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New developments affect TV technology

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have established a deadline of February 2009 for the end of analog broadcasting. That means that you’ll need a television with an ATSC-compatible (Advanced Television Systems Committee) digital tuner in order to watch TV over the air with an antenna after that date. Note that cable (as long as you use a cable box) and satellite TV deliver their signals in a completely different way and are not affected by the change in over-the-air broadcasting.

As part of that ruling, Congress and the FCC are requiring that manufacturers include a digital tuner in all new TVs, regardless of type. TVs equipped with a digital tuner need no additional equipment aside from an antenna to receive digital signals over the air. For cable subscribers, if the digital tuner is QAM-capable, you will also be able to receive non-premium, unscrambled HDTV and other digital content. (QAM is the transmission scheme cable companies use to distribute digital TV signals.) For premium programming, you will still need an external decoder, usually a cable box.

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Essentially, that means all new TVs are capable of receiving HDTV signals over the air. HDTV televisions are able to display those signals at high resolution. You’ll also see televisions called “digital TVs,” or EDTVs (Enhanced Definition TVs) on the market. While these have digital tuners and can receive HDTV signals, they can only display the programming at a reduced resolution — about the same as that of a standard DVD. For more on HDTV resolutions, see our separate report on HDTV .

You should make sure your new LCD TV has an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) input. Blu-ray HD disc players use this input, which supports High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). This system is intended to prevent people from making copies of high-definition movies. Right now, relatively few people own high definition HD-DVD and Blu-ray players, but they’ll become more common in the future. In order to “future-proof” your TV, reviews say you should make sure your TV has an HDMI input. Though you might not use it right away, you’ll need it if you eventually buy a high-definition DVD player.

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Plasma vs. LCD TV

Both plasma and LCD flat-panel displays are capable of delivering high-definition TV within a thin case, but there are differences between the two.

LCD TVs are available in many more screen sizes than plasma. Plasma screens start as small as 37 inches, but the majority of sets have 42-inch or 50-inch screens. Some giant plasma TVs up to 150 inches have been demonstrated. In contrast, LCD TVs can be as small as a few inches, and manufacturers have demonstrated LCD TVs with screen sizes of up to 108 inches. For home theaters, LCD TVs with screen sizes from 32 inches to 52 inches are most popular.

Many bigger screen LCD TVs are now capable of displaying HDTV in its highest broadcast resolution of 1920 x 1080i (most HD televisions shows are broadcast at this resolution). In addition, most can accept and display 1920 x 1080p (progressive) signals, such as those from a high-definition DVD player or game console. By contrast, many plasma TVs support a maximum resolution of either 1366 x 768 pixels (for 50-inch and larger TVs) or 1024 x 768 or 1024 x 1024 (for 42-inch TVs). While those resolutions are still considered high-def, 1920 x 1080i signals have to be scaled down by the TV to fit the display. Full 1920 x 1080 plasma TVs are finally becoming more readily available, and prices have dropped to the point where they are competitive with their LCD counterparts. (You can read more about high-definition resolution in our report on HDTV .)

Plasma TVs are known for their ability to display dark colors and deep blacks better than LCD TVs. That makes plasma TVs a good choice for movie watching, where dark scenes are common. LCD TVs appear brighter, but they don’t display dark scenes as well. If your room is brightly lit, an LCD may be a better choice, since the screen won’t wash out in daylight. Many LCD screens have an adjustable backlight, so you can control the brightness of the screen. Plasma TVs, on the other hand, are more prone to glare when viewed in a bright room. Some newer plasma TVs have screens that do a better job of handling reflections, while some current LCD TVs use a panel that’s more reflective than others.

Plasma screens have wider viewing angles than LCD flat screens. That means you can sit at more of an angle and still get the best picture, one reason why reviewers (such as CNet’s David Katzmaier) say a plasma screen gives you “better home theater performance than LCD.” With conventional TVs, the picture stays the same from virtually any angle. With LCD televisions, sitting too far to one side will result in a loss of brightness. It’s the same effect you get if you try to look at a laptop screen from a sharp angle. Reports say that better LCD TVs have fewer issues with limited viewing angles.

