Top TVs of 2011

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How to Buy a Cheap HDTV

At some deal sites, you can find a 40-inch, 120Hz, LED-edgelit 1080p TV from a smaller-name company for about $500. So why should you pay significantly more for an LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, or Vizio model?

Unfortunately, HDTV specs mean less than you might think. Having LED lighting or a 120Hz refresh rate doesn’t ensure that a set from a second-tier vendor can match the image quality of models from the big five TV makers. In our tests, cheaper sets tended to stumble, especially when dealing with color accuracy or motion-heavy scenes. Also, very few TV manufacturers outside the big five offer 3D or Internet-connected features at all; and on the rare occasions when they do, the features typically are subpar.

But buying a big, cheap TV doesn’t have to mean tolerating inferior picture quality. Here are some tips for stretching your TV dollar without settling for an off-brand TV.

Wait for seasonal models: Some of the big television manufacturers release seasonal TV models aimed at hitting low prices for the holiday shopping season. At deal-aggregator sites, you may find a 40-inch plasma set, with a few bonus features, priced as low as $600. These sets won’t look as good as the more expensive models, but they’ll still beat off-brand sets in image quality.

Buy last year’s TVs: The Consumer Electronics Show takes place right after the holiday shopping season, and that’s where TV manufacturers make most of their big an­nouncements for the year. But the new models usually don’t reach stores until March at the earliest, and lots of the previous year’s TVs get priced at a discount during January and February. They won’t come with fancy connected TV features or the latest 3D glasses, but they will be good TVs at bargain prices. Image quality rarely changes much from year to year, so don’t worry about getting left behind. For example, the Samsung PN50C6500, a 50-inch plasma set from last year held its own in our image-quality testing against various 2011 TVs (both plasma and LED-backlit LCD).

Don’t forget about plasma: LED-backlit HDTVs may be hot today, but LG, Panasonic, and Samsung still turn out plasma HDTVs that are larger and less expensive than LCD/LED sets while producing comparable image quality. Just remember that plasmas cost more to operate than LCD/LED HDTVs, and that if the room you plan to put the TV in gets a lot of light, a plasma set won’t look as good. For more advice on how to make sense of competing display technologies, see "HDTV Buying Guide: Select the Right Flat-Panel Technology."

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