Choose Your Own HD Adventure
Back in elementary school, I loved reading those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. They'd begin like a normal book, but at the end of each page, you'd be faced with a decision that radically altered the story. "You discover a beautiful princess trapped in a dragon's lair. If you try and rescue the princess, turn to page .... If you cowardly skulk away, praying that the dragon eats the princess instead of you, turn to page ...."
Shopping for an HDTV can be just as adventurous. Will you find a salesperson who understands your needs? What size works for your room? Which technology is right for you? How much should you spend? And unlike a story where you can just start again from the beginning, the decision you make is one you'll have to live with for a long time. Choosing wisely will bring years of enjoyment watching beautiful images. Taking the wrong path can lead to disappointment and regret.
I've modeled this guide on the thought process I use when helping people to choose a TV. While it isn't an exhaustive list, you'll find options at the end of each path that will help narrow your search.
VIEWING DISTANCE Few people like to sit in either the front or back rows of a movie theater. When watching at home, the image should be large enough to be involving without being overwhelming. But defining "close" and "far" can be a Goldilocks proposition. Sitting 12 feet from a 60-inch screen can be too much for some people, not enough for others, and just right for the rest. To begin your HDTV adventure, take a walk down the Close path if you sit less than 10 feet from your set. If you sit more than 10 feet away, the Far path is your calling. If you're on the fence, here's a tip: smaller screens lie at the end of the Close path. Close | Far
CLOSE Sitting too close to a big screen can cause you to swivel your head like you're watching a tennis match. And it can be tiring, since you have to constantly move your eyes to take everything in. Also, depending on the type of TV, individual pixels can become distractingly visible. Sitting close usually means watching in a smaller room with few viewers. For these reasons, a 30- to 50-inch screen is probably right for you.
Sub $1,000 CRT direct-view TV The almighty picture tube is entering its golden twilight. And with all the emphasis on thin, it's likely that these bulky and heavy behemoths won't be around much longer. But for now, you can get one of the best pictures available at any price by choosing a CRT (cathode-ray tube) set. The biggest screen is only 36 inches (measured diagonally), but this isn't a problem since you'll be sitting close to the TV. JVC, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba all make tube sets, with widescreen 30-inch models available in your budget!
$1,000+ Thin Is In With a little extra money, two paths lie before you. Down one is the higher-priced, sexier world of flat panels. Down the other are less expensive TVs that don't need a wall mount to feel good about themselves. So ask yourself: Is Thin In? YES | NO
Sub $2,500 42-inch plasma EDTV High-tech cool comes with a price, and you'll need to make some compromises to get a flat-panel set for under $2,500. To get high-def resolution, you'd have to settle for a 32-inch LCD set. For your close seating position, this might be big enough. But for the same price you could be watching a 42-inch plasma - a 30% larger screen - with "enhanced-definition" resolution. While this won't wring every drop of detail from HD broadcasts, DVDs will look fantastic.
$2,500 to $4,000 37-inch LCD or 42-inch plasma HDTV For years, the TV industry has been promising us sets that we could hang like a picture. Now that they're actually here, how can you not answer the call? And your budget lets you choose between LCD and plasma models. The "S" triumvirate - Samsung, Sharp, and Sony - all make large LCD sets, while companies like Hitachi, Panasonic, LG, Toshiba, and even computer-maker Dell offer plasma sets.
$4,000+ Flagship 42-inch plasma or 45-inch LCD Does a $5,000 watch keep better time than a $50 model? Maybe, maybe not. Does a flagship plasma or LCD look better than its budget counterparts? Almost always. With more money comes improved styling, better video processing, and more inputs, all producing a more refined picture. Check out plasma sets from Pioneer Elite, Hitachi's Director's Series, Runco, and Fujitsu, or 45-inch LCDs from Sharp and Samsung
Sub $1,500 34-inch widescreen CRT direct-view Tube technology has fully matured, and since the larger cabinet isn't an issue for you, why pay more? You'll enjoy spot-on primary colors, and, while most screen technologies can only go as dark as deep gray, CRT will give you an inky black. You also get all the resolution benefits of widescreen DVDs and true HDTV with a wide, "16:9" screen. Sony and Toshiba offer some excellent TVs in this price range.$1,500 to $2,500
CRT rear-projection TV They can be big 'n boxy, but you can't beat the value of a CRT rear-pro TV. The smaller screen size dictated by your viewing distance means you'll have a bright image with no visible scan lines when you watch HDTV programs, and you'll also get deep, deep blacks. Limit size to around 50 inches to keep the set from overpowering your room. Start with Hitachi and Mitsubishi.
$2,500+ DLP or LCD rear-pro TV The images on Digital Light Processing (DLP) and liquid-crystal display (LCD) sets are bright from nearly every seating position and razor sharp. Limit size to around 50 inches to keep the set from overpowering your room. You'll find DLP sets from Samsung, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi, and LCD models from JVC, Sony, and Hitachi.