LCD TVs can sometimes have problems with moving images. Those problems show up in two ways. The first is ghost or “comet” trails following fast moving objects in a scene. Reviews say that ghost trails are almost non-existent in better performing LCD TVs.

The other problem is image blur — pictures look softer — with fast action. The newest LCD TVs are using faster 120Hz refresh rates — the rate at which individual images are placed on the screen — instead of the more traditional 60Hz in an attempt to overcome that. However, the signal processing involved is fairly complex because the source material has its own frame rate (the number of individual images per second), typically 24 or 60 depending on whether it is film or video, and reports say that some LCD TVs do a better job in this regard than others. Robert Silva at About.com has a great primer explaining refresh rates and frame rates; you can find the link in our Best Research section below.

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Although larger LCDs are now available, if you want a screen over 47 inches (measured diagonally), and can accept the lower resolution, plasma is generally a little less expensive (and even that gap is closing fast), and 1080p plasma TVs are becoming price competitive with LCD TVs of similar sizes and quality. LCD is the clear choice if you want a smaller screen size. Because LCDs are available in a wider range of sizes, you can choose a size to fit your room and budget. If you want to put your TV in a brightly lit room, LCD is the way to go, but plasma will generally look better in light-controlled environments.

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Best LCD TVs: Sony and Samsung lead

The current generation of Sony BRAVIA XBR LCD TVs is wowing critics; the 46-inch Sony BRAVIA KDL-46XBR4 (*est. $2,500) shares the distinction of being the highest rated LCD TV at CNet.

The Sony KDL-46XBR4 is a1080p LCD TV. The black level is one of the most deep and realistic, but it falls just short of that offered by the very best plasma TVs. Color performance is excellent, and the set is also better than most LCD TVs in the areas of off-angle viewing and screen uniformity.

The Sony KDL-46XBR4 is one of the current sets offering a 120Hz frame rate — up from 60Hz in earlier generations of LCD TVs. Critics say that this change can be effective in helping motion blur, but that the effectiveness greatly depends on how the TV handles the original source material. Thomas J. Norton, in his review for UltimateAVmag.com, says the Sony KDL-46XBR4 does it very well, adding that while he was a skeptic at first, Sony’s implementation “really works.” In fact, Norton notes that it compares favorably with an outboard image processor costing nearly $30,000.

Norton mentions that not all will be fans of 120Hz processing for all types of sources. In particular, he says that some feel that it makes 24fps film sources look more like 60fps video, damaging the “look and feel” of film. You can clearly place CNet’s David Katzmaier in that camp, as he says, “Hollywood films mostly suffer to our eye from Sony’s smooth treatment.” He also writes that he saw only a few instances where 120Hz processing cleaned up blur noticeably compared to a good performing 60Hz LCD TV.

The Sony KDL-46XBR4 also has good, but not outstanding connectivity, with three HDMI inputs, two component video inputs and a PC input that can handle 1920 X 1080 signals. It’s also a nice looking television, with a bezel that can be swapped out for colored bezels (at extra cost). The high price is the biggest drawback.

The Sony XBR4 series of LCD TVs is also available with a 40-inch screen size as the KDL-40XBR4 (*est. $1,900) and a 52-inch screen size as the KDL-52XBR4 (*est. $2,920) . PC World is among the reviewers that give the KDL-52XBR4 kudos for its high-definition performance, but says other options might be better values for those who don’t demand the very best picture quality. Scott Wilkinson, in his review for UltimateAVmag.com, criticizes black level performance, but adds that “there are few LCD TVs — at least, among those with conventional fluorescent backlights — that can do as well.” Lawrence E. Ullman, writing for The Perfect Vision (which was incorporated into Playback magazine earlier this year), says the 40-inch KDL-40XBR4 is a “remarkable TV in every important respect.” He, too, notes that less expensive LCD TVs are available, but adds that “if you demand the best possible picture, the extra dollars will be money well spent.”

