Whether you're in the market, or just dreaming of a big-screen, here's a guide on how to choose the right set and where to find the best prices.
DON'T HEAD STRAIGHT FOR THE STORE
Before you're bombarded by enthusiastic salesmen and walls filled with flat-panels, take a moment to think about the TV experience you envision. Do you watch the news all day? Are you a video gamer? Do you want the best picture quality available, or is size the deciding factor? How you answer these questions will narrow the TV categories.
Second, think about the light in your TV room. Is there a lot of natural sunlight? Or if it's a set for your bedroom, you may watch TV in the dark more often. This, too, will help you narrow your choices.
"It seems like a strange question to ask, but I always tell my customers to think about the light in their house. It really makes a difference on how your TV will perform, and it cuts the field in half depending on how you answer," says Chris Collins, the supervisor of the home theater department at the Best Buy in Newport News.
And, finally, size. A good rule of thumb is to double the size of the TV in inches to figure out how far away you should sit. For example, TV-owners of a 50-inch set should sit about 100 inches, or 8 feet, away from the set. Generally, a 40 to 47-inch TV is a reasonable size for most rooms.
LEARN THE LINGO
Gone are the days when screen size and budget were the only considerations. Now, a shopper is bombarded by acronyms and measurements that denote a set's promised picture quality.
Because flat-panel LCD and plasma HDTVs are the most popular among consumers, we'll stick to those sets here. In fact, sales of rear-projection TVs have gotten so low that companies such as Philips, Toshiba, Sony and Hitachi have said they will no longer make those models.
Between LCD and plasma sets, there is no clear quality winner, but there are reasons for a consumer to choose one over the other.
For TV-viewers with a naturally bright room, LCD TVs are the clear choice. The matte finish protects against reflection, and they are not subject to "burn-in," which can happen if a picture stays on the screen for too long, making them more compatible with video-gaming.
Plasma TVs, however, have deeper color quality and the ability to show true blacks, making the picture more realistic. This is considered a better option for TV-viewers who watch their set in a darker room. Plasma sets also have a wider viewing angle, so someone sitting to the side of the TV will be able to see the picture as clearly as a viewer in the center of the room. And, right now, plasma sets tend to be less expensive than LCD TVs.
Burn-in has been a major concern for many plasma shoppers, but this issue has been largely resolved.
"LCD manufacturers clearly won the marketing war with the 'burn-in' issue," says David Berman, the director of training for the Home Theater Specialists of America, a national association of home theater experts. "Plasma TVs are known to burn-in when a fixed image, such as a logo or stock ticker, stays on the screen for an extended period of time, and I'm talking 800 to 1,000 hours. Even then, plasma manufacturers have found a way to beat it. If you do see some burn-in on your screen, turning it on and off several times will refresh the pixels and erase the image."
After you've decided between LCD and plasma, there's still the issue of resolution. Typically, you'll see models with 720p, 1080i or 1080p attached to them.
Of course, the higher the number, the better the picture, and p - progressive - is better, and more expensive, than i. Currently, there are no TV shows broadcast in 1080p, although experts say we're moving in that direction. Blu-ray and high-definition movies provide true 1080p content.
The November issue of "Consumer Reports" recommends buying a 1080p set over a comparable 720p if price is not an issue, but it also says that the picture quality of HD programming on a good 720p TV is almost indistinguishable from a 1080p set, especially if the set is smaller than 50 inches. If you're not sure whether the price difference is worth it, ask the sales manager at a local electronics store if you can pause the same image on both sets to compare them.
If you talk to a salesman, you're also likely to hear about the "refresh rate" or "scan rate." TVs that have a 120 hertz refresh rate show fast-moving images more clearly. LCD models typically have more problems with "ghosting," or seeing shadows of movement, than plasma models, although they've largely resolved this issue as well.
WATCH THEM IN ACTION, THEN LOOK ONLINE
Prices online are almost universally cheaper than brick and mortar stores. Online-only stores like amazon.com and buy.com often offer free shipping.
You'll want to pay attention to the return policies and installation offers when you purchase online. Right now, amazon.com is offering free shipping on all flat-screen HDTVs 40-inches and larger. Returns can be made within 30 days of receipt in the original packaging.
Newegg.com, another popular electronics site, is also offering free shipping on most of its big-screen TVs.
Shoppers can also use comparison shopping sites, such as hdtvsolutions.com, bountii.com, beatmyprice.com or the locally owned crazytowndeals.com.
The catch with online shopping? Great deals tend to expire quickly.
KNOW WHICH ACCESSORIES ARE NECESSARY
Buying the TV is far from your last step. Collins says he always tells customers to plan to spend $1,500 on the TV and $500 for the accessories on a $2,000 budget. And you will be hit up for accessories.
The "Consumer Reports" magazine recommends shoppers skip the extended warranty or "protection plans" on TVs, because most flat-panel HDTVs have proven reliable for the first three years - the time usually covered by an extended warranty.
HDMI cables, however, are an accessory you'll need. If you want to connect your DVD or Blu-ray player, your video game console and your HD cable box to the new set, you'll need HDMI cables to do this. These cables can cost anywhere from $30-$150, and most techies will tell you that the more expensive cables do perform better. But the average eye is unlikely to notice the difference between a decently constructed cable and the top-of-the-line version.