally, while DLP sets can be lighter than LCDs and plasmas in the weight department, they're chunkier, and don't usually work with wall mounts.

We've covered plasma tech more in-depth before, but the major reasons to consider plasma are that it pretty much crushes all but the most obscenely expensive LCDs in blacks, contrast and blur-free motion. In other words, there's a reason plasmas consistently hold the title of best TV in the world. And old issues like burn-in and short life-spans really aren't considerations anymore. Newer sets have half-lives of 60,000 hours and tech to avoid burn in (which, after the first 100 hours, you'd have to try really hard to make happen).

So what's not to like? Well, plasmas are certifiable energy hogs, using double the power of LCD, so they're the least "green" set. They're often more expensive than the equivalent-sized LCD. They're not quite as bright as LCDs, though for us, they're usually plenty bright. And they're generally a touch (but not much) heavier. In the end, whether you go plasma is a consideration of how much money you wanna spend, both upfront and on the power bill.


Like plasma, we covered LCD tech more in-depth earlier. So, what can we say about LCDs? They're the people's HD technology, and pretty much your default choice if you wanna go HD, particularly if you're looking for something 42" or smaller. They deliver much better blacks and contrast than they used to, and improve all the time. They're thinner and lighter on the whole than the competition—some are insanely thin—and at similar sizes are cheaper and use less power than plasmas. (LCDs can also be easily "greened" by dialing down their backlights—easy to do, especially at night.) If you watch most of your TV in a brightly lit room, LCD is tops because they tend to be the brightest sets, and it's not like blacks matter as much then anyway. LED-backlit sets produce some near plasma quality pictures, but they're much pricier, and tend to be exempt from Black Friday blow-out pricing.


From a pure picture standpoint, we generally favor plasma, especially when sorting through the bargain bin. LCD doesn't deliver blacks that are as deep as plasma, or contrast that's quite as texturey. When you're looking at LCDs especially, you need to pay attention to the blacks and contrast, or you will suffer. When you're in the store or poking around spec sheets, be sure to check the response time of the panel—6ms is as "slow" as you want, though faster panels, like 4ms, would be better. Speedier panels have less motion blur. (120Hz technology was designed to compensate for panel limitations, but it tends to be a step-up in cost, though not as much of a step-up as LED backlighting.)

720p vs. 1080p or How to Save Money With a Tape Measure
Here's the thing about whether or not you need to blow the bucks on 1080p—it depends on your big your TV is, and how far away you're sitting. Under 40 inches you usually cannot tell the difference unless your nose is pressed up against the glass, and your mama told you never to do that. Bigger than that, it depends on how far away you're sitting. The average viewing distance from a TV in an American home is nine feet. At that distance, it takes at least a 46-inch TV to see all the details of a 720p picture. For a 1080p set, you would need a 70-inch set! If you buy a 42-inch 1080p set, you should place it within six feet to make the most of it, seven feet for a 50-inch 1080p set. If you measure your living room and the distance is much greater, you should seriously consider buying the last of the 720p sets available at serious cheapness. Lest you think we're making all this up, HD Guru's got a PDF chart with distances and the right TV size for each resolution.


Checking Out the Tubes
Even if you do plan to buy your eventual set online, you really do need to check it (and the competition) out in person. Definitely price compare online (our Best of Black Friday roundup should help you there). Home Entertainment Mag recommends skipping Best Buy and Circuit City when it comes time to evaluate picture quality, because they won't be tuned correctly and in the store it'll look seriously different than it will in your house. A custom retailer will usually be a better bet, since they're more likely to let you play your own discs on the TV and have it set up in a room more closely resembling your living room. They're also more likely to want to reach you later to seal that deal, though, so be prepared for the intimacy of commissioned sales.


Wherever you go, there are some basic things the pros look for as we discussed in detail a few weeks back. A recap: Contrast is king. Cup your hands around a black area to see if it glows or if it's actually black. Also, how does it smoothly transition from dark to light? Deep black without the ability to create shades of dark gray is no good either. Next is viewing angle: Can you actually see the picture standing off to the sides or from slightly above and below? Or is it all screwy? LCDs might lose color saturation, or even shift in color so that people look unnaturally pink. You want the widest possible viewing angle. Another good one is the motion resolution test. Can you make out fine details when things are in motion? Sports are a great check for this—pin stripes, hair, fans in the stands, anything that's likely to blur into nothingness. Finally, how does it look overall? Colors should pop and the whole thing should have a nice clean image to it. After all, that's why you're upgrading.


Extras and Accessories
You've picked out your set, you're okay with the price—you're gonna do it. Congratulations. But there are a few more things to consider that the retailer is probably going to throw at you. Skip the pricey HDMI cables. We've tested them, under five meters, any cheapos from or the like will be just fine for delivering the most dense 1080p signal. You can skip buying a fancy calibration kit or service too—here's how to do it easy and on the cheap.


Warranty? Skip it unless you like to play your Wii strapless, or you've got small children who enjoy acting out shows on TV as they're playing. Plasmas and LCDs are fairly low on the list of repair risks, and most of the stuff that would go wrong is covered by the manufacturer's warranty. It never hurts to use a credit card that'll turboboost the existing warranty, of course.

Stand or wall mount? If you're going the latter route, you need to read up on and plan that sucker out before you walk out of Best Buy with your new TV. Why? Weight matters, and you usually have to center a mount on a wall stud—or two—so you need to know the width of the TV set itself. (Note to any numbskulls out there: The inch measurement of a TV represents the diagonal measurement of the 16:9 screen, so two 42-inch TVs could have wildly different widths depending on speaker placement and bezel thickness.) If you screw this up, your TV could wind up shattered on the floor, a fate that is generally not covered by warranty.


Oh, and if you're actually going to Circuit City or Fry's to pick your TV up yourself, bring a friend, and a truck or SUV. HDTVs might be getting lighter and thinner, but it doesn't mean they aren't too heavy for you to carry the whole quarter mile from the store to your crap mall parking spot. Also, ask the store for box measurements, or measure it yourself, because the box the TV comes in is always way bigger than the TV. In other words, it probably won't fit in your Prius.

That about wraps it up. If you have any advice I didn't get to, go ahead and share it in comments. Happy hunting!


More Advice for the Black Friday Fray:
• The aforementioned Ultimate Survival Guide.
5 Gadgets You Can't Skimp On (And How to Save Money Buying Them)
• <a href="Best of Black Friday Deals Complete Roundup">All the best deals in one place
• Plus these late breaking ones from Cupertino: Apple Black Friday Deals Include Some Decent Third-Party Discounts
• Warnings: 7 Crappy Black Friday "Deals" That Aren't Really
How To Choose an HDTV on Black Friday (or Any Day)
How to set up that new HDTV you just got.


Photochop Contest:
Brutally Honest Black Friday Ads Showcase Retailers on the Brink


Why You Might Want to Avoid Shopping on Black Friday, altogether:
10 Reasons We're Doomed: Black Friday Edition
WalMart Worker Trampled to Death by Deal-Crazed Black Friday Shoppers


[Complete Black Friday Gadget Coverage at Giz]

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The only difference I've ever been able to see between a traditional TV and a HDTV is how easy it is to see all the compression artifacts on an HDTV. Usually, the picture looks like it's being shown through a screen door. Other than that, no difference, especially when viewing them from the recommended viewing distance.

I'm convinced that the only reason these sell so well is because they've been pushed so heavily as the "must-have" item. Every week it seems that it's "Now the time!!!" to buy an HDTV, depending on what site/magazine I'm reading.

For me, it's an "Emperor's New Clothes" situation.