Since a large HDTV is one of the bulkiest and most expensive electronics purchases you can make, you'll want to make the right choice from the get-go.
Here's what we found for HDTVs.
(See the box of links at right for the other categories we looked at, and for our methodology for choosing the winners and losers in each category.)
The Winners for HDTVs
Nationally, we ranked Best Buy the number one retailer for large HDTVs. The chain impressed us with the range of models it had available, and the Best Buy salespeople we spoke to earned high marks for their answers to our HDTV questions.
The best information came from staffers who worked in the store's television department; they usually explained technical details--such as refresh rate and contrast ratio--with accuracy, clarity, and patience.
Some models that Best Buy sells are available only at its stores, where regular prices tend to be higher (by as much as $200 or $300) than the ones at online retailers. In-store sale prices are more competitive, but they may still be higher when you factor in the sales tax and possible delivery and setup fees.
Amazon was the top online-only retailer of HDTVs in our research, thanks in large part to having the best, most diverse selection of models and manufacturers. (Click to enlarge the accompanying chart to see all of the stores in our survey rated for HDTVs.)
Amazon's Website is easy to use, but the store and its many third-party retailers may have different sales policies. If you buy a 40-inch or larger TV directly from Amazon, you receive free delivery and unboxing in your home, along with Amazon's 30-day return policy and (maybe) no sales tax. If you buy from one of Amazon's third-party partners, the shipping fee, return policy, and sales tax will depend on the vendor.
Both Newegg and TigerDirect have a reasonable selection of HDTV models and regularly offer good deals. Again, pay close attention to shipping costs and return policies. A helpful guide on Newegg's site helps you narrow your selection down based on screen type and size. We found TigerDirect's site more difficult to navigate, and its presentation of available models is somewhat sloppy and hard to read. CDW had a decent array of TVs, too, but its site is also hard to navigate, and some item listings lacked significant feature details.
In our research, most Sears employees impressed us with their polite, professional attitude. Calling the in-store service center ensures that you'll have an operator's full attention--but the person you speak to may not be well-informed about the product.
The in-store electronics department at the outlets we checked offered a smaller selection than we had hoped, and some of the employees on the floor had limited knowledge of HDTVs. For its part, Sears.com has extensive product options, thanks largely to its Amazon-like Marketplace section.
Target and Walmart are best left to consumers who seek smaller sets (32 inches and under) and aren't looking for answers to tech questions. The models that the two retailers carried came from the value lines of mainstream vendors such as Sony and Vizio or of less dominant vendors such as Memorex and Philips.
Walmart's service in the phone portion of our research did not impress us. Though the retail giant's selection was adequate, the employees we spoke to rarely knew much about HDTVs, and they often seemed rushed or impolite.
RadioShack has a quite limited selection of HDTVs. Its stores don't carry sets with screens larger than 32 inches, and its online selection is relatively small. That said, the RadioShack Website was well laid out and fairly easy to use. The tenth retailer that we tracked--Staples--doesn't sell HDTVs at all.
Start by visiting a store, and test-view the TVs in action. Get a feel for the various sets' designs, and ask the salesperson questions. Then decide whether to buy in the store (where you'll pay sales tax and sometimes--but not always--get free delivery) or look for deals online (where you can often get free shipping and usually not pay sales tax).
Products We Shopped For and Test Questions We Asked
Here are the test questions we asked the retailers' sales associates (along with the correct answers we were looking for) for the HDTV category:
Q: I keep hearing a lot about 120Hz refresh rates. Is this important?
A: Yes. In general, 120Hz and 240Hz refresh rates improve a set's handling of fast motion and panning shots (for example, in action movies or sports broadcasts).
Q: Does the price of an HDMI cable matter? Will a more expensive cable be a better cable?
A: Not necessarily. Instead, consider the cable's length (shorter cables will reduce signal degradation) and gauge. (For more read "Fact or Fiction? 8 HDTV Myths Demystified.")
Of Related Interest
See "Technology's Most (and Least) Reliable Brands"--our annual reader survey of reliability and service for tech products, including HDTVs.
Assistant Editor Nick Mediati is a member of PCWorld's Reviews staff, where he covers HDTVs.
This story, "HDTVs: Best Places to Buy" was originally published by PCWorld.