Here are some ideas to keep in mind if you decide to go high-def:
- What size screen should I get? A common rule of thumb is this: Take the distance you'll be sitting from the TV set, in feet. Multiply it by four to get the number of inches of screen diagonal you should get. If you sit 10 feet from the TV, that works out to a 40-inch set. That's the minimum size -- you will certainly appreciate an even larger one.
If you're choosing between a smaller TV with premium features or a larger TV for the same price, go for the larger one. Advanced features such as 1080p resolution (see below) aren't of much value on small sets anyway, and nothing beats the enveloping feel of a large screen.
- LCD or plasma? Liquid-crystal displays, or LCDs, have become the default choice for HDTV buyers, with nearly 90 percent of the market, but don't rule out plasma sets. These can be cheaper for the same size of screen, and yield excellent image quality, with deeper black images than most LCD screens. Plasma ones are thicker and heavier and use more power than LCD screens, though. The most noticeable difference is that they have glossy glass surfaces, which can produce annoying reflections from windows and light sources, so placing them requires some care.
Rear-projection sets are still around, accounting for a few percent of the market. Consider these if you want the largest possible screen and don't mind that they're not flat, wall-mountable slabs like LCDs and plasma. Image quality can be good, but they're less bright than flat panels and even dimmer when not viewed straight on.
- When you explore screens that are around 40 inches, you'll be confronted with another question: 720p or 1080p? This refers to the resolution of the screen, with 1080p being the sharpest. The chances are you won't notice the difference unless you sit fairly close or the screen is very big. A 720p set is fine for DVDs, which aren't high-definition. If you plan to get a Blu-ray player or to hook up an Xbox 360 or other video game console to the set, 1080p makes more sense. For LCD screens 40 inches or larger and all rear-projection sets, 1080p is now standard.
- There's another feature that can have a big effect on the image quality: a 120-hertz "refresh rate," coupled with image-processing technology variously known as "Motion Flow" and "Smooth Motion." What does this mumbo-jumbo mean?
Well, TV is shot at 30 frames per second, and movies at 24 frames per second. This is fast enough to give us the impression of continuous motion, but not fast enough to make high-action or camera-panning scenes look smooth and steady. High-end TVs now compensate for this by computing extra frames and inserting them between the existing ones.
Combined with a screen that refreshes the image 120 times per second, this means smoother football action. Not everyone will notice it without a side-by-side comparison with another set, so it's not a feature that will give you many bragging rights.
- So how does the set hook up? You'll want to have as many HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) inputs as possible. HDMI cables provide the best connection between a TV set and a signal source like a set-top box, DVD player or game console. They're also simple to connect, with one HDMI cable replacing as many as five video and audio cables. Three inputs have become standard, but some cheaper sets scrimp. HDMI cables can even be used to connect some late-model computers to the set.
You'll also find a standard antenna input at the back of the set, in case you get your TV signal through an antenna rather than from cable or satellite. If you do, you have another motivation to get a digital set right now. Most analog broadcasts are set to disappear on Feb. 17.
- After you have your set, hook it up to a high-definition signal. Some people get an HD set and then think they're watching HD, when in fact they're watching blurry old standard-definition programming.
The cable or satellite company can walk you through getting an HD signal, but if you're in a hurry to watch the Super Bowl or don't have pay TV, connect an antenna and tell the set to scan the airwaves.
The local NBC station should be broadcasting in high definition. Outdoor antennas are best, but you can pick up a modern indoor antenna designed for digital broadcasts for $50.
Some useful terms to know when shopping for a high-definition TV set:
24p, or 1080p24: A set with this feature can show 24 frames per second, exactly the way movies are shot. Cinephiles may notice smoother, more cinematic images, but the feature works only with Blu-ray players connected by HDMI cables.
120 Hz: The display will smooth out motion, making scenes with action or a moving camera look sharper. Expect to pay more for these sets.
720p: The display has low resolution, but is still high-definition. Adequate for screens smaller than 40 inches, or ones meant to be watched from more than 12 feet away.
1080p: The display has high resolution. Good for screens larger than 40 inches, or ones used for gaming, as computer displays, or for Blu-ray playback.
Aspect ratio: The size relationship between the set's height and width. This is nearly always 16:9.
ATSC: This tuner lets a set receive free TV through an antenna. It's a standard feature.
Composite: This is a low-quality video connector for older game consoles and VCRs. Can not carry a high-definition signal.
Component: A high-quality, three-lead connector for game consoles, DVD players and cable boxes. Can carry a high-definition signal, but is not quite as good as HDMI.
Contrast ratio: Essentially, how black the black parts of the picture look, compared to how bright the whites are. Don't pay too much attention to this figure. There are different ways to measure it. But in general, higher is better.
Energy Star qualified: Look for sets qualified under the most recent rules, Energy Star 3.0. These specify a maximum power consumption when the set is in use. The older rules specify the consumption when the set is on standby --when the screen is off.
HDMI: An input for a digital connector cable that carries both audio and video. This is the latest and highest-quality way to connect a TV to a set-top box, game console, DVD player or other signal source.
NTSC: This is a tuner for analog broadcast TV. These signals are going away this year, so don't pay attention to this feature.
Plasma: Most people opt for LCD sets, which are brighter and stand out in stores. But a plasma set can be a good choice if you're looking for a flat panel that's 42 inches or bigger. They are capable of excellent image quality. But be aware that the glossy front glass can show distracting reflections.
VGA: An input for a computer video signal. Many newer computers can use the higher-quality HDMI inputs instead, so VGA is not essential even if you plan to connect your PC to your TV.
Virtual surround sound: This means the TV set's built-in speakers will attempt to produce the enveloping sound of a home theater setup. Falls far short of an actual six-speaker setup bought separately.