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 colour 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 100Hz refresh rates should rival the smoother look of plasma sets)
- Brightness and contrast (LCDs typically are better)
- Colour 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 href="http://www.videoessentials.com" target="blank"> 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.