HDTV buying guide

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HDTV buying guide: Shopping tips

If you're hunting for a new flat-screen, high-definition TV set, you need to examine the pros and cons of the two HDTV technologies, as well as to study the various features and specifications that HDTV sets may offer. When you're ready to look at some specific models, keep the following shopping tips in mind.

Select the right size: Be sure to choose an HDTV that is big enough for your needs. If it's too small, you may find yourself shopping again in a year or two, and moving this set to some other room where you can sit closer to it.

Look at the black: All else being equal, pick the set that has the best blacks if you want to get the best picture quality. This is the key to getting good colors and great contrast.

Test the set if you can: If the store will let you, bring a DVD or a Blu-ray disc to test the set you think is the best. You can buy one of several test discs that will run the HDTV through a video obstacle course to help identify the set's strengths and weaknesses. Alternatively, bring a movie that has plenty of dark scenes. (Avoid computer-animated movies, as they are "too perfect" and won't show you the subtleties found in live-action movies.) Look closely for problems with scaling standard-definition content (such as on a regular DVD), since a lot of movies and television programs still aren't in high definition. Check out the HDTV's configuration settings, and see how easy it is to fine-tune the set (and how easy it is to reset the HDTV to its factory defaults).

Get enough connections: Three or four HDMI connections is about the minimum these days, to handle a set-top box, a video disc player, a computer or gaming console, and a network device. Make sure that you have plenty of connections for your future needs.

Don't overspend on cables: Resist buying everything at the store. A $12 cable off the Internet will often perform just as well as a $120 cable from the store. Save your money to pay for a Blu-ray player or to upgrade your television service to get more HD content.

Watch out for long-term annoyances: You will probably spend a lot of time with this television, so don't be swept away on the first date. While you can find third-party alternatives that will help make up for many possible shortcomings, it's better to get what you want from the start. For example, is the remote control easy to read and to use? Does it have lighted buttons? Will it also control your other devices, like a DVD player? What about the set's sound quality? Is it good enough for your tastes, or will you need to add a home theater surround-sound system to bring the audio up to snuff? Will it be easy to connect the cables if you mount the set on the wall, and how will you hide them (or at least make them somewhat neat and tidy)? Little things can mean a lot in the long run.

[Alfred Poor is a freelance writer.]

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