HDTV Holiday Shopping FAQ

HDTV prices are hitting record lows this holiday season, so you might be more motivated to go out and buy a new set. Buying an HDTV, however, isn't always as simple as picking out the largest set you can afford. To help, we've compiled and answered the most common HDTV-buying questions. Read on--you might just save yourself the hassle (and fees) of returning a dud.

Should I buy an LCD or a plasma TV?

Both types of TVs have their good points and bad points, but the bottom line is price. If you're looking for a large TV on a shoestring budget, plasmas are your best bet. They've been falling out of favor, though, as many manufacturers are increasingly focusing on LED-backlit LCD TVs. In our most recent HDTV roundup, we found that while plasmas have a price advantage over more-expensive LCD sets, and can produce better black levels than LCDs can, they usually didn't fare so well in overall image quality. Also, LCD TVs are far more power-efficient, so you'll spend more keeping a plasma TV on over the years.

Remember that plasma TVs aren't really cost-effective below 40 inches, so if you're looking for a smaller set you won't have that option. For more on the differences between LCD and plasma TVs, read "Geek 101: LCD and Plasma Basics."

What size HDTV should I buy?

Generally speaking, bigger is better--and not just because you get to brag about how awesome your TV is.

The main thing you should consider when evaluating a new TV (besides your budget, anyway) is how far you'll be sitting from it. Audio/video quality certification company THX recommends that a display occupy 40 degrees of your field of vision, which is approximately 3.5 feet away from a 35-inch TV, 4 feet from a 40-inch model, 5 feet from a 50-incher, and 6 feet from a 60-inch set. Other companies and TV manufacturers have different recommendations, however--Wikipedia has a good listing of different suggestions.

For more on screen sizes, read our HDTV Buying Guide.

I want to see the TV before I buy it. What should I look for on the store floor?

Not comfortable with the thought of buying a TV over the Internet? We don't blame you--there's nothing like seeing a set in person to help you pick one to buy. However, you should keep several things in mind when you shop for a TV in a store.

Retailers have dozens of ways to tweak TVs so that they stand out on the show floor. For example, most TVs come with a "Demo Mode" that cranks up the brightness, contrast, and color so that the set looks more vivid than the ones alongside it on the shelves--even if that causes the live-action movie it's showing to look like a cartoon. If you can, change the TV's settings to "Movie" mode, or a THX-certified mode (if available), to get a better idea of what the set really looks like.

Different TVs excel with various kinds of content, so bring a few examples of the TV shows, movies, and games you'll be watching on your new TV and try them out on the in-store models. In-store demos usually loop a few cool-looking scenes that don't really show off a set's ability to handle motion or dimly lit clips, for example, and gamers will want to try the set themselves to make sure it has no input lag.

For more tips on testing in-store TVs (and seeing through sales tricks), read "10 Things You Need to Know Before Buying an HDTV."

Should I buy a 3D TV?

The Sony Bravia KDL-40HX800 supports 3D--if you have the add-on and glasses.
The Sony Bravia KDL-40HX800 supports 3D--if you have the add-on and glasses.
This is kind of a tricky question. Since many 2010 models at the midrange and high end support 3D, you might end up buying a 3D TV simply because it has the 2D features and performance you're looking for. If you're not looking to break the bank, you can still find a handful of lower-priced 3D plasma displays. The Samsung PN50C490, for example, is a 50-inch 720p plasma TV that typically costs about $1000.

Even if you can afford a 3D TV, however, you still might not want to buy it. Generally 3D models will set you back a few hundred dollars more than an equivalent non-3D set will, and that's not counting the cost of a 3D Blu-ray player, glasses, and everything else. Once you're all set up for 3D, you'll have to find something to watch--and frankly, you won't see a whole lot out there right now.

On the other hand, the 3D TV you buy now probably won't be obsolete in a year or two; early forays into glasses-free 3D don't seem promising enough for you to hold off on buying a current 3D TV set if you really want one. For more on the details of 3D tech, read "Everything You Need to Know About 3D TVs."

