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The Definitive Guide on How to Buy an HDTV

October 23, 2008 By Geoffrey Morrison

No matter what you're looking for, or how you shop, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to find the right TV for you.

Shopping for a new TV can be quite daunting. Countless models, countless prices, different technologies, and every store you go into telling you to buy something different.

With this guide, we'll help you navigate your way through all this, so that you can find the TV that suits your needs.

Where to begin

Ok, first question. Where is this TV going to go? A TV for your den may not be the best choice for a TV for your bedroom. If you have a room with a lot of windows, many LCDs handle the glare better than some plasmas. This isn't the steadfast rule it used to be. Some LCDs now have glossy screens that do look better in well-lit areas, but have reflections. Many plasmas have anti-glare coatings, something to look for on a feature list if you're leaning towards plasma.

Size is one of the main ways to narrow down your options. You can always go bigger than you think you can. Many people upgrading from an old 36-inch CRT thought that a 42-inch flat-panel was going to be a big step up. In reality, the 4x3 area of the 16x9 (widescreen) flat-panel was roughly the same size. The only improvement was in width on DVD and HDTV material.

A 32-inch widescreen LCD isn't as tall as a 4x3 CRT of the same diagonal. With most TVs now at 1080p resolution, you can really go as big as you want. Conversely, if you're looking to buy a smaller set, or are sitting more than 10-feet away from your TV, you don't need 1080p. Really, you don't need 1080p on any TV less than 60-inches if you're sitting 10-feet away (most people are). Your eye just can't resolve the detail at that distance.

Where to go

Definitely use the Internet to shop for prices. Personally, I wouldn't buy a big purchase item like a TV over the web. Who do you complain to if something goes wrong? Many companies wont honor the manufacturers warrantee if you don't buy their products from one of their registered retailers. The markup on all TVs is so small, that it's doubtful that you'll see too much variation in price anyway.
The big box stores (Best Buy, Costco and the like) are probably the absolute worst places to evaluate a display.

The only way they could be worse is if you covered your eyes and pointed at blank cardboard boxes. I'm not exaggerating. Here's the problem. All the big box stores are very well lit, as you can see from the images to the left and above.

Lots of lights make their products appear shiny and their sales help less creepy. Many stores have gone to great lengths to reduce the light in the TV areas, but even still, compared to your home these stores are much, much brighter.

As a result, none of the TVs are going to look in your home like they do in the store. For example, in a well lit store, LCDs will appear to have a better black level than plasma, because they don't reflect as much ambient light. When you get it home, the plasma (generally) will have the better black level. If you watch your TV mostly during the day, this isn't a big deal. But if you watch mostly movies at night, this is.

So what to do? All major cities, and most suburbs, will have some sort of locally owned custom retailer. Most areas will have many (there's even a partial listing in the back of this magazine). These stores are often set up to be more conducive to audio and video demos. Take a look at the viewing enviroment at Genesis Audio&Video for example, shown to the right.

Genesis Audio&VideoThese types of stores may even let you bring your own discs to watch (like ones that Dennis wrote about in Movies to Shop By). They may not have every model, but I'll let you in on a secret. If you're looking for the 42PX800, and they have the 50PX800 these TVs will look very similar. Nearly every TV manufacturer keeps their model numbers pretty consistent. Look for the size of the TV in the model number (in the afore mentioned example, 42-inches and 50-inches respectively). The other numbers will likely be the model line (the 800-series, in this example). So while they won't be identical, they will be extremely close.
So check out the TVs in smaller stores, preferably several if you have the time, as the TVs will be set up differently in each store.
BUT—and this is very important—if you frequent one of these stores, ask the sales person that comes to help you if they are on commission. If so, be honest about your buying intentions. This is the decent thing to do. They'll still talk to you if you tell them you're not buying today (if they're good at their job). That's called relationship building. If you don't tell them you're just looking, and then waste an hour of their day while they lose other potential customers, that's just being rude.

I sold hi-fi for years, and if someone was up front about not looking to buy that day, I would gladly answer all their questions. I would just bow out occasionally to check in with other customers. Ok, so that's how you treat sales people.

On the other hand, if the sales person is rude, condescending, too pushy, or whatever, flat out leave. There are many great sales people out there that deserve your business. There are also those that don't. If someone helps you out, answers your questions, and treats you well, you should "reward" that kind of service with your business. Chances are they'll also work with you on price (something the big box stores won't).

Ok, now you've figured out what you want and where to go. Up next we'll discuss what to actually look for when you get there.


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