Almost every year, TV manufacturers have touted some shiny new technology as the reason you need to buy a new set: flat screens, HDTV, plasmas, LCDs, 3D TV… but all of these are now old news. Practically the only trick stores have left is to reduce the price. This makes it an ideal year to get a great bargain, but only if you know what to look for — and what to avoid.
Plasma vs. LED vs. LCD
Not all HDTVs are created equal. If you're getting a new set, the first factor to decide on is the type of TV that is best for you. Your main choices include:
*Plasma - Plasmas feature an older technology, but don't completely count them out. They are cheaper, have deep blacks for rich contrast, and handle sports and fast motion well. But they are energy hogs, using three or four times as much electricity as Energy Star LEDs.
*Traditional LCD - Bright, with middle-of-the-road cost, traditional LCDs are prone to greyish blacks, and budget models can have blockier motion processing than other options.
*LED-backlit LCD - LED displays can be brighter and thinner than plasmas and LCDs. They are more energy conscious, and the top of the line models handle blacks as well as plasmas do.
Specs to Ignore (or at least not pay extra for)
Resolution is the measure of how many pixels are on the screen. The higher the resolution, the higher definition you get. HDTVs (High Definition Televisions) are generally sold as either 720p or 1080p - which have 720 or 1080 rows of pixels. You might think having more pixels is better, and you'd be right — but only to a point. The real truth is that the human eye can barely discern the difference between 720p and 1080p except at a close distance on really big TVs. So paying extra for 1080p on a smaller set doesn't make a lot of sense.
Internet connected TV
Sometimes known as smart TVs, Internet-connected TVs allow you to stream to your set all that the Web has to offer. While that's a handy feature, you can always add on a device like the Roku for around $50-$70 or the Apple TV for about $100. Also most DVD players these days also have an Internet port or a way to get access to your home wifi network.
Refresh rate (or Hz)
Refresh rates determine how fast the TV repaints the image on the screen. 60Hz models refresh the screen 60 times per second; 120Hz models refresh the screen 120 times per second. It's true that buying a TV with 120Hz refresh rate instead of 60Hz makes a noticeable difference when watching fast-moving programs like sports, where motion blur can become an issue at 60Hz.
But if you get tempted to buy a more expensive 240Hz model because you think it'll make your TV viewing even better, think again. Many tech analysts agree that the naked eye can barely perceive the difference between 120Hz and 240Hz, making it unnecessary to pay extra for the latter.
Specs that Matter
Buy as big as you can afford, but not too big for your room. THX came up with a useful guide that helps you determine optimal screen size based on the distance you'll sit from the screen:
- 32 inch class TV = 3.5-5 feet away
- 42 inch class TV = 4-6 feet away
- 50 inch class TV = 5-7.5 feet away
- 60 inch class TV = 6-9 feet away
If a TV's thickness matters to you, then you may want to take a closer look at LED TVs. Samsung's LED9000 series measures a wafer-like 0.3" in depth; no traditional LCD or plasma TV is that thin. LED displays can be thinner than plasmas and CCFL-lit LCDs because some models are edge-lit, meaning the LEDs that illuminate the screen are only located on the edges.
If you've narrowed your selection down to LEDs, consider getting a set with local dimming. LEDs without this feature can look blown out, with blacks that look more like greys. Local dimming turns down the brightness in areas that are supposed to be dark, dynamically improving the contrast. Note that edge-lit models with local dimming don't perform as well as full-backlit units with local dimming capacity.
While LED with its local dimming feature, thinness, and minimal energy use may sound the ideal HDTV set, know that it can also be the most expensive option among the three. The 55" Samsung LED9000 model, for example, costs around $2,500 whereas some of Samsung's 50" plasma TVs can be priced as low as $1,149.99.
Matte vs. Glossy
LCDs used to all have matte displays, which tend to fare better in parts of the house with an abundance of ambient light. Glossy displays have better contrast and sharper colors, but you may want to place them in darker places so your TV viewing won't be ruined by glare from lights and windows reflecting on the screen.
What About 3D?
It's a personal decision, but one that will cost you. According to the shopping site dealnews.com, a 3D TV will go for almost double the cost of a comparable 2D TV.
Active or passive 3D glasses?
If you do pony up for 3D, you'll need to decide between systems that require active or passive glasses. Active shutter glasses can produce slightly better images, but are heavy, need recharging, and could cost a ton — yes, you need to pay extra for your 3D glasses on top of the TV itself. Some lower-end active glasses cost around $20, while higher-end ones are in the three figure price range. Passive 3D glasses are lighter and cheaper, but passive systems produce lower-quality images.
Manufacturers are working on 3D TVs that don't require any kind of glasses, but they are hardly ready for prime time. Toshiba, for instance, has released a no glasses 3D TV, but it's only available in Europe and Japan and costs a mind-blowing $10,000 for a 55" model — and it has viewing angle problems. Samsung says it won't be able to mass produce glasses free models for quite some time.
Where's the content?
While manufacturers would love for you to pay a premium for 3D systems, there's not a lot of content available to watch. That may be changing, but right now producing 3D content is the lowest priority among TV executives.
The Bottom Line
The type of TV you choose should depend on your needs and the television's placement in your home. If you don't mind paying a premium, LED TVs offer the full package, and are also the most future-proof. Traditional LCDs and plasma TVs lag behind when it comes to features. But if you're looking to get the largest HDTV your money can buy, either of them may be the better choice for you.
Tecca's Mariella Moon contributed to this story.