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Televisions are expensive beasts, but they fall into a few distinct price categories. Here's a cheat sheet that will help better align the set of your dreams with the reality of your bank account. Note that these prices reflect the latest street/online price as of this writing. To sort TVs in CNET's database by price range, check out this list...
|WHAT YOU'LL PAY||WHAT YOU'LL GET|
|Less than $300|| CRT: up to 27 inches |
LCD: up to 24 inches
|$300 to $500||LCD: up to 32 inches|
|$500 to $800|| LCD: up to 42 inches |
Plasma: up to 42 inches
Rear-projection: up to 50 inches
|$800 to $1,100|| LCD: up to 47 inches |
Plasma: up to 50 inches
Rear-projection: up to 61 inches
|$1,100 to $1,700||LCD: up to 52 inches |
Plasma: up to 50 inches
Rear-projection: up to 67 inches
|$1,700 to $2,700||LCD: up to 52 inches |
Plasma: up to 58 inches
Rear-projection: up to 67 inches
|More than $2,700||LCD: up to 108 inches |
Plasma: up to 103 inches
Rear-projection: up to 73 inches
After you have your budget squared away, you need to decide how large of a screen you want. Usually, the largest screens cost the most, but regardless, the TV should deliver the right-size picture for where you'll sit relative to the screen. Sitting closer to a smaller TV means you won't have to spend as much on a big screen. But if you sit too close, the picture will look poor.
Nearly every TV sold these days is a wide-screen HDTV, so the chart below only applies to those sets. If you have a regular TV that's not wide screen, the rule of thumb is that you should sit no closer than twice the diagonal measurement in inches. Wide-screen televisions showing high-resolution DVD and HDTV look better than regular sets, allowing you to sit closer and experience a more immersive, theater-like picture.
With wide-screen sets showing DVD or HDTV, you can sit as close as 1.5 times the screen's diagonal measurement and still not notice much of a loss in quality, while sitting farther away than three times the screen size means you're likely to miss out on the immersive feel. Here's a rundown of minimum and maximum recommended viewing distances for wide-screen sets.
|16:9 TV diagonal screen size||Min. viewing distance (in feet)||Max. viewing distance (in feet)|
Generally, 30-inch and smaller sets are great for bedrooms or guest rooms but too small for the main living room. Sets with bigger screens are large enough for the whole family to enjoy and will probably be too much for most small bedrooms.
If you're mounting the set inside an entertainment center, be sure it fits in every dimension; also, leave a couple inches on all sides so that the TV has enough ventilation. If you're getting a bigger set, you may want to consider a dedicated stand. Many such stands also include space for your TV-related components, like cable boxes and DVD players.
CRT tube televisions are a dying breed, and new ones you'll see generally max out at 27 inches. Flat-panel LCDs can range anywhere from 5 inches to more than 100 inches diagonal; plasmas are between 32 and 103 inches; and rear-projection sets start at about 50 inches and go to as large as 73. These different TV types have their own strengths and drawbacks, which we detail in "Four styles of HDTV."
Today the majority of televisions sold in the United States are HDTVs. In fact, we recommend you avoid buying any TV that's not high-def unless you're really strapped for cash. But while high-def is the norm, it's still fraught with potentially unfamiliar terms, concepts, and issues, so read on for details about the de facto television standard.
Analog: An analog TV cannot display HDTV programming. It can show only standard-definition programs such as those found on regular TV, cable, or satellite channels--including digital cable and DirecTV or Dish Network.
Digital: The words "digital television" are used as a generic term for SDTV, EDTV, or HDTV.
SDTV: A standard-definition television is an analog television equipped with a built-in ATSC tuner (see below), which allows it to receive digital TV broadcasts. It will display a picture from these broadcasts, but HDTV shows won't look nearly as detailed as they would on a true HDTV.
EDTV: This stands for enhanced-definition TV, and usually it describes a television that can display HDTV signals but doesn't have enough resolution to really do them justice. Most often it applies to plasma TVs and denotes 852x480 pixels (more info).
HDTV: High-definition televisions, or HDTVs, can display standard TV, progressive-scan DVD, and HDTV signals. They're by far the most common type of digital television. Nearly every plasma, LCD, and rear-projection TV is an HDTV.
EDTV monitor or HDTV monitor: Describes a television that lacks a built-in tuner of any kind. These sets still work perfectly well with external tuners, including HD-compatible satellite and cable boxes.
