When you stroll into your local store to shop for a new TV, dozens of big, glossy screens will greet you, each one trying to draw you in with its bright, colorful pictures. And a bewildering bevy of new features promise a multitude of benefits. Which ones will make a difference in what you watch and in how it looks on the screen? We'll help you sort out what's important. (If you haven't bought an HDTV before, see our previous article package on setting up an HDTV.)
The Changing World of Television
It's official: The (television) world is flat. The market has just about completed the transition from the large, heavy, cube-shaped, standard-definition CRT (picture-tube) television set to the sleek, thin, light, high-definition flat-panel set. According to market research firm DisplaySearch, worldwide shipments of flat-panel televisions shifted from about 5 percent of all sets in early 2004 to nearly 75 percent of the total last spring. In terms of revenue, flat panels now account for more than 90 percent of the worldwide television market. The Consumer Electronics Association says that 52 percent of U.S. households have an HDTV today. And now that the digital transition is complete, HDTV adoption continues apace.
For many shoppers, this year's television purchase may bump a previously purchased HDTV down to some other area of the house, such as the kitchen or a bedroom. But whether this is your first HDTV set or your third, it pays to get a model that's packed with all of the latest features. You'll likely find some eye-popping HDTV deals this holiday season, but don't expect prices to plummet, even if HDTV prices today are 20 percent lower than they were last year. According to DisplaySearch analyst Paul Semenza, the LCD panels used in HDTVs are actually getting more expensive. So far, prices of models on store shelves haven't reflected this shift--but it could inhibit the deep discounts that often appear during a holiday buying season.
Another recent trend is full-resolution HDTVs: All but a few entry-level, low-cost models with screen sizes greater than 40 inches have the 1920-by-1080 resolution of "full HD" (1080p). At smaller screen sizes, 720p remains common: On Best Buy's Web site, I found that 18 of the 35 sets between 30 and 39 inches were 720p, including models from LG, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony.
Beyond entry-level sets, today's HDTVs differentiate themselves with features that can enhance your viewing experience and improve the TV's performance. Several capabilities--such as fast-motion response times and LED backlighting--that were once exclusive to super-pricey high-end models are now showing up in more-affordable mainstream units. But what do these new features mean, and will they make a noticeable difference in your viewing? Which features are merely nice to have, and which ones are worth paying extra money to get?
(Note: For this feature overview and our latest roundup of HDTVs, the PC World Labs developed a new, up-to-date suite of tests, described in "How We Test HDTVs.")
In Video: How to Buy a Flat-Screen TV
Rising Refresh Rates
According to DisplaySearch, about half of all LCD HDTVs with 40-inch or larger screens now have refresh rates of 120Hz or higher. It took a couple of years for 120Hz to reach the mainstream, but today only entry-level and economy models at these large sizes have the standard 60Hz refresh rate. The picture changes for sets under 40 inches, though: DisplaySearch says that among all such LCDs shipped in the second quarter of 2009, only 14 percent were capable of 120Hz. The company expects that figure to grow to 24 percent by the year 2013.
Some manufacturers have made a full-on push to 120Hz. Sony, for example, has only one series--the Bravia S5100--that doesn't have 120Hz or 240Hz models.
Note the emphasis here on LCDs (versus plasma screens): Since LCDs have the lion's share of the flat-panel market at more than 90 percent, it makes sense that they get most of the attention. But LCD technology has a known issue with fast motion, stemming from the fact that it relies on moving tiny molecules around to block or to transmit the light from the panel's backlight. And these molecules need time to move from one position to another. As a result, traditional panel designs ran into a problem with motion blur. Commonly, the leading and trailing edges of a fast-moving object in an image looked soft, an unwelcome artifact--and not just for hockey fans trying to follow a speeding puck on the screen.