Sony also offers an XBR5 series of BRAVIA LCD TVs. However, reviewers say that except for a styling difference (an unchangeable piano-black high-gloss bezel instead of the XBR4’s interchangeable colored bezels) and a slightly higher price, the 40-inch BRAVIA KDL-40XBR5 (*est. $2,200) , 46-inch BRAVIA KDL-46XBR5 (*est. $2,600) and 52-inch BRAVIA KDL-52XBR5 (*est. $3,400) are identical to the same-size XBR4 models.

The smallest member of the XBR4 family is the Sony BRAVIA KDL-32XBR4 (*est. $1,300) . However, that set appears to be quite different from its siblings, offering 720p rather than 1080p resolution. Professional and user reviews say that this set is an excellent performer in its own right, with great picture quality and decent features.

Sony also offers two less expensive series of 1080p capable LCD TVs. The biggest difference between them and the XBR4/XBR5 series is the 120Hz refresh rate plus styling. The more basic V3000 series includes the 40-inch Sony KDL-40V3000 (*est. $1,370) and the 46-inch KDL-46V3000 (*est. $1,900) . Most professional and user reviews for TVs in this series are positive, but PC Magazine’s Robert Heron has a dissenting view in his review of the Sony KDL-46V3000. He says that the TV is impressive in most regards, but that regardless of the source material, the TV “is prone to obvious and significant smearing of the picture — particularly in video containing dark or dimly lit scenes” when displaying fast-action video. Sony’s step up W3000 series, including the 40-inch Sony KDL-40W3000 (*est. $1,620) , 46-inch KDL-46W3000 (*est. $2,070) and 52-inch KDL-52W3000 (*est. $2,400) add a few features — most notably support for the latest HDMI 1.3 standard, an extra side-located HDMI port (the V3000 series only has two rear HDMI connectors) and an RS-232 (PC) port. Also, the V3000 series has a black bezel, while the W3000 LCD TVs have silver bezels. Again, professional and user reviews are positive.

While 1080p sets are getting all the attention of late, Sony is also offering some very nice 720p models. One example is the 46-inch Sony BRAVIA KDL-46S3000 (*est. $1,430) , which has received nice professional and user notices. CNet.com reports that the TV might not please “home theater sticklers,” but that most viewers will be pleased with picture quality.

Although the Sony set only displays 720p images, it can accept 1080i and 1080p inputs and scale them to its native resolution. However, reviews say that the resulting images are slightly softer than those you get when feeding the TV 720p directly. CNet also noticed some backlight uniformity issues, with some areas of the screen looking brighter than others. On the other hand, the Sony KDL-46S3000 is a better performer than many HDTVs when it comes to displaying standard definition programming. The set is available in a number of smaller screen sizes as well, including the 40-inch Sony KDL-40S3000 (*est. $1,090) , 32-inch Sony KDL-32S3000 (*est. $900) and 26-inch Sony KDL-26S3000 (*est. $650) .

Sony also offers the budget priced — at least for Sony — M-series line of LCD TVs. It includes the 37-inch Sony KDL-37M3000 (*est. $950) , 32-inch Sony KDL-32M3000 (*est. $700) and 26-inch Sony KDL-26M3000 (*est. $600) , which are sold through traditional electronics retailers, and the 37-inch Sony KDL-32M130 (*est. $1,200), 32-inch Sony KDL-32ML130 (*est. $770) and 26-inch Sony KDL-26ML130 (*est. $650), which are sold only through mass-market merchandisers such as Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Target. The M series and ML series are functionally identical, and have only small cosmetic differences.

In the one professional review we saw for TVs in this series, the Sony KDL-32ML130 fares well and earns a Best Buy award despite some issues such as a limited viewing angle and some image artifacts (which can make straight lines appear jagged) when watching movies or other content originally recorded on film. Other than that, the TV is complimented for good color, contrast and black levels — though the latter falls notably short of what’s available on higher-end choices. User reviews at Walmart.com are also very good — nearly five out of five stars after more than 70 reviews.

