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TECH GIFT GUIDE: TELEVISIONS

A big screen for every budget

After wading through a dizzying array of choices, buyers won't have to pay a lot for that new TV.

November 22, 2009|By David Colker

To borrow a hackneyed radio commercial catchphrase, this year TV prices are insane.

It's hard to believe that only four years ago, 42-inch LCD sets were going for $10,000. Now you can pick one up for $700, and that's with the capability to display images in 1080p, the highest resolution offered.

As the holidays approach, prices might edge even lower.

The average price for an LCD TV, in the 42- to 44-inch range, will be about $640 during the fourth quarter, research firm iSuppli predicts. In bigger sizes, plasma TVs could be an even better buy.

"The bargains this year are going to be in plasma," said analyst Richard Doherty of Envisioneering Group. "There will be 50-inch models for $1,200 and $1,400. A comparable LCD will be around $2,000."

Prices on even the newest technology -- LED-backlit -- are falling from their formerly stratospheric heights.

Technology

Plasma: The former preferred choice has lost so much luster to LCD that only three big manufacturers still offer plasma sets: Panasonic, Samsung and LG.

But plasma is still worth considering, not only for cost savings but also because under the right conditions it offers the best viewing experience.

"If you care about seeing movies the way they were produced, and live programming like sports, nothing is better than plasma for richness of color, contrast and viewing angles," Doherty said. They also show fast action with a minimum of blur.

There are downsides. Plasma sets use more electricity (although they're far more energy efficient than in previous years) and because they can't be turned up as bright, they're not the best choice for well-illuminated rooms.

LCD (traditional): These are the sets that have won consumers' hearts, for good reason. The images are terrific, the weight is generally low enough for wall hanging and they're stingy when it comes to using electricity. They're also available in a wide range of sizes and prices.

The downside is that LCD sets can't reproduce deep blacks as well as plasma sets, which throws off contrasts. But under most viewing conditions that's not going to be a huge deal.

LCD (LED-backlit): This snazzy new variation of LCD technology allows sets to be extremely thin for a dramatic, sleek look.

The images can also be made brighter (although not necessarily better) than on traditional LCD sets. And, in addition to being the energy efficiency champs, LED-backlits don't contain environmentally unfriendly mercury.

So what's not to love? The price.

This quarter, the average price for a 42- to 44-inch LED-backlit set will be about $1,260, according to iSuppli.

That's more than twice the average for traditional LCD sets. Still, the energy savings are so good you could justify the higher cost. Over time.

"You can make back the added cost in five years," Doherty said. "Or, if you're a heavy user, 18 months."

Features

Online connectivity: The ability to get programming via the Internet for home TV viewing is coming on strong. Already Netflix, Blockbuster, Amazon, Yahoo and YouTube offer movies, text information and other programming, much of it free.

And if Hulu joins the online TV fray, as many analysts expect, it could give this option a big boost.

A TV with an online connection will generally cost more, but it's an option worth considering, especially because of future prospects.

If you don't get a TV with the online option -- or already have a set without an Internet connection -- you can get a Blu-ray player or other type of set-top box that provides it.

These external devices have another advantage: some of them are equipped with Wi-Fi, so you don't have to use a wired connection.

3-D: TV makers are pushing it, but it's far from sure how much 3-D programming will be available for home consumption -- no universally accepted standard has been set. And don't forget, whatever format is adopted you'll still need those clunky glasses.

Specifications

You can find a TV set's specs on the manufacturer's website or on labels in stores. There are two specs that merit attention and one you can disregard.

Resolution: 1080p is the top, but the only sources that display that much resolution are Blu-ray discs and some video game consoles.

So, if you spend the vast majority of your TV-viewing time watching broadcast, cable or satellite programming -- or use a regular DVD player -- then 720p is probably enough.

Also, at screen sizes under 40 inches, you'd probably have a tough time telling the difference between 1080p and 720p anyway.

HDMI inputs: You'll need them for most modern input devices such as Blu-ray players, set-top boxes and game consoles. If the set doesn't have enough of them, you'll need to buy an HDMI switcher to add more.

Contrast: This is one of the most important factors when it comes to image quality, but unfortunately the specs most manufacturers give are worthless. That's because no standards have been set for the industry, so manufacturers can put in whatever numbers they want. In many cases they're wildly exaggerated.

It's probably best to ignore this spec.

Real-world shopping

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to comparison shop in stores. That's because the TVs on display are often badly adjusted, or purposely made unrealistically bright to stand out.

When you find a set you like, check an independent, expert source that reviews individual models. CNET.com is helpful in that regard.

david.colker@latimes.com

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