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Televisions Buying Guides

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Consumer Reports has no relationship with advertisers on PriceGrabber

Getting started

Buying a TV involves many choices, some of which may be brand new to you. This TV buying guide organizes the process into clear, logical steps that will help you make a smart decision.

Budget

Of course, your budget will affect all of your decisions. It's possible to find good TVs selling for a few hundred dollars, while others go for several thousand, and there are many sets that fall in between those extremes. Screen size, features, brands, and more affect the price. We can help you get the most bang for your buck, no matter how much or how little you want to spend.

TV type

If you're like most buyers, you've probably settled on a slim flat-panel TV, but you might not know whether to buy an LCD or plasma set. Though they look very similar on the outside, they use different technologies and the pictures have different characteristics. While LCDs outsell plasmas by a wide margin--in part because plasma sets are available only in screen sizes 42 inches and larger--don't automatically assume that LCDs are the way to go. It's worth considering both types, especially if you're looking for a 3D set. Flat panels have largely pushed rear-projection and picture-tube TVs to the sidelines; few of those sets are now being introduced or stocked by retailers. Front projectors are a great choice for home theaters but less practical for everyday use. 3D TVs are the newest game in town. With more new TVs now offering 3D capability, prices falling, and more 3D content arriving, 3D television is likely to attract more attention this year. Another hot feature: Internet capability. Many new LCD and plasma TVs are Interet-enabled sets that can stream online video and access popular websites.

Screen size

Deciding what size TV to buy is one of the more enjoyable aspects of purchasing a new set. Most consumers tend to go bigger when replacing their old TV, because it enables them to fully appreciate the fine, sharp detail of HD content, making it more compelling and creating more of a theater-like experience. (Note that you can't compare the screen size of a conventional squarish tube TV with a widescreen, so don't think a move from a 27-inch tube set to a 32-inch widescreen will give you an appreciably bigger picture. It won't; content will be perceived as the same size, though wider.)

For the most part, we recommend at least a 37-inch screen for a primary TV that you'll watch often. We believe that most consumers would be happier with a 40-to-42-inch TV, budget and room size permitting, and a 46-inch or bigger set is often preferable. Screens of about 26 to 32 inches are good for casual viewing in bedrooms, and even smaller screen sizes suit kitchens and home offices.

Remember to factor in viewing distance when deciding how big a screen will work in your room. TV pictures tends to look better and more natural if you can sit at least 5 feet from a 40-to-47-inch set displaying good-quality HD content and a minimum of 6 feet from a 50-inch or larger TV. With less distance, you might notice the picture elements (pixels) that make up the images, graininess, or video noise--what you might consider "snow" or specks. If you watch mostly standard-definition programming, which is less detailed and often lower quality, allow more distance between you and the TV.

Screen resolution

Resolution means the number of pixels, or picture elements, a screen contains. A 720p set displays 1024x768, 1280x720, or 1366x768 pixels. A set with 1080p resolution, sometimes advertised as "full HD," displays 1920x1080 pixels. The first number in each case indicates the number of pixels going across the screen from left to right; the second number is the number of pixels from the top of the screen to the bottom. That second number is often used as shorthand to describe the set's resolution, e.g., a 1080p screen has 1,080 pixels from top to bottom. Most new LCD and plasma TVs with screens 40 inches and up now have 1080p resolution, and the price difference between 720p and 1080p sets is shrinking.

A 1080p set has the potential to display finer detail than a 720p set, but resolution alone doesn't determine picture quality. Factors such as brightness, contrast, and color also come into play. You can best appreciate the finer detail of a 1080p screen on a 50-inch or larger TV, though you might see subtle improvements on a 40-to-47-inch screen, especially when viewed up close. In smaller sizes, the benefits of 1080p are less obvious. One exception: If you plan to use your TV as a computer display, 1080p resolution is a plus even on smaller screens. The higher resolution will let you see more content onscreen with greater clarity and finer detail than you would on a 720p set. (You might have to connect your computer to the TV with an HDMI input to take full advantage of the 1080p resolution and to avoid cutting off outer edges of the image--otherwise known as overscan.)

What you're watching matters too. To fully enjoy the benefits of a 1080p TV, you need top-quality high-def content. You can get that from a Blu-ray disc, which contains true 1080p content. A 1080p set will convert HD signal formats (720p and 1080i signals from your cable box, for instance) to match its native screen resolution. If the quality of the programming is good and the TV does the job well, the picture quality can be outstanding. In fact, most 1080p HD sets can derive true 1080p performance from most film-based movies. But the quality of HD content varies considerably (especially on cable), so it might not fully exploit the potential of a 1080p display.

Other issues

Other considerations include features and brand. We'll lead you through those choices and more, helping you to make the best choice for your specific needs and preferences.

Once you're in a store or shopping online, you'll have to decide whether to buy an extended warranty, how much to spend on cables, how to get the best price, and more. Our shopping tips will make you a savvy consumer and help you to save money and avoid hassles. What you'll watch on your new TV is an issue that will affect your enjoyment of your set, so you might be thinking of upgrading your TV service or switching to a new provider. See what cable, satellite, and phone companies have to offer before making a decision.

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Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

Getting started

1. Getting started

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