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The Hottest in HDTV

HDTVs are big, shiny, slim, and sexy--everything people love in their electronics. But when it's time to buy a new TV, finding the right one isn't easy. Should you go with plasma or LCD? What's an LED TV? Do you need 3D support? What's the big deal about refresh rates?

To make things easier for you, we've tested, evaluated, and ranked 15 of the top new TVs currently on the market (see "Best New 40- to 42-Inch HDTVS," "Best New 46- to 47-Inch HDTVs," and "Best New 50- to 55-Inch HDTVs"). Whether you're a big spender or a thrifty TV watcher, we'll help you choose a set that fits your living room and your budget.

The State of the Set

Although lots of technology goes into making a good HDTV, buying one isn't like buying a PC: Newer isn't necessarily better, a pricey set doesn't always show a better image, and you can't safely buy a TV strictly on the basis of its specs.

Every year, manufacturers release new high-definition television sets outfitted with all kinds of innovations designed to make the images clearer, the colors more vibrant, and the motion smoother; but many of the new features attempt to fix things that aren't broken--and end up failing in spectacular ways. For practical buying tips, see "10 Things You Need to Know Before Buying an HDTV."

What's more, in many instances even different models from the same manufacturer have their own individual quirks, so you can't rely on the brand name as a guarantee of consistent quality. For example, even though the three Samsung TVs we tested were the best in their respective size categories, the 40-inch Samsung UN40C7000 had a number of image-quality quirks that the 46-inch Samsung LN46C650 and 55-inch Samsung UN55C8000 did not. The key lies in finding the set that does best with the kind of television shows, movies, and games that you want to view on it.

Before you gear up to start shopping for an HDTV, make sure that you're up-to-date on the specs and features that distinguish this year's lineup from last year's cutting edge.

Internet apps: The masses (and the TV manufacturers) have spoken, and the Internet is now a part of your TV. The relevant Internet apps can take the form of add-ons like Yahoo Widgets that complement your TV viewing with Twitter, or news and weather feeds, or sources of streamed content through services such as Amazon Video on Demand, Netflix, and YouTube. The array of services offered varies greatly among different manufacturers, but the core features are here to stay--and they could make cutting your cable TV subscription a much more appealing option. At this point, we're seeing Internet streaming services added to everything that plugs into your television, from Blu-ray players and game consoles to external set-top boxes that specialize in streaming video, like the Apple TV and the Roku XDS. As a result, if you find a cheaper set that doesn't offer support for streaming Netflix, you can buy a Roku or an Xbox 360 and stream Netflix through that instead of shelling out several hundred dollars extra for a pricier TV.

Refresh rate: The refresh rate is a measure of how quickly a TV can refresh its on-screen image. Lower refresh rates typically make for choppier, blurrier motion, which is especially noticeable on LCD TVs during long, slow panning shots. Last year the industry focused its attention on the significant difference between 60Hz and 120Hz, with only a few 240Hz TVs in the mix. This year 120Hz is the norm and 240Hz is the high-end alternative, but the overall difference in video quality between the two is not always immediately apparent. In fact, a 240Hz set sometimes produces odd glitches in the image that a 120Hz set doesn't. The bottom line: Don't rely on the numbers alone. See the set and decide for yourself.

LED-backlit LCDs: In early matchups between LCD and plasma HDTV screens, plasmas often looked better because they offered deeper, brighter colors than their LCD counterparts. As LCD manufacturers sought ways to solve the refresh rate/motion blur problem, the brightness problem became more apparent--the technology used to drive a screen's refresh rate past 60Hz often made the display even dimmer. Enter the LED-backlit LCD TV, which got rid of the fluorescent lamps that HDTV manufacturers formerly used to light displays in favor of light-emitting diodes that can produce a brighter, higher-contrast image while using less space and electricity. The end result: brighter, thinner, more-energy-efficient TVs. No wonder almost all of the big TV manufacturers have come out with several LED-backlit LCDs. In fact, the HDTVs in our roundup include just one fluorescent-backlit LCD set and three plasma sets.

In the continuing competition to produce ever-slimmer televisions, some manufacturers have moved from backlit sets to "edge-lit" models. This means that the LEDs are positioned around the edges of the set, instead of being fully ar­­rayed in the rear. A well-designed edge-lit display looks just as good as a backlit one, but several edge-lit models we examined suffered from slight shadows and uneven lighting.

Plasma TV limitations: Plasma screens are less expensive to manufacture, and they look okay, but even plasma sets from veteran TV manufacturers like LG and Panasonic fall short in comparison to LCD screens. Stick to plasmas if you want a big TV at a relatively low price, but don't expect the set to deliver color or motion nearly as well as a good LCD would.

Tweaking options and presets: If you like to fine-tune your TV's image quality, you'll welcome the new tweaking options that recent HDTVs offer. Chief among the enhanced controls is ten-point white balance, which lets you adjust the red, green, and blue color values of your set to ten different levels of brightness, thereby ensuring that the colors balance properly across the brightness spectrum.

Of course, having more-precise controls means that calibrating your TV can take quite a lot longer, and there's more room for mistakes if you're trying to eyeball the adjustments. To help, some TV makers supply built-in THX-certified color presets or a ‘THX Mode' that loads a configuration certified by THX technicians to meet a certain level of imag e quality. (THX is a cinema audio/video certification company responsible for, among other things, the chest-shaking crescendo you sometimes hear in movie theaters after the previews.)

3D TVs: As discussed in "3D TVs Are Here, but Nothing's On," the glasses look dorky, the prices are high, and not a whole lot is available to watch yet, but 3D is unmistakably the new It feature for midrange and high-end HDTVs. Nevertheless, though Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in 3D makes for an interesting in-store demo, 3D TV hasn't matured enough to be worth the money yet. We have high hopes for improved 3D in the year to come, but the 3D TVs of 2010 simply fail to seal the deal.

Check the Charts

If you're interested in comparing the specs and performance of different HDTVs in the same screen-size class quickly and conveniently, you won't want to miss our feature comparison charts for three sizes of HDTVs:

• "Top 5 40- and 42-Inch HDTVs"

• "Top 5 46- and 47-Inch HDTVs"

• "Top 5 50-, 52- and 55-Inch HDTVs"

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