In the market for a flat-screen HDTV for the holidays or the Super Bowl? Even if you’re planning to buy this key element of your home theater online, you should still eyeball sets in the store. Only by checking out the types of content that you watch most—movies, sports events, standard-def shows, or video games—can you evaluate subtle differences in picture quality.
Following are some tips on prepping for shopping, evaluating sets in the store, and, not least, taking delivery.
Before you go
Check your video sources: If you don’t already have high-def video sources—an HD digital cable or satellite box, a DVR, or a Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD player—at least investigate them beforehand to determine the number and types of inputs and cables you’ll need. If you buy your HD gear first, an installer will be able to hook it all up to your new set and troubleshoot problems.
If the set you like is short on inputs, don’t despair. Add-on HDMI 1.3 switcher boxes from Gefen, Iogear, Oppo, and others cost about $100 to $200. But refrain from purchasing add-on surround-sound speakers until after your HDTV is installed so that you can correctly evaluate sound quality and speaker placement with the new set.
Choose a showroom: Go first to specialty home theater shops that stock the sets you like. They tend to have quiet, dimly lit areas much like real living rooms, while the brightly lit, noisy showrooms at the big-box stores make comparisons difficult.
Bring test movies with you: They should be on both DVD and high-definition media (Blu-ray or HD DVD); rent if necessary. Last year’s remake of Casino Royale has plenty of fast action and night scenes for comparing smooth motion and black quality.
In the store
Look at two sources: Ask to see both standard-def and high-def sources (including live broadcast TV) on the sets you like. If possible, watch the same input simultaneously on two models you’re considering. Make sure that the salesperson uses the same standard DVD player for all your tests, to eliminate quality differences in the players from your appraisals.
Tweak the settings: Ask the salesperson to set each TV to similar levels of color temperature (the optimum is 6500 Kelvin), brightness, and other picture variables, or play with them yourself. In store displays, TVs often have amped-up brightness and sharpness settings. Use movie, sports, and gaming presets (if available) as starting points for those content types.
Check image quality: Viewing from several distances, look for variations in:
- Picture quality at wide angles (LCDs can look washed out)
- Smoothness of motion in action scenes and video games (LCDs with fast response times and 120-Hz refresh rates should rival the smoother look of plasma sets)
- Brightness and contrast (LCDs typically are better)
- Color saturation and accuracy
- Deep blacks in night scenes (generally better on plasmas)
- Detail and sharpness (better on LCDs)
- Quality of video scaling. How well does the TV display standard-def images? How well does the set stretch or box 4:3 sources to fit the 16:9 wide screen of most HDTVs?
- Uniformity of picture from edge to edge. Does the picture have variations in brightness, especially at the edges?
- Screen reflectivity (plasmas’ glass coatings and bright rooms don’t mix well)
Look at other features: Double-check your screen-size choice. (We recommend a diagonal measurement that’s about two-thirds the length of your typical viewing distance.) How good is the remote control? Is there a front-panel input for video games or cameras? A media card slot? Check out audio quality if you won’t have separate speakers.
Drive a bargain: Ask store salespeople to match online prices. Local delivery is better—large TV sets can easily be damaged in transit, and good luck getting a replacement from most discount outlets. Ask if the seller will sweeten the deal with free cables, mounting hardware, or professional installation.
Also, check return policies, such as restocking fees. Don’t fall for extended warranties (and note that some credit cards double already-generous warranty periods from the manufacturer).
Consider installation service: It’s worth it for big-ticket screens. Not only will delivery staff carry the heavy set into your house, they will dispose of packaging, hook things up properly, calibrate the picture, and take back a dud. (If you’re comfortable doing calibration yourself, try Joe Kane’s Digital Video Essentials disc, available in DVD or HD DVD format.)
Open the box immediately: Ask about the seller’s delivery and return policies before you buy. Will the delivery staff stay long enough for you to inspect the HDTV and refuse delivery if the set is visibly damaged or DOA? Refusing delivery is cheaper and easier than dealing with return and restocking fees. Some retailers make you get warranty repairs rather than take back a big-screen TV.
One last reminder: Go online and purchase the cables you’ll need before the set arrives. You don’t want to have to dash out to buy an overpriced cable just to enjoy your new toy.