How to Buy an HDTV

Have no fear. HTis here.

There is a lot of confusion for most people as to what they should look for when buying a TV. With the plethora of acronyms, abbreviations, nomenclatures, technologies, and other multisyllabic synonyms for "huh?" this is hardly surprising. While we feel, as you would expect, that prodigious study of Home Theater magazine would educate you to make an informed decision, we also appreciate the need for a boiled-down version for those new to the home theater world—the Cliffs Notes version, if you will. Well, let us oblige.


Where to Start
It all comes down to this question: What do you want? Seemingly simple, it, of course, spirals outward to all sorts of other questions. But, at its core, it's the most important. So, let's break it down into its subcomponents. How are you going to use this TV? If it's the main display of the on-all-the-time variety, an LCD is probably your best choice. LCDs have excellent longevity with no chance of burn-in, nor do they require lamp replacement. If you're only going to use it at night to watch some TV and movies, then a plasma—with its better black levels—or a rear-projection TV (RPTV) would be a better choice.

Do you want to mount the TV on the wall? In this case, LCD and plasma are your only options. Most RPTVs have half the depth of the old clunky models and offer far more picture size for the money (compared with flat panels). Most also require you to replace the lamp inside every 2,000 to 6,000 hours or so. These are several hundred dollars each. Front projection is the best and often the cheapest way to get a really huge image. But, for most people, the added complexity of a separate screen is scary, and you can't really see the image in daylight. Do you watch TV in your basement? Go projection, and you'll never go back upstairs.

Let's All Go to the. . .Ahh, Electronics Superstore
The big-box stores (Best Buy, Circuit City) offer decent prices, they're places where you can return/complain, and they usually have the most varied selections. They're also terrible places to judge a TV's picture quality, and most of them have disinterested and often uneducated help. Every time I print a sentence like that, I get angry e-mails from the three salespeople in the country working for one of these stores who actually know what they're talking about. So, knowledgeable salespeople do exist at these stores, but they're hard to pick out because they look just like the ones who don't—and they're wearing the same shirt.

Smaller retailers, like Tweeter or any number of more local establishments, often have a smaller selection, but they offer more hands-on help. Their salespeople typically work on commission, so they're going to approach you when you walk in the door. Don't be afraid. And, for the love of all things electronic, don't spend two hours picking a commissioned salesperson's brain and then go buy the product somewhere else (like online). That is dishonest and downright mean. If you're not going to buy from them, tell them up front. They'll still answer your questions, but it gives them an out to go talk to someone who will actually help them make rent that month. Salespeople are people, too. Treat them as you would like to be treated. Your parents should have taught you this. That said, if you don't like the salesperson or you feel you're being treated poorly, leave.

Custom installers are, of course, at the top of the retail food chain. They will most likely have the smallest selection but the most trained sales help. They also offer the widest variety of other services (like installation), but even the big-box stores are starting to offer this, as well.

Decide. . .Now!
If you have a preference toward a certain brand, go for it. I'm certainly not going to talk you out of it. The two most important things to do when you're trying to decide on a TV on the show floor are to play with the TV's settings and to stand at a reasonable distance. The layout in most stores is stupidly not conducive to this, but all TVs look like crap when you're standing 2 feet away. Stand at the distance you'll be sitting from the TV at home. Usually, this is around 10 feet, but measure it out before you leave. If the TV doesn't have the remote attached to it (often because someone boosted it), then use the controls on the TV. Show-floor TVs are in "torch mode." That is, they're screaming, "Look at me!" Ironically, this is the absolute worst a TV can look, but it's bright and attracts attention. So, adjust what you can and see how it looks in different modes.

Now the Hard Part
After you've picked out your dream TV, and if, by some miracle, the store has it in stock (and you can fit it in your Tercel), they're going to try to sell you all sorts of other stuff. An extended warranty is just insurance. They're betting you never use it; you're betting you might need it. If it covers the lamp on an RPTV, then the extended warranty may be worth it if you watch a lot of TV. It never covers burn-in, destruction, or any other kind of abuse (obviously). Its worth is up to you and your overall feeling about insurance. Keep in mind that, if you never use it, it's essentially 100 percent profit for the store (versus the 2 percent or so profit they get on the TV you're buying).

Next up will be the cables. The store is going to want you to spend $1,000 on cables for your $300 TV. Decent—not outrageous—analog cables are probably a good idea. If this is your first HDTV, you'll need at least component cables to get HD from your cable or satellite box (which you'll also probably have to upgrade to output HD). HDMI cables are crazy expensive, but they either work or they don't. In other words, if there is a picture-quality difference between a $20 HDMI cable and a $100 HDMI cable, I doubt you'd be able to see it on any normal TV.

That's About It
Keep in mind that a perfect TV doesn't exist, but the one that's right for your needs and wants does. Also, get the best and most up-to-date display you can right now. There will always be something better right around the corner. If you keep waiting for the next great thing, you'll still have the 27-inch console TV with the wood trim while the little old lady next door kicks back and enjoys her stories on a 90-inch OLED. Besides, if you don't like it, you can return it.