Over the air: By law, almost all televisions sold after March 1, 2007, must include a built-in tuner (called HDTV, digital, or ATSC tuners) that can receive high-definition programs over the air by simply connecting an antenna. If your HDTV doesn't have such a tuner, you'll also need to connect an external tuner (or cable or satellite box) to watch high-definition programming. There's a loophole in the law, though: if the product contains no tuner whatsoever--for TVs, this means it's a "monitor"--then the mandate does not apply. As a result of the over-the-air tuner mandate, nearly all televisions sold after that date should be ready for the analog switch-off, aka the DTV transition.
DTV transition: Congress has passed a bill that requires over-the-air television stations to switch completely over to digital broadcasting sometime between February 17 and June 12, 2009. After the final June date, TVs and other gear with older NTSC tuners will be unable to receive over-the-air broadcasts. Anyone who watches TV via "rabbit ears" or a rooftop antenna (as opposed to cable or satellite), and whose TV does not have a built-in or separate digital tuner, will stop receiving programs on that TV. Because the switch-off of analog TV broadcasts would deprive many viewers of their only source of television, Congress also created a subsidy program. Run by the government's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the program will provide $40 coupons, limit of two per household, each of which can be used to pay for one digital converter box. . For more information, check out our Guide to the DTV Transition.
Cable and satellite: The FCC's plans for ATSC tuners and the DTV transition have nothing to do with HDTV over cable and satellite. Subscribers to these pay TV services can simply get a set-top box that tunes HDTV channels, plug it into their HDTV-ready sets, and watch HDTV. For more information, check out HDTV programming compared.
Resolution, or picture detail, is the main reason why HDTV programs look so good. The standard-definition programming most of us watch today has at most 480 visible lines of detail, whereas HDTV has as many as 1,080. HDTV looks sharper and clearer than regular TV by a wide margin, especially on big-screen televisions. It commonly comes in three different resolutions, called 1080p, 1080i, and 720p. Comparing the latter two, 1080i has more lines and pixels than 720p, but 720p is a progressive-scan format that should deliver a smoother image that stays sharper during motion. 1080p combines the superior resolution of 1080i with the progressive-scan smoothness of 720p. True 1080p content is scarce outside of Blu-ray, some video-on-demand sources, and the latest video games, however, and none of the major networks has announced 1080p broadcasts. Despite the complexity of all these numbers, however, the simple fact is that all three HDTV resolutions look great compared with standard-def video, and it's quite difficult for anyone to tell the difference between the three. Check out our comparison chart to see how HDTV stacks up against standard TV and progressive-scan DVD, and go to HDTV resolution explained for more, um, detail.
|Regular TV||Up to 480 lines||N||N||N|
Regular TV on an HDTV: Many people bringing home an HDTV for the first time are disappointed by the picture they see. That's usually because they're watching a regular, standard-definition channel instead of an HDTV channel. Regular TV on an HDTV can look pretty bad, especially in comparison to high-definition programming. HDTVs are bigger and sharper than older standard-definition TVs, so they show off more of the flaws and relative softness of SD channels and content. Some HDTVs can improve lower-quality sources a bit more than others can, but in general there isn't much any HDTV can do to make standard-def TV programming look better.
DVD on an HDTV: HDTVs can make DVD, a very high-quality source, look spectacular, and most people are quite satisfied by the look of DVD on their HDTVs. Many DVD players and all Blu-ray players, also have built-in upconversion processing, which is supposedly designed to convert DVDs to high-definition resolution. In most cases, however, the benefits of this conversion process, if any, will be subtle.
If you buy an HDTV today, you can be fairly certain it won't become obsolete anytime in the next few years. Yes, new technologies come out every year, but nothing on the scale of the shift from standard-def to high-def TV will occur again for a good, long time. Nearly every current HDTV is equipped with a future-ready HDMI input, which assures compliance with tougher copy-protection standards, and as long as your new HDTV has one, you should be good to go.
We mentioned before that just about every television available for sale today is an HDTV. Nearly every one of those is also a wide-screen television. On a wide-screen, or 16:9, television, the screen takes the same shape as many movies and HDTV shows. The number represents 16 units of width for every 9 units of height. Wide-screen is the future of the television screen, and older, squared-off TV sets, with screens that have what's known as a 4:3 aspect ratio, are going the way of the dodo. Our buying advice is simple: get a wide-screen TV.
The complicated part is that the TV shows themselves aren't going wide screen as quickly, and older shows and reruns especially are still broadcast in the 4:3 aspect ratio. To view them on your wide-screen HDTV without distorting or cropping the picture, you'll need to waste a portion of the screen area, filling it with bars to either side of the image. Conversely, if you own an older 4:3 TV and want to watch wide-screen shows without distortion or cropping, you're stuck with bars above and below the picture.
