Deciding on a type of TV

Whichever technology interests you the most, experts say you should consider the following issues if you're eyeballing an HDTV:

  • Pick your technology first. LCD, plasma, rear-projection and front-projection sets all have their advantages and disadvantages. Consider your viewing habits and your room to decide which will work best for your situation, then zero in on the right HDTV.
  • Match the TV size to the size of your room. Because HDTVs have higher resolutions than conventional TVs, you can sit closer than you normally would. That means you can get away with a bigger screen. That's especially important if you want to achieve the same experience at home as you would in a movie theater. On the other hand, a 50-inch screen that might look just right in the showroom could overwhelm some living rooms or family rooms.
  • Consider the features. Most higher-end TVs don't just provide great picture quality, they are also chock full of features that some owners might find useful. 3D is getting all of the headlines, but a lack of content and, in some cases, poor performance have left some consumers wondering what all the fuss is about. Some TVs also include some type of Internet content -- mainly the ability to stream movies, TV shows, music and more from providers like Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Pandora, YouTube, Hulu and many more. If neither 3D nor Internet streaming is a must-have, you can sometimes get similar picture quality at a lower cost by opting for a more basic model.
  • Shop around for the best price. In our research, we found price differentials of $1,000 or more for some TVs, and it pays to look around. In addition, some manufacturers (such as Sharp) have restrictive policies regarding Internet sales. If you don't buy from an authorized Internet retailer, you'll most likely void your manufacturer warranty. Many retailers offer a replacement warranty, however; be sure to ask.

See our separate reports on plasma TVs, flat-panel LCD TVs, rear-projection TVs and projectors for detailed data on which models were chosen most often by experts as the best of their kind.

Except for the very smallest LCD sets, the only standard-definition TVs still being offered are ones that use conventional (CRT) technology. Most are bare-bones budget TVs, with performance to match. However, these TVs can be suitable choices for the tightest of budgets or for occasional viewing. See the ConsumerSearch report on conventional TVs for information on standard-definition TVs that use older tube technology.

Finding what to watch

Simply buying an HDTV does not automatically mean you get HDTV images on your screen. The hardware is only one part of the equation. To get high-definition programming signals, you need to subscribe to a digital high-definition cable or satellite service. Alternatively, you can receive HDTV broadcasts with an antenna, provided you are within range of a transmission tower. Of course, you won't get premium channels this way, but you can access the local affiliates of the major networks.

In addition, many broadcasters use their allotted spectrum for multicasting -- sending out subchannels of alternate programming. Content varies widely -- including vintage TV, public information channels, foreign language programming, sports, shopping and more. AntennaWeb.org is a website that lets you see what channels are available in your area, as well as what kind of antenna you'll need to receive them. ConsumerSearch also offers a separate report on TV Antennas.

With all TVs now required to have digital tuners, HD-ready sets (those that can display HD images but lack an integrated digital tuner) are all but gone from the market, with some notable exceptions. The law requiring new TVs to have a digital tuner does not apply to monitors -- those TVs that have no tuner at all. Tunerless monitors can be a good choice for those who get all of their TV from cable or satellite, but you'll need an external tuner to get any over-the-air programming. Most front-projection TVs also lack tuners of any kind.

Cable subscribers might also be interested in sets with QAM-compatible digital tuners. QAM, which stands for quadrature amplitude modulation, is the transmission scheme cable companies use to distribute digital TV signals. A QAM tuner can allow you to receive any unscrambled, basic programming you subscribe to without a cable box, and that's one less piece of hardware you need. A cable box is still required for premium programming, however, and, depending on your cable provider, that could include any programming that's not part of the least expensive subscription tier that's offered.

In the past, some manufacturers offered TVs that were compatible with CableCards -- plug in cards that allowed you to watch premium programming without a cable box. However, such TVs are no longer available, though CableCard technology is still used by other devices, such as TiVo digital video recorders.

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