Why do I want an ethernet port or Wi-Fi adapter on my TV?

The Vizio XVT553SV has a solid selection of online features, and provides built-in Wi-Fi.
Many new HDTVs can connect to your network via ethernet or Wi-Fi. Once you've connected your set, you can stream content from the Internet via services such as Amazon Video on Demand, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube (if your TV supports them), and if your TV has the "DLNA Certified" logo, you can also stream media from PCs and other devices on your home network. We're just starting to see TVs with Google TV baked in, which brings a fully functional Chrome browser, among other features, to the TV.

However, the choices that built-in Internet TV options provide often pale in comparison with those of third-party set-top boxes like the Roku or the WD TV. Instead of picking a TV solely for its Internet features, we'd recommend selecting a TV you like, and then finding a set-top box with the features you want. Also, read "BitTorrent to TV" for a guide to streaming video from your PC to your HDTV.

What's the difference between a big-name brand and a no-name brand?

Cheaper brands like Emerson are popular in Black Friday sales.
If you've been following Black Friday ads, you've probably seen some very, very low prices for HDTVs ($200 to $300 for a 720p 32-inch set, $400 to $500 for a 40-inch 1080p set). Sony, in contrast, charges $1700 for its high-end 40-inch KDL-40HX800 set. So what do you get for that extra $1200?

For starters, HDTVs from less-established brands typically don't have the features of a brand-name set, so don't expect 3D, network connectivity, calibration options such as 10-point white balance, or a particularly eye-catching design.

You'll also notice a dramatic difference in image quality. Sets from companies such as Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio generally have better image-processing functions and higher refresh rates, which means that their colors will look more vivid and they'll handle motion more smoothly.

Once you're used to the way a high-end set looks, bargain-basement HDTVs will seem choppy and dull by comparison. For more on cheaper HDTVs, check out "Cheap HDTVs for Black Friday and Beyond."

Why do HDMI cables cost so much?

For short cable runs, a $3 HDMI cable is the same as a $100 cable.
They shouldn't. We tested a pair of $3 cables from MonoPrice and Blue Jeans Cable against a $60 AudioQuest cable and a $150 Monster Cable, and found no discernible difference in quality. (Read "Technology's Biggest Myths" for more details.) For short cable runs, even the $30 house-branded HDMI cables are a rip-off. If you're paying $100 or more for an HDMI cable, well, you're probably pretty popular at your local electronics store.

Do I need a 1080p TV? How about a high refresh rate?

LCD TVs with 1080p resolution and 120Hz refresh rates have become increasingly common in the past few years. You'll still see 60Hz TVs (in both 720p and 1080p resolutions) out there, but typically they're older inventory or low-end models, or they have smaller screens.

If you're leaning toward a 720p TV, note that there are a few good reasons to shell out the extra cash for a 1080p set. Although most over-the-air and cable programming is 720p or 1080i, Blu-ray movies and games can take advantage of 1080p, as can some set-top boxes. And the price difference between a 720p set and an equivalent 1080p set is usually no more than $100 or $200--not bad, considering 1080p's image quality advantages over 720p.

The Samsung LN46C650 did better than we expected, judging from its specs.
Refresh rates are another story. Although 120Hz HDTVs almost universally look smoother than 60Hz HDTVs in our tests, the difference between 120Hz and 240Hz isn't quite so clear. Some sets with a 240Hz rate look phenomenal, but others create odd anomalies in the image as a result. (Want to know why? Read "LCD Motion Features: How Do They Work?")

The 120Hz Samsung LN46C650, for example, topped our latest 46-inch and 47-inch HDTVs chart with excellent motion scores despite competing against more-expensive sets with higher refresh rates. For more info on TV specs, check out "Fact or Fiction: 8 HDTV Myths Demystified" and "HDTV Buying Guide: Making Sense of the Specifications."

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