How to draw up a Super Bowl HDTV game plan

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Most of the time, your friends like you for who you are. Super Bowl Sunday is not one of those times.

If you're having a group of Super-pals over to watch the game, they will care about only three things: Your seven-layer dip must be "out of bounds," your fridge must be stocked with ice-cold oat soda, and your HDTV must be worth looking at.

You can meet the first two challenges by calling the famed "potluck" and "BYOB" audibles, but when it comes to picking the perfect TV for watching the Super Bowl, it's best to draw up a unique game plan that leans heavily on your living room's strengths.

Now let's go out there and figure out what kind of TV to get.

Plasma vs. LCD/LED

Robert Cardin
Panasonic's VT50 is one of the highest-end plasmas available.

In general, plasma HDTVs are excellent choices for watching sports. They're the best bet for a number of important reasons: They don't exhibit any motion blur when displaying fast-moving objects; they generally offer deeper black levels, which contributes to the best contrast ratio this side of an OLED TV; and they have wider viewing angles, which is handy if your living room is packed to the gills with Super Bowl viewers. To sweeten the deal even further, they're usually cheaper buys at larger screen sizes.

But those are generalizations, and LCD sets have their own benefits, too. For starters, they're brighter, thinner, and more energy-efficient than plasma sets are. What's more, only a few companies (LG, Panasonic, and Samsung) are still making plasmas, so a lot more LCD/LED TVs are available right now.

Keep in mind that most LCD sets these days are billed as "LED" TVs in the store, but LCD models and LED models are essentially the same kind of TV: An LED set uses an LED backlighting system instead of the CCFL backlighting system in a normal LCD set. It's hard to find a CCFL-based LCD set these days, as the entire industry is switching to LED backlights. You can dive into the finer details about each type of set in our HDTV buying guide.

For the Super Bowl, it all boils down to this: Plasmas are more likely to give you better overall picture quality, but LCD/LED sets might be better options in a few cases. Consider the kickoff time, for example.

Your time zone may make a difference

Super Bowl XLVII will start at 6:30 p.m. Eastern on February 3, airing on CBS. At kickoff time, it will be dark on the East Coast, but viewers will be watching some or all of the game in daylight on the West Coast and in Hawaii.

With that in mind, you may want to consider an LED/LCD set if you're watching the game in the west. Plasmas are less bright, and they sometimes look washed out or obscured by glare if sunlight is streaming in through the windows. It's something to think about, but any problem you can fix by pulling the blinds isn't that big a deal.

Why you should consider a 3D LCD/LED

If you go the LCD/LED route, you should consider a 3D-capable set for watching sports. I'm not suggesting that you actually watch the game in 3D, I'm just saying that a 3D-capable set will likely have better picture quality for viewing sports in 2D mode.

The reason for this boils down to refresh rates. With an LCD/LED set, the refresh rate is a major indicator of how well the HDTV will handle fast on-screen action without producing blur. Refresh rates are measured in hertz (Hz), and that translates to the number of times the screen refreshes each second. Generally you don't want a 60Hz set for watching sports; you want at least a 120Hz set, and although your eyeballs may not be able to tell the difference, a 240Hz set offers an even faster refresh rate.

The problem is, it's hard to determine what a set's actual refresh rate is anymore, since many manufacturers lump in a set's native refresh rate with other motion-smoothing features to make the numbers appear higher. You may see a set's "Clear Motion" or "Motionflow" or "TruMotion" rate listed at 480Hz or even 960Hz, but that isn't the true refresh rate of the set.

If you can't find a set's real refresh rate on a spec sheet, you can cut through a lot of the jargon simply by checking whether a set offers 3D playback. Most 3D LED sets have a refresh rate of 240Hz, especially if they're active-glasses 3D sets.

Bigger isn't always better, but it usually is

Sharp's 90-inch Aquos LED set is the biggest you can buy right now.

The rule of thumb is that the optimal viewing distance for any HDTV is roughly two times the size of the set's diagonal measurement. In other words, if you have a 46- to 55-inch set, the best seat in the house should be 8 to 9 feet away from the screen. If you have a 60- to 70-inch set, the optimal viewing distance pushes back to 10 to 12 feet.

In the real world, that doesn't mean you won't enjoy the game if you're only 8 feet away from a 70-inch HDTV. It just means that you might be able to see individual pixels on the screen if you're sitting very close. You'll also have to move your head around a bit to see everything that's happening, just as if you were sitting in the front few rows of a movie theater.

But having a Super Bowl party is a scenario that comes around only once a year. You won't always have a ton of people in your living room, sitting on the floor a few feet in front of the TV. With that in mind, you should choose a size based on your normal viewing habits in a party-free room.

See what's available in your price range

In the middle of last year, I examined a pool of 124 new HDTVs to figure out what shoppers get for their money. At that time, you could find 60-inch plasmas and 55-inch LED sets for less than $1500. The good news is that since we posted the story, all the sets in that roundup are dropping in price.

You can get even more for your money now. Take a look at "HDTVs: What you get at each price." From there, you can figure out what your budget translates to in terms of screen size, display technology, refresh rate, and connected features.

How to optimize your HDTV once you get it

Usually, higher-end sets don't just have better picture quality out of the box. They also have more fine-tuning options than lower-end sets do.

I recommend getting your set calibrated by a professional to obtain the best picture your HDTV can provide, but I also understand if you don't have the time or money to do that. Rest assured, you can do a few other things yourself to enhance your set's picture quality in time for kickoff.

Set up your HDTV for sports: See Lincoln Spector's three big tips for optimizing your HDTV for daytime viewing, ensuring that you're getting the best-quality TV feed on your set, and tweaking your set's motion/interpolation settings so that they aren't making things worse.

How to calibrate your HDTV: Loyd Case offers a peek at how the pros calibrate. To do it right, you need a spectrophotometer, a deep understanding of your set's color-management tools, and loads of repetition and patience.

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