Critics and videophiles typically wax poetic about features like 3D and Internet streaming. But for a lot of families, that's all foofaraw. Instead, what they want and need is a solid-performing but basic set that won't break their budget. Fortunately, expert and user reviews point to several basic choices that should fill that bill nicely -- and even some that sport a few extras.
Perhaps the top choice is the Samsung EH5000 series, beginning with the 32-inch Samsung UN32EH5000 (*Est. $430) and topping out at the 50-inch UN50EH5000 (*Est. $1,000). If you are looking for high-end features, stop reading now, because there are none. Even the LCD panel sports only a standard 60 Hz refresh rate (despite some marketing and technological sleight of hand that lets Samsung promote this TV as having a 120 Hz TruMotion refresh rate).
On the other hand, if you are looking for solid picture quality for its category, you've come to the right place. Samsung's EH5000 draws generally positive commentary for providing decent blacks -- again for its price class -- that are better than the black levels produced by some more expensive TVs. Color is better still, and very accurate. The full-array LED backlight is a pared-down version of those found in some high-end TVs. The downside is that the EH5000 has a thicker case than edge-lit TVs and an occasional blooming artifact.
However, uniformity -- the bane of most edge-lit LEDs and especially budget models -- is excellent, with issues like excessive brightness at image edges and in corners nearly nonexistent. The matte screen minimizes reflections, making the EH5000 a good performer in brighter spaces such as living rooms and family rooms. Without a doubt, you can find cheaper basic sets than the EH5000, or sets with an extra feature or two. But reviews tell us you won't find better picture quality in another basic TV in this price range.
The Toshiba LS5200 is fairly similar. Unlike the Samsung EH5000, you'll find a true 120 Hz refresh rate for those actually pretty rare instances when motion blurring shows up in real content rather than in test patterns, but that's about the only extra worth noting. Picture quality is less uniformly liked, but most agree that for the price class it's a pretty good choice for everyday viewing. Black levels aren't bad, and most -- but not all -- reviewers say that colors are decent or can be adjusted to be so. Uniformity is not the best, but that's something that can vary from specific set to specific set, and bothers some viewers more than others. You can get the Toshiba LS5200 set in three sizes: the 40-inch Toshiba 40L5200U (*Est. $600), the 46-inch Toshiba 46L5200U (*Est. $800) and the 50-inch Toshiba 50LS5200U (*Est. $900).
If you are interested in something a little more luxed out, take a look at the Panasonic Viera LE50 series. Again, we saw very mixed feedback regarding performance, with some reviewers seeming perfectly happy with picture quality and others citing some notable issues with black levels or colors. Users, however, seem more uniformly pleased.
Certainly features are more plentiful than with the Samsung or Toshiba sets above. Most notably, Panasonic's Viera Connect is on board, and that brings a decent Internet streaming component to the set -- but don't overlook the fact that if you need to stream wirelessly (i.e., there's not a handy Ethernet wired connection nearby), you'll need to budget extra for a Wi-Fi transmitter as that's not built in. Like the Toshiba LS5200, you also get a true 120 Hz refresh rate. Screen size choices include the 42-inch Panasonic Viera TC-L42E50 (*Est. $650), the 47-inch Panasonic Viera TC-L47E50 (*Est. $740), and the 55-inch Panasonic Viera TC-L55E50 (*Est. $1,200).
When shopping for a set in this price range, the Vizio E3D0VX might bear consideration. This is a 2011 set that remains available this year. Unlike virtually all of the sets covered in this report, it uses an old-style CCFL backlight rather than an LED one. That means blacks are lighter than on competing sets, though they still might be deep enough to satisfy many viewers. Uniformity is also an issue. What's not an issue is color performance, which is roundly called excellent. In addition, the E3D0VK is one of the best equipped sets in this price class, including well-liked (for casual viewing) passive 3D and good Internet (but not local) streaming with built-in Wi-Fi. Versions include the 32-inch E3D320VX (*Est. $350), the 42-inch Vizio E3D470VX (*Est. $530) and the 47-inch E3D470VX (*Est. $700).