Samsung LCD TVs also do well in reviews. In particular, the company’s 65F series of LCD TVs has been very well received by critics. These LCD TVs lack some of the bells and whistles seen in other LCD TVs, most notably a 120Hz refresh rate, but otherwise perform as well or better than most competitors.

In his review of the 52-inch Samsung LN-T5265F (*est. $2,500) for UltimateAV magazine, Geoffrey Morrison says that this TV “doesn’t do anything overly wrong,” and what it does right sets it apart from many other LCD TVs. Al Griffin at Sound & Vision also likes the Samsung LN-T5265F for its combination of performance and value. He appreciates the blacks, which are “impressively deep” for an LCD TV, with good shadow detail. Griffin found the colors overly vivid out of the box, but users can tweak the picture settings to compensate. Detail is excellent via the HDMI 1.3 inputs, but softer via components. Screen uniformity (a measure of brightness consistency from edge to edge) is described as generally good, but Griffin says that the screen’s sides look slightly lighter when displaying very dark program material.

Most LCD TVs have anti-reflective screens to cut down on glare, which is one of the reasons these TVs are better choices than plasma TVs in well-lit rooms. However, the Samsung 65F series has a high-gloss reflective screen coating. That’s why reviewers say that this TV works best in light-controlled rooms. In a review of the 46-inch Samsung LN-T4665F, testers at Popular Mechanics really liked the reflective screen, saying it made reds pop and everything look sharper, but other reviewers find it distracting. The Samsung LCD TV is also available in a 40-inch size as the Samsung LN-T4065F (*est. $1,600) .

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Samsung also produces the 61F series, which is similar to the 65F series but with a more traditional matte screen (instead of the reflective screen). However, some critics feel that picture quality is just a hair behind its shinier sibling. That said, CNet’s David Katzmaier says that the Samsung LN-T4661F (*est. $1,690) is still a cut above most LCD TVs on the market, with great features, picture quality and design. The 40-inch Samsung LN-T4061F (*est. $1,300) is the top rated LCD TV in PC World’s chart of ten best 40- and 42-inch flat panel TVs, which also includes some plasma models. That said, reviewer Lincoln Spector describes image quality as only a little better than average.

Moving up the model ladder, Samsung’s 71F series of LCD TVs features a 120Hz refresh rate, which theoretically makes images look smoother. In a review of the 46-inch Samsung LN-T4671F (*est. $2,350) at UltimateAV, Scott Wilkinson reports that the technique used to support that refresh rate causes some significant artifacts when processing fast moving objects. That echoes a finding by Ben Drawbaugh at EngadgetHD.com, who looked at a pre-production version of the same LCD TV. Fortunately, the processing can be turned off, eliminating the problem.

While there are some additional issues — Wilkinson also complains of processing problems with standard definition DVDs, while Drawbaugh notes an uneven backlight — the TV is otherwise described as a stellar performer, with great detail and color, and very good black levels and shadow detail. User reviews are exemplary. At Amazon.com, for example, The Samsung LN-T4671F rates a composite five out of five stars after more than 180 reviews. The series is also available in 40 and 52-inch screen sizes.

LCD TVs in Samsung’s 71F series have reflective screens. Samsung also offers the 69F series, which is identical to the 71F sets but with a matte screen. Models include the 46-inch Samsung LN-T4669F (*est. $1,960) and 40-inch Samsung LN-T4069F (*est. $1,470) . User and professional reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

Samsung’s 81F series TVs lack the 120Hz processing but add another — and perhaps more significant — technical innovation: LED backlighting. That allows for a technique known as local dimming. In essence, the TV completely turns off the backlight in black areas of the image, resulting in deeper blacks than possible in regular LCD TVs, where the backlight is always on — causing blacks to appear lighter.