To find out exactly how much picture you'll be missing with either kind of TV, check out our calculator below. Just enter the diagonal screen size and aspect ratio of the set you're considering, then hit Calculate.
Don't want to waste space on black or gray bars? All wide-screen TVs have ways to stretch, crop, or zoom the regular 4:3 image so that it fills the wider screen. These methods distort the image somewhat, but many wide-screen TV owners prefer looking at slightly stretched people rather than black bars. Here's a quick rundown of a few of the different names for selectable aspect-ratio modes found on wide-screen sets. Note that these names always vary by manufacturer, so they may not match up with your HDTV exactly.
Normal or 4:3: Places black or gray bars to either side of the 4:3 image.
Zoom or Enlarge: Magnifies the entire image, eliminating the windowbox bars but cropping the top and bottom of the image. Often, more than one level of zoom is provided.
Wide or Full: Used for native 16:9 content such as that found on DVDs. With 4:3 content, such as regular TV, it stretches the image horizontally, making people look shorter and fatter.
Panorama, TheaterWide, or Natural: TV makers have many names for modes that compromise between stretching and zooming to fill the screen. Some stretch the sides of the image more than the middle, so people in the center of the screen look correct. Some crop a little so that they don't have to stretch as much.
For more information, check out CNET's Quick Guide to Aspect Ratio.
Convenience features, inputs, and even the sound system are all factors to consider in your next TV purchase. Many TV makers differentiate their baseline models from step-up versions by including all kinds of add-ons, so check our list to help determine whether that "loaded" set you're considering really has the features that matter. For features that relate to picture quality, check out the next page.
What it is: PIP lets you watch a second program in a little window. More-elaborate versions can resize the window, move it around the screen, create still or multiple still images, or simply divide the screen into two same-size pictures, often called "picture-outside-picture" (POP).
What it isn't: PIP has a dirty little secret, though: If you use an external tuner such as a cable box or a satellite receiver, you can watch only one program at once. If some of your channels are unscrambled, you can watch those on the second window, and you can usually watch other sources such as VHS or DVD on it, as well. But even with two-tuner PIP, a single cable/satellite box will prevent you from watching two live scrambled channels simultaneously unless the box itself has two-tuner PIP.
What it is: Plenty of TVs now come with universal remotes that can control other A/V gear. Usually, they work with a cable or satellite box, and many can also command DVD players, VCRs, or even A/V receivers. If you like watching movies in the dark, you should look for a remote with backlit or glowing buttons.
What it isn't: Not every universal remote can control everything. Some, known as unibrand remotes, can control only the same brand of equipment as the TV itself. Most are preprogrammed with a set list of codes, and if the codes don't match your older or off-brand gear, you're out of luck. A few are learning models that can accept the IR codes from your other remotes and, thus, control any kind of gear.
What it is: Almost every TV sold today has MTS stereo reception and stereo speakers, which provide much better sound than a single mono speaker. When TV makers list readings of 5 watts per channel or higher, it means the set has a respectable audio system for a TV. Some sets with simulated surround provide a semblance of the effect of rear speakers.
What it isn't: No TV can compete with a dedicated audio system, so even if your set has lots of watts and simulated surround sound, you should consider a home-theater audio system for maximum impact. If you have such a system, the TV's sound becomes a moot point.
What it is: Channel-surfing modes, favorite-channel lists, and other features that rely on your TV's built-in tuner can make switching channels a lot more efficient--as long as you use that tuner.
What it isn't: The problem is, many people use external tuners such as a cable or satellite box to change channels. If you're one of those people, tuner extras are all but useless to you
Perhaps the single most confusing item on a TV spec sheet is the forest of inputs and outputs used to hook up the set to other equipment. The following trail of breadcrumbs, arranged in order of video quality, should help put you on the right connectivity path...
