Next Gear: HDTV on the Cheap

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JVC's AV-48P575 rear-projection CRT (left) and Dell's W1700 LCD.
JVC's AV-48P575 rear-projection CRT (left) and Dell's W1700 LCD.
The prime TV buying season is now upon us, and if a television is on your shopping list, you should be thinking HDTV. The federally mandated transition to an all-digital broadcast system is getting closer all the time (the target is the end of 2006); and if you have to get a DTV-ready set anyway, why not go for one that's capable of displaying the beautiful, high-resolution images of high-definition?

Money No Obstacle

If you've been holding off because you preferred not to spend the thousands that the first high-definition sets cost (and that the sexiest plasma and LCD models now command), it's time to take another look at products and price tags: Today you can find HD sets for as little as $500. Here are some strategies for saving on your HDTV purchase, as well as a selection of products in the $500-to-$2000 range.

The first thing to consider is whether you need a true HD set--one with a built-in high-definition tuner--or whether an HD-ready set will suffice (see "Learn the HD Lingo"). HD-ready sets can cost a few hundred dollars less than comparable true HDTV sets, and they make sense if you'll be using an HD cable or satellite box and consequently don't need a built-in tuner to obtain over-the-air HD.

The next big decision is over screen technology. In the sub-$2000 price range, you'll most likely be choosing from direct-view CRTs (the type of set that most people own now), rear-projection CRTs, and smaller LCDs. You're unlikely to find too many worthwhile plasmas or newer DLP rear-projection sets in these price ranges.

To make this decision, you'll have to balance three key variables: overall size of the set, including depth (LCDs are the thinnest); screen size (rear-projection CRTs deliver the largest); and image quality (direct-view CRTs still rule).

Inch for inch, CRTs are the most affordable, and LCDs are the most expensive. So to keep your costs down, if you want a skinny LCD, you'll have to settle for a much smaller display. On the other hand, if you want to watch TV with a crowd, be aware that direct-view CRTs provide the crispest images from all viewing angles.

Another decision that you should try to make early on is whether to go with a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio or with the newer 16:9 wide-screen format. Although most HDTVs have a screen ratio of 16:9 (which is closer than 4:3 to the format of most feature films), some cheaper HDTV-ready 4:3 screens can show a letterboxed 16:9 image. You might even prefer watching this way, especially when you consider that the majority of commercially broadcast content is formatted for 4:3 screens. Make sure that you look at both types of screen before you buy.

Budget HDTV Tech Face-Off: Here are the principal screen
technologies you're likely to encounter for $2000 or less.

Whatever technology and format you decide to go with, you can save some money by choosing a slightly older set rather than the latest model (but confirm that the set can display true 1080i and 720p high-def resolutions, and not just the lower-res 480p content on most DVDs). Another way to get a markdown is to look for floor samples or scratch-and-dent sales--if the TV will sit in a media cabinet, those nicks won't show anyway.

Think about shopping online, especially if you've settled on a lightweight flat-panel set that won't cost you a fortune in shipping. Check out discount warehouse chains like Costco and Sam's Club, too. Prices will be cheap, but--as usual with discount providers that emphasize low cost over customer service and knowledgeable sales reps--you have to know your models going in.

To see what's available in affordable HD, we looked for several representative products that fall into three price ranges: $500 to $999, $1000 to $1499, and $1500 to $2000. Here's what we found.

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