Reviews of the Samsung LN-T4681F (*est. $2,800) are uniform and largely glowing. For example, CNet rates it as highly as any other LCD TV at its site, though it shares that honor with the Sony BRAVIA KDL-46XBR4. Reviewer David Katzmaier calls the LN-T4681F, “a breakthrough in LCD picture quality,” though he notes some issues. In particular, he says that off-angle viewing is poor and he dislikes the highly reflective screen. Though that stops him short of the giving the LCD TV CNet’s highest praise, he adds that picture quality overall is better than any other HDTV tested to date.

Sound & Vision magazine is similarly impressed, and awards the Samsung LN-T4681F LCD TV its Certified and Recommended tag. Al Griffin notes the same shortcomings as CNet’s Katzmaier, but raves about the image quality. In addition to the unsurpassed black-level performance for an LCD TV, Griffin says color reproduction is accurate, with completely natural skin tones, and that even fine details are sharp and crisp. All reviewers agree that the TV is expensive. Other sizes in the series include the 40-inch LN-T4081F (*est. $2,500), 52-inch LN-T5281F (*est. $3,700) and 57-inch LN-T5781F (*est. $8,000) .

Samsung has also just brought a fresh crop of LCD TVs to market. The new Series 6 TVs include the 52-inch LN52A650 (*est. $3,010) , 46-inch LN46A650 (*est. $2,270) and the 40-inch LN40A650 (*est. $1,820) . These sets build upon the 71F series by adding an improved dynamic range specification, an additional HDMI input and more. The TV also features a new sleek bezel design that adds a little bit of color to the traditional piano-black finish. While the screen is still more reflective than traditional matte-screen LCD TVs, it features a new anti-glare treatment. We haven’t yet seen these new Samsung LCD TVs reviewed professionally, and even owner feedback has been limited. However, what we’ve seen has been largely positive. One reported issue with this series — random shut downs — has been fixed in an update to the TV’s software. The step-up 7 series — available in 52-, 46- and 40-inch screen sizes — adds a few additional goodies, such as an integrated woofer, USB port and 1 GB of memory that comes pre-loaded with content such as recipes and artwork. The 7 series LCD TVs are scheduled to begin shipping in May, though some have already shown up on some dealers’ websites.

Moving down the line, the new Series 5 Samsung TVs lack some of the goodies found in the company’s more expensive offerings, but the initial user reports we saw are largely glowing. One key difference between this and the Series 6/7 sets above is that these TVs don’t support a 120Hz refresh rate, just the traditional 60Hz. The series also lacks the reflective screen and high-style bezel. Screen sizes include the 52-inch LN52A550 (*est. $2,150) , 46-inch LN46A550 (*est. $1,565) , 40-inch LN40A550 (*est. $1,230) , 37-inch LN37A550 (*est. $1,125) and 32-inch LN32A550 (*est. $1,100) .

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Other top LCD TVs
The Olevia brand from Syntax-Brillian is perhaps best known for its budget offerings, but the company also produces a high-end set that’s getting great reviews. Sound & Vision and Ultimate AV magazines both give a nod to the Olevia 747i (*est. $1,200) , a 47-inch 1080p LCD TV that attempts to compete head-to-head with the top offerings from Sony, Samsung, Toshiba and others. According to Al Griffin at Sound & Vision magazine, what really sets the 747i apart is sophisticated signal processing circuitry that does a better job displaying standard-definition TV signals than most other LCD TVs, and a superb job upconverting and deinterlacing DVDs and 1080i HDTV to the panel’s native 1080p resolution. Although the Syntax-Brillian Olevia 747i doesn’t deliver the black levels or shadow detail of some better LCD TVs, Ultimate AV’s Thomas J. Norton says performance in that regard is “in the same ballpark.”

In the last couple of years, Sharp’s ability to display deep blacks has placed the brand’s AQUOS LCD TVs at the very top of reviewers’ picks. However, uniformity issues in Sharp’s 1080p LCD TVs have knocked the AQUOS line down a notch in the eyes of many reviewers and owners, making other options better choices for now.