|Jack||Cable||Name||Typical use||Level of video quality|
aka radio frequency; antenna; cable; screw type; F-pin
|Antennae, VCRs, cable and satellite boxes||Lowest, Highest (digital) for HDTV tuners|
aka yellow video; video; A/V (when combined with audio jacks)
|Cable and satellite boxes, VCRs, DVD players, game consoles||Low|
aka DIN 4
|Cable and satellite boxes, S-VHS VCRs, DVD players, game consoles||Medium|
aka component; Y, Pb, Pr; Y, Cb, Cr; broadband component; 1080i; 720p; HDTV
|HD cable and satellite boxes, DVD players, HDTV tuners, Blu-ray and HD DVD players, game consoles, other HD sources||High|
Connections can also be made through RCA or BNC-type connectors, and adapters are available between all of them
aka PC, computer, VGA; 15-pin D-sub; RGB-HV
|Computers, video processors||High|
aka IEEE 1394; iLink
|some HDTV tuners, D-VHS VCRs||Highest (digital)|
|DVI-D with HDCP|
aka DVI-D; Digital Visual Interface; High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection
|Computers; older HD cable and satellite boxes, HDTV tuners and DVD players||Highest (digital|
Antennae, VCRs, cable and satellite boxes
aka High-Definition Multimedia Interface
|HD cable and satellite boxes, DVD players, HDTV tuners, Blu-ray and HD DVD players, game consoles, computers, other HD sources||Highest (digital)|
Another factor to add to your TV buying checklist is power consumption. A new HDTV can potentially use a lot of electricity, and buying a model that's more efficient can save tens or even hundreds of dollars per year, depending on how much it's used. Numerous factors affect TV power consumption, including screen size, technology (plasma or LCD), picture settings, and the presence or absence of power-saving features. To get a handle on TV power use, check out our Quick Guide to TV power consumption.
The most difficult thing to judge when shopping for a TV is how good the picture looks. Good is a subjective term, so relying on the judgment of reviewers (such as CNET) may not get you exactly what you want. Then again, many reviewers scoff at the kinds of pictures that impress TV shoppers in the store. In this section, we'll offer some tips on become a more discerning viewer and what separates good pictures from the rest.
Most electronics stores show their televisions on a big wall, fed by the same video signal split a hundred times. Although bright lights, suspect salespeople, and a lack of remote controls will probably make any picture-quality judgment difficult, here are a few things to look for on the wall.
Picture quality is the main characteristic used to sell TVs, but very few features actually affect picture quality in a helpful way. We'll run through a few here.
DVD and Blu-ray movies aren't the only non-TV content that's likely to be shown on the television. Here are a few other pointers on what to look for in a set that'll do multimedia duty.
The sweet graphics of the Xbox, the PlayStation, and the GameCube, not to mention the Xbox 360, the PlayStation3, and the Wii, can take full advantage of high-end televisions, but even inexpensive sets do best with a few added features in the mix.
Today's televisions have plenty of connections and capabilities, and plasma, LCD, and most rear-projection usually make excellent computer monitors. If you want to use your TV as a monitor for games, Web surfing, and other tasks, here are a few tips:
With any large purchase, the urge to accessorize can be overwhelming. Here are a few add-ons to consider, as well as some words on warranty and buying online.
The final question you'll be asked when buying a TV is generally, "Would you like an extended warranty with that?" Although in this section we previously advocated a few aspects of extended warranties, mainly because of the relatively untested nature of new HDTV technologies, we're changing our tune. Most buyers should skip the extended warranty. According to the March 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, the overwhelming majority HDTVs do not need repair during the warranty period. Rear-projection HDTVs do exhibit a higher rate of failure than flat-panels in general, but are still quite reliable and again not worth an extended warranty. CR goes on to mention that many credit cards and some retailers, such as Costco, will extend the manufacturers' warranty free of charge, which seems like a better deal to us than spending hundreds on an extended warranty.
The standard warranty covers parts for one year and labor for 90 days. Some manufacturer warranties have separate time frames for the picture element--such as the tube, which is often covered for two years--and the rest of the TV. High-end TVs, especially plasmas, often have a one-year labor warranty. Some manufacturers also offer in-home service on more expensive and larger models that are difficult to ship.
You can often get a great deal if you buy your TV online, but you should be aware of some differences.
An increasing number of TV makers are cracking down on "unauthorized" retailers of their sets, especially online, and some will not honor warranties on products purchased from such dealers. See the Web site of your set's manufacturer before you purchase a TV online for its policy on unauthorized retailers. Not coincidentally, unauthorized merchants often have the best prices.
If you decide to buy your TV online, make sure you choose a vendor with a solid return policy. There are many cut-rate vendors out there that don't allow any returns on televisions--an exception to their standard return policies. Also, be prepared for a significant shipping fee. If there is a problem with the TV, many brick-and-mortar retailers will accept a return no questions asked, while online merchants often make you pay return shipping and/or a restocking fee, provided they accept returns on TVs at all.
Consider how to get it through the door and set it up in your room or on a stand; big TVs often require more than one strong person to lift them. Some online and many brick-and-mortar dealers will move the TV into your house and even set it up for you, but it usually costs extra.