Last fall, a Florida news station reported that a Jacksonville resident almost fell prey to a scam when two men offered to sell him what looked like a 50-inch, flat-screen television. As the man learned, it was an elaborately packaged sheet of plywood wrapped in black tape, complete with a cardboard remote.
Even if you can tell the difference between bubble-wrapped particleboard and the real thing, navigating the acronym-riddled field of flat-screen possibilities can be daunting. But with already-slashed prices and post-holiday deals, January is one of the best months for TV shopping. An added incentive: a little-known annual football game, which looks much better when it’s bigger.
Tom Brillati, director of sales and product training for ABC Warehouse, offers a few pointers to help bring the shopping picture into sharper focus.
Screen size is the most important thing to determine when deciding on a new set. Formulas are available online to help buyers select the best size for the viewing distance. In general, 30-inch and smaller screens are best for bedrooms; for viewing more than 5 feet away, a 32-inch screen is the minimum.
“Size is the first piece of the puzzle because if it’s anything smaller than 42 inches, it’s going to be an LCD or an LED LCD,” Brillati explains. Plasmas typically start at 42 inches, which is also a good starting point for a living-room set. Fifty-inch screens are the most popular size, particularly among plasmas, some of which retail for less than $700, Brillati says.
LCD, which is more efficient per square inch in terms of power consumption, comes in a wider range of smaller sizes, (starting at about 5 inches). But plasma, in general, has better picture quality. Plasma displays a deeper black (although this stat evens out when choosing an LED LCD), has better off-angle viewing, and better color saturation. But it’s more susceptible to burn-in, a condition that causes the ghost of an image to display after the image has changed. Though burn-in is mostly temporary, it’s less of an issue with newer technology. It’s not a factor on LCDs.
Brillati, a proponent of plasmas, says that, 14 years ago, “plasma was the worst technology available.” Now, it offers the best value and picture quality for larger sets. “When LCD first came out, it was never designed to be anything more than a computer monitor,” he says.
With larger screen sizes and high-definition video, LCDs tend to exhibit a blurrier picture because they have a slower read speed. Brillati predicts that non-LED LCDs — those that are still backlit with CFL lighting rather than LED — will begin to be phased out this year. And LED technology can add anywhere from $300 to $500 to an LCD set.
Either type should last 20 to 30 years with eight hours of daily use.
After size, most new TV owners brag about their set’s resolution. But the difference between an HDTV running 1080p and 720p is minimal. “Most of the TVs out there now will be 1080p,” Brillati says. “But there are some 720p values out there that won’t be obsolete anytime soon.” Instead of focusing on resolution, look for a TV that holds up in all light settings and has a number of adjustable picture settings.
> 2-D or 3-D
Price should dictate this choice, Brillati says, adding that a 50-inch Samsung 3-D TV with 3-D glasses can be had for less than $1,000. And he believes it’s more than a passing fad. “With 3-D, you’re future-proofing the TV,” he says. “If it’s a couple hundred more than what you intended to spend, it’s probably worth it.”
But he cautions against buying a 3-D television simply because it’s 3-D. Instead, buy it because it’s a good 2-D set with the added alternative feature of 3-D.
Surge protectors are a must, Brillati says. They even-out the stream of power coming in, improving the picture and preventing the set from frying in the event of a surge.
Also, forget the high-priced HDMI cables some retailers will push along with your set. A $40 HDMI cable will suffice, he says (cnet.com recommends paying no more than $10). Do make sure your new set has at least one HDMI input, which cnet.com calls “the most future-ready input type.” Because HDMI cables carry both picture and sound, the typical tangle of cords is streamlined. “Instead of a spaghetti factory, I have one cable,” Brillati says.
Waiting is also an option to buying. “Our industry is not like cars or real estate,” Brillati says. “In our world, everything year after year has more features, and it goes down in price.”