Buying an HDTV is both exciting and perplexing. There are lots of options to consider. Should you go with a flat-panel display? What's the difference between LCD and plasma sets? Should you skip that debate and buy a digital light processing (DLP) set? What technologies provide the best value for the dollar?
Then you have all the other features that come with HDTVs. What kind of input ports does it have? How many are there? What kind of special cables will you need to purchase? Are you going with component video, S-video or HDMI connections? Do you want your television to be compatible with other devices like an MP3 player?
Manufacturers will do their best to convince you that their brand is the best when it comes to HDTV. If you want to buy the latest and greatest set on the market, you'll have to spend big bucks. In fact, the largest and most feature-rich televisions can cost more than $70,000!
We've looked at the wide world of HDTVs and picked out five models that are good choices for people who want to get the high-definition experience but aren't looking for cutting-edge products. These sets will let you view content in high-definition, but may not have all the bells and whistles that the newest models on the market boast.
Even at the lower end of the spectrum, HDTVs can be a big investment. We've chosen two budget models (retailing for less than $550), two moderately-priced sets (less than $1,000) and one premium model for the first-time HDTV customer.
First up is the smallest television on our list. Panasonic's TC-L26X1 has an LCD screen that measures just 26 inches on the diagonal. It has a resolution of 720p, which means it can display 720 horizontal lines of pixels -- points of light -- and it uses progressive-scan technology.
If you know a thing or two about high-definition television sets, then you know that some are capable of showing 1,080 horizontal lines of pixels. The number of pixels a television can display affects the sharpness of the picture. Lower resolutions result in blocky images. But smaller televisions can get away with the lower number of pixels because of their size. What might look a little chunky on a big screen will be fine on a small one.
Because this television uses an LCD screen, the contrast ratio is important, too. The contrast ratio gives you information about how well the set displays darker colors, specifically black. The larger the ratio, the better the television handles those dark images. The TC-L26X1 has a contrast ratio of 12,000:1.
The set has two HDMI inputs, two composite inputs, an S-video input and a component video input. It also has a special input for PCs. You can even connect an iPod docking station to the television and view or listen to content from your iPod on your television.
It's not a big television set, but the TC-L26X1 has features that gain it entry on our list. Retail prices range from around $420 to $550.
Jumping up to the 32-inch television models, we have this flat-panel set from Samsung. It's also an LCD HDTV. The contrast ratio of the LN32A450 is 10,000:1 -- not as impressive as the Panasonic set we looked at, but still a respectable result. It has a resolution of 720p, which still works well for a television of this size.
The television supports surround sound with two 10-watt speakers. As for inputs, the set has three HDMI inputs (two on the side, one on the back), two component inputs on the side, two composite inputs (one on the back, one on the side), one S-video input on the side and a PC input on the back. The inputs on the side make it easier to mount the television to the wall without the cables getting in the way.
Samsung claims that you can view the screen at an angle of up to 178 degrees. That's important, because earlier LCD screens had the reputation of possessing a relatively narrow angle of view. If you tried to watch the television from too wide of an angle you wouldn't be able to see the image. Newer LCD televisions like the LN32A450 have largely eliminated this problem.
The manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for this set is $699.99, but you can find it priced for less than $520 online.
This is another LCD set -- plasma televisions tend to be more expensive than their LCD counterparts. It's a flat-panel television with a 32-inch screen and 1080p resolution. While it has the same viewing angle as the Samsung -- 178 degrees -- it has a lower contrast ratio at 3,700:1.
What the LT-32P300 lacks in contrast it makes up for in features. One of those features is an integrated iPod dock. You can connect your iPod directly to the television and watch or listen to content on the big screen. The television has software that allows it to upconvert the content from your iPod into a 1080p format so you don't have to worry about the normally tiny picture looking awful on the larger screen. The docking station will also charge a docked iPod.
The set has three HDMI inputs, two component video inputs, an S-video input and a PC input. It also has an optical audio output port. You can run an optical audio cable -- a cable that transmits audio using beams of light -- and connect your television to a sound system for a rich home theater experience.
Another nifty feature is the inclusion of a USB port. You can connect a camera or other device to your television with a USB cable and view pictures on the television screen.
The LT-32P300 retails for around $750, though if you search around you may find it for as low as $550.
With the Sharp LC-32D43U, we're going back to 720p resolution. And with the LCD set's 32-inch screen, that's not a drawback. The picture is still crisp and has what Sharp calls a dynamic contrast ratio of 6,000:1 -- the native contrast ratio is just 1,200:1. So what is dynamic contrast ratio?
To display images, LCD screens need a backlight. This is a light that shines through the liquid crystals in the screen to create the images we watch. That's why LCD screens traditionally have trouble displaying rich dark colors -- the backlight can make a deep black look more like a charcoal gray. A set with dynamic contrast, like the LC-32D43U, reduces the power of the backlight to display dark colors or otherwise restricts the amount of light going to that part of the screen.
This set has two HDMI inputs, two composite inputs, two component inputs, one S-video input and one PC input. It's not a bad choice for the first-time HDTV owner, though it lacks some of the features other sets on this list have.
The Sharp LC-32D43U retails for around $600, though some stores may list it for just under $1,000.
Last is the largest television on our list: a 42-inch plasma television from Panasonic. Plasma televisions don't use a backlight like LCD screens. That means plasma TVs don't have the same problems LCD TVs have showing darker colors. It's also easier to find big screen plasma televisions than it is to find huge LCD screens. One drawback for plasma televisions is that they tend to consume more power than their LCD counterparts.
Panasonic addressed that drawback by reengineering its plasma display technology to consume less power than previous models. That doesn't mean the TC-P42S1 is underpowered. The set boasts a 1080p resolution. And it has an anti-reflective filter screen coating to cut down on glare.
As for inputs, it has three slots for HDMI cables, two for composite video, two for component video and one S-video input. It doesn't have a PC input port, but the set does come with a digital audio output. With the right cable, you can connect the television to your sound system and shake the house every time Godzilla takes a step.
The TC-P42S1 is one of Panasonic's Viera televisions. This line of TVs can be hooked up to the Internet for interactive capability. With the connection of a LAN cable from your home network to the television, you gain access to Web-based content like Amazon Video on Demand and YouTube.
The TC-P42S1 retails between $800 and $1,100, making it the most expensive HDTV set on our list.
When shopping for your first HDTV, keep in mind your entertainment needs as well as your budget. With a little legwork you'll find the set right for you.
For more information on HDTV and related technologies, visit the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- JVC. "LT-32P300." (Aug. 18, 2009) http://tv.jvc.com/product.jsp?productId=PRD4208400&pathId=94
- Panasonic. "TC-L26X1." (Aug. 17, 2009) http://www2.panasonic.com/consumer-electronics/shop/Televisions/All-VIERA-Flat-Panel-HDTVs/model.TC-L26X1_11002_7000000000000005702
- Panasonic. "TC-P42S1." (Aug. 18, 2009) http://www2.panasonic.com/consumer-electronics/shop/Televisions/All-VIERA-Flat-Panel-HDTVs/model.TC-P42S1_11002_7000000000000005702
- Samsung. "LN32A450." (Aug. 17, 2009) http://www.samsung.com/us/consumer/detail/detail.do?group=televisions&type=televisions&subtype=lcdtv&model_cd=LN32A450C1DXZA
- Sharp USA. "LC-32D43U User Manual." (Aug. 18, 2009) http://www.sharpusa.com/files/tel_man_LC32_LC37D43U.pdf