In a review at CNet, the 52-inch Sharp AQUOS LC-46D64U (*est. $1,720) has terrific black levels and detail. However, poor uniformity resulted in irregular bands of color that were apparent in some scenes. While the Sharp LCD TV still rates well, “that issue alone is enough to keep it out of the top tier of LCDs,” CNet observes. Interestingly, Scott Wilkinson at The Perfect Vision does not mention the banding issue at all in his review of the 52-inch LC-52D64U (*est. $2,220) , but says that black levels, while still very good, fall short of the very best possible with LCDs let alone plasma.

Uniformity issues are also apparent in Sharp’s top-of-the line SE94U series of LCD TVs, including the 52-inch Sharp AQUOS LC-52SE94U (*est. $3,000) . Although professional reviewers have yet to weigh in, user posts at AVSForum.com and other sites confirm that the banding issue seen in the D92U series these TVs recently replaced is still present — “banding” shows up as distinct horizontal or vertical bands of darker or lighter tones.

Though most experts say that 1080p is of little benefit in screen smaller than about 47 inches, a few allow that it might make some sense in the case of the 32-inch Sharp LC-32GP3U (*est. $1,215) , a small-screen HDTV that has been optimized for game players. In his review for PC Magazine, Robert Heron says that the set is excellent at minimizing the blur that can occur during fast motion and that there is no noticeable lag between game control input and on-screen response. HD video performance is top notch as well. Things fall down a bit, however, with some film-based video (recorded at film’s standard 24 frames per second). Black levels are excellent for an LCD TV. The styling is attractive, and the bezel is available in black, red or white. The biggest negative is the price, which is high for a 32-inch LCD TV.

Though we saw some nice comments about some Mitsubishi LCD TVs, most recommendations are fairly tepid. CNet.com likes the deep black levels and thin bezel of the Mitsubishi LT-46144 (*est. $2,500) , but tempers that by saying that while image quality is solid, it is also unimpressive. Inaccurate color temperature — which can’t be adjusted in the user menu — is the major negative. This set has 120Hz processing, but reviewer David Katzmaier says that it is ineffective. On the other hand, UltimateAV magazine’s Thomas J. Norton compliments the color, though he, too, says it can be improved with calibration. Instead, he is most disappointed with the TV’s ability to convert standard-definition programming and with a subtle but distracting strobe effect that could be seen in some program material.

We did see a generally more positive review of the Mitsubishi LT-46133 (*est. $1,570) . The report calls it a strong all-around performer, but with black levels and viewing angles that fall short of the best LCD TVs. A handful of users posting at Amazon.com are generally positive, but owner opinions at AVSForum.com are mixed.

Like Samsung, Toshiba has just refreshed its LCD TV lineup. We didn’t yet find any professional reviews, but user feedback does provide some insight. The best resource for information on the high end REGZA XF550 Series is at AVSForum.com, where a 1,900-post thread reveals that those who have managed to get their hands on the TV are very pleased. Other new Toshiba TVs also seem to meet with general approval. For example, the mid-level Toshiba REGZA 42RV530U (*est. $1,200) gets positive user feedback so far at CircuitCity.com, Amazon.com and elsewhere. This 42-inch 1080p LCD TV lacks 120Hz processing and is otherwise not very feature rich, but it has good connectivity, including four HDMI inputs and a high-resolution PC input (SXGA) that’s ideal for computer gamers.

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Budget LCD TVs

Not long ago, Westinghouse Digital’s LCD TV offerings were largely written off as the lowest of low end. Those days are gone. While not every set they produce hits the mark, a few are drawing rave reviews. One such model is the 47-inch Westinghouse Digital TX-47F430S (*est. $1,000) . CNet recommends the TV for the budget buyer. Though black levels are said to be on the light side, the Westinghouse LCD TV otherwise has a very solid picture, and there’s a nice selection of features and user controls.

In addition to the high-end Olevia 747i, Syntax-Brillian is producing a few budget LCD TVs that have been turning reviewers’ heads. For example, the Syntax-Brillian Olevia 537H (*est. $700) makes a list of top five 37-inch LCD TVs at PC World. Reviewer Roy Santos says the TV deserves consideration because it is “put together well, carries a low price … and offers a pleasant viewing experience.” Santos also notes the unusual user interface, but he found it easy to use nonetheless. Controls include RGB settings, which are sometimes missing from expensive sets, let alone bargain models. While some of PC World’s judges deemed the picture to be a little “dark,” it received high marks overall for color quality.

When it comes to budget LCD TVs, it is tough to overlook the success story that Vizio has become. Not long ago, Vizio was an obscure brand offered only direct and through warehouse stores. Now, you can also find Vizio TVs in large electronics chains such as Circuit City, and mass merchandisers such as Sears. The company’s model of low price and at least acceptable performance has helped it become one of the largest sellers of flat panel displays (LCD and plasma).

Some Vizio models get qualified recommendations. CNet places the 32-inch Vizio VX32L (*est. $630) on its list of top LCD TVs, albeit at the bottom of the list. The set doesn’t exactly get a ringing endorsement, but the editors say that the picture quality is “perfectly acceptable” and that the TV delivers good bang for the buck. Consumer Guide, an improving destination for reviews of LCD TVs, also likes the VX32L and names it a “Budget Buy.” The editors there say that blacks are deep for an LCD TV of its size and price, and colors are accurate and well saturated. An optical audio output is provided for connecting the TV to an external home theater system, but Consumer Guide says that the built-in speakers and amp do a “decent” job.

Two versions of the Vizio VX32L are available. The only apparent difference between the older Vizio VX32LHDTV10A and the newer Vizio VXL32LHDTV20A is that the latter lacks a picture-in-picture/picture-outside-picture (PIP/POP) feature. Though Vizio lists a higher MSRP for the VX32LHDTV10A, pricing at retail is identical for the two LCD TV sets.

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The Vizio GV47LF (*est. $1,600) is another Vizio LCD TV that gets some guarded recommendations. CNet down rates this 1080p HDTV it for its relatively light blacks, but calls it a “solid bargain” nevertheless. Meanwhile, though PC World places the 47-inch LCD TV well down in its top-ten chart, it finished third in picture quality. The major knock reported is that the TV is difficult to set up and use. Testers at Popular Mechanics, however, disagree, calling the image quality dark and noisy.

Dick De Jong at HDTV Solutions has some nice things to say about Vizio’s new VO47LF (*est. $1,300) 1080p HDTV. He finds the price “compelling,” and lauds the LCD TV for its ease-of-use. He also gives the picture quality a thumbs-up despite black levels that could be deeper, but adds: “if you are a tenacious videophile intent on finding the flawless HDTV for your home theater, then turn your merciless gaze elsewhere.” CNet.com isn’t as complimentary, but largely concurs. David Katzmaier cites some “picture quality quibbles,” but adds that the TV “stays true to the company’s good-value reputation.” The VO47LF is mainly available at warehouse retailers such as Costco, BJ’s and Sam’s Club.

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Best small LCD TVs

Widescreen LCD TVs that measure less than 25 inches are significantly cheaper than larger LCD panels. While LCD televisions this size will look awfully small mounted on a wall, their smaller size makes them great for a second set for the bedroom or office. Some — but not all — also have a PC input that allows them to be used with a personal computer.

Small-screen TVs don’t get much in the way of attention from professional reviewers — in fact, CNet states point blank that it does not review TVs smaller than 32 inches — but user review destinations such as AVSForum.com, CircuitCity.com and Amazon.com can provide great guidance. The 23-inch Samsung LN-T2353H (*est. $500) gets great reviews from users, who almost uniformly like the image quality and styling with its piano black finish. Sound quality appears to be much better than average, but some owners found the picture controls confusing.

Though that TV remains current and widely available, it will soon be replaced by the new Samsung LN22A450 (*est