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How to Shop for a TV - Adrienne Maxwell, October, 2005

Do your homework first.

With the emergence of HDTV and a ton of new display technologies, now is the most exciting time to buy a new TV--and also the most confusing. With so many factors to consider, it's crucial to do some research before you shop. Here are some guidelines to help in your search.

1. Are you ready to upgrade to an HDTV?
High-definition TV is certainly cool--once you see the improved detail and color, it's hard to go back. The most common HDTV resolutions are 720p, 1080i and (as of late) 1080p. Look for these numbers when you shop, and make sure you get a 16:9-shaped (rectangular) TV, not a standard 4:3-shaped TV. While 1080p is the highest resolution currently available, you don't necessarily need to go that high to enjoy a great picture. With a smaller screen size or larger seating distance, you may not be able to see the difference between 720p and 1080p.

The amount of high-def content is growing every day, but it still has a ways to go. If you tend to buy a new TV every couple of years, then you could probably wait until your next purchase to go HD. If you want this TV to last you five to 10 years, get an HDTV now.

At the least, you should get an EDTV, which stands for "enhanced-definition television." What's the difference? EDTV has a resolution of 480p or higher (but less than HDTV). With an EDTV, you can get all of the resolution from your favorite DVDs and still watch HDTV sources. You won't see all of the detail available in the HDTV image, but it can still look very good.

2. Determine what screen size you want and how much you're willing to spend.
These two factors go hand in hand and will determine what kind of TV you buy. These days, everyone wants a flat-screen TV, but they also want a big-screen TV. A 50-inch plasma can cost between $6,500 and $10,000. If that's beyond your budget but you refuse to sacrifice screen size, you're going to have to look for a different kind of TV.

If you're not sure what screen size you need, here's an easy calculation: A good rule of thumb is to sit at a distance of about five times the screen's height (you can sit as close as three times the screen's height with HDTV sources, but I find that to be a bit too close). So measure the distance between your primary seating area and the TV's desired location, then divide that number by five. That will give you an estimated screen height. Of course, you can go bigger or smaller, but this gives you a good place to start. Also, be sure to measure the area where you're going to put the TV to make sure that you don't buy a TV cabinet that doesn't fit in the desired spot.

3. Consider your room's characteristics.
Besides seating distance, other critical factors are your room's light level and your viewing habits. Are you going to put the TV in a brightly lit living room and watch it a lot during the day? If so, you need a very bright TV so that the image won't look washed-out. If the TV is going into a dark room that's used exclusively for watching movies, you want a TV with a good black level so that the image has more depth and dimension--it won't need to be as bright. CRT TVs still have the best black level, but DLP and plasma displays are getting better. LCD panels are famous for their brightness, but they often suffer from black-level problems. If your TV has to pull double-duty in light and dark situations, you'll want to find a nice balance between brightness and black level.

4. Select a display type.
All of the above will factor into what type of TV you finally buy, but oftentimes price weighs the heaviest. So, here are some things to consider.

You will pay more for a flat panel. A mere 32-inch LCD HDTV can cost around $3,000. If you want something that's 42 inches or larger, you'll find more competitively priced options in the plasma world, but prices still start around $4,500 for a 42- or 43-inch plasma HDTV from a major manufacturer like Pioneer, Toshiba or Sony. Recently, companies like Samsung and Sharp have released 45- and 46-inch LCD models, but they cost $7,000 to $8,000. If you go with an EDTV plasma, it can reduce the MSRP by a couple thousand dollars.

In contrast, you'll find some of your best HDTV deals in the rear-projection market, getting a bigger screen size for less money. You can find an HD-ready, 50- to 60-inch rear-pro HDTV for around $3,000. If you're just in love with the flat-panel look, companies like RCA, Samsung and JVC offer slimmer, sleeker rear-pros--some are even light and slender enough to hang on the wall.

Have you considered a front projector? Most people still think that projectors belong in either a big, dedicated theater or a business conference room. The truth is, home entertainment projectors have come a long way and can certainly compete in the price-versus-screen-size battle. You can get an enhanced-definition projector from a company like Optoma or Epson and a huge screen for the same price as a 42-inch EDTV plasma. If you're looking for the biggest screen you can possibly get, you should explore projector options.

5. Visit huge retailers as well as small, local specialty stores.
The big retailers usually have a larger selection, and these stores are getting better about setting up the TVs in a more accurately lit part of the store. However, there are a lot of things to consider when buying a TV, and the smaller stores may provide the knowledge and attention you won't get elsewhere.

Bring some of your favorite DVDs with you to see how they look on the TVs you're auditioning. In a big retail chain, you may not be able to audition your own movies on a TV; at a smaller specialty store, you probably can.

If you plan to buy a high-end plasma or projection system, you will likely have to go a specialty retailer or custom installer. Manufacturers often provide links on their Web sites to installers in your area that sell their equipment.

6. Try to view the same TVs in multiple stores.
Once you've narrowed down your choices, visit different environments to get a better idea of the TV's performance. Call ahead to see if a certain store carries the models you're considering. Remember to stand or sit at your room's seating distance and check out the quality of both high- and standard-definition images.

7. Play with each TV's remote and on-screen menu system.
Is the remote backlit so that you can see the buttons in a dark room? Is the menu system translucent so that you can still see the picture while you make adjustments? Do the menus give you a lot of control over the picture so that you can tailor it to your room? A knowledgeable salesperson can walk you through the menus and tell you what each control does.

8. Mounting a TV on the wall is not easy.
Despite what the commercials show you, mounting a plasma or any other TV on the wall is not an easy, carefree event. A couple of nails won't do the trick. You will need to buy mounting equipment, and you should ask at least two people to help you position and hang the display. If you plan to put the display into a wall cutout, make sure there is enough room between the TV and the walls to plug in the necessary cables.

9. Should you get the store's service plan?
As with any major retail purchase, a TV service plan is insurance in case something goes wrong. Some people just feel better having the insurance, while others simply do not believe in insurance. Which kind of person are you? You should read the service plan carefully to determine how long the coverage lasts and what's included. Especially with TVs, if the plan includes free pick up and delivery of the defective unit for repair, it might be worthwhile, as transporting a big, heavy, broken TV from your house to a repair shop and back again is not a fun experience.

10. Revel in your purchase.
Now that the hard part of shopping and installation is over, it's time to sit back and enjoy your new TV! Experience a whole new way of watching movies and network programming. Get sucked into the environment of epic video game play. Just don't forget to go outside every once in awhile.


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