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It's prime time for buying a TV

Weak sales during the traditional peak periods and the rollout of new models translate to bargains for shoppers.

March 28, 2009|David Colker

On a recent evening, only one customer lingered in a local Best Buy's cushy Magnolia showroom, where the chain store shows off its high-end, state-of-the-art televisions.

He was sitting on a leather sofa, fast asleep.

In these tough times, shopping for a TV has become less about state of the art and more about state of the economy.

Luckily, it's a good time to snag a bargain, experts say.

This is a time of year when TV prices traditionally stabilize. The big discounts usually come at the end of the year for holiday shopping, then more price specials arrive leading up to the Super Bowl.

After the big game, prices edge up a bit in a normal year.

"This year the promotional pricing did not end" for the simple reason that TVs didn't sell as well as usual during the peak shopping periods, said analyst Riddhi Patel of the research firm iSuppli.

"The volume seemed OK on the TVs 42 inches and smaller," said Paul Gagnon, director of North America TV market research for DisplaySearch. "It's the 47-inch-plus TVs that have gotten more difficult to move."

Another good factor for bargain shoppers: Stores are nearing the time when new models traditionally start showing up.

"Retailers and manufacturers will make every effort to move out the older models before the new ones arrive," Gagnon said. "When there are new models out there, that's what people want."

In a normal year. A sparkling new TV, with the latest whiz-bang bells and whistles, is great fun to have. But given the uncertainty of the times, a bargain on last year's gadgetry is just fine for many of us.

Cutting-edge technologies are definitely out of the question for lots of people. At the giant Consumer Electronics Show in January, some TV manufacturers showed the latest version of LCD TVs, which usually use fluorescent illumination. The new models use light-emitting diode technology, instead, resulting in TVs that are slim and easy on electricity, and produce an image quality so spectacular that it's like looking through incredibly clear glass into another world.

Unfortunately, the prices are otherworldly too. A 52-inch Sharp model with LED backlighting goes for about $11,000.

Another new feature is the 240 hertz refresh rate that practically eliminates the slight blurring on LCD TVs during fast-action sequences. That's nice, especially for sports coverage, but the 120 hertz rate that was the rage last year is clear too. And most of us can live with the still widely available 60 hertz sets that seemed just fine until the upgrades came along.

The optimum resolution for a high-definition TV is 1080p, meaning there are 1,080 lines of visual information on the screen (the "p" stands for progressive scan, and that's the best available too). However, you can settle for 720p, which also looks great and can save some cash.

For example, on Amazon .com, an LG 42-inch model with 1080p is selling for $959. An LG set the same size with 720p costs $794.

That savings might not be worthwhile, however, if you plan to view Blu-ray movie disks, which produce 1080p images. They show nicely on a 720p set, but at full resolution the Blu-ray movies will look crisper on 1080p.

The rule of thumb is, the larger the set, the more easily you can tell the difference between 720p and 1080p.

"As you get to 32 inches and less, I don't think you can see the difference," Gagnon said.

Another way to save is to go for no-name, deep-discount sets as opposed to those from popular brand names. That can be dicey if a set has to be repaired. Consumers have reported waiting months before a no-name set sent out for repairs came back to them.

A compromise might be to go for a well-known discount brand, such as the popular Vizio, rather than brand names such as Sony or Panasonic that are generally more expensive. You may sacrifice image contrast -- some Vizio models don't quite measure up to sets from industry stalwarts.

Going for one of the smaller sizes is an obvious way to save, and it might even be preferable. A too-large set can overwhelm a room and make for uncomfortable viewing.

A somewhat helpful guide to screen size can be found on the THX Home Theater Display site at www.thx.com/ home/setup. Click on "Display Setup" for the chart. But the chart seems aimed at people who want the ultimate viewing experience. For example, it shows that if the seating in a room is about five feet from the TV, the optimal screen size is about 46 inches.

In the real world of most of our living rooms, a 46-inch TV only five feet away would seem like overkill. A 42-inch or even 37-inch could easily suffice at that distance, and result in a substantial cost savings.

Although prices are good now, a major bargain might not last long, Gagnon said. That's because when it comes to consumer pricing, the recession is a two-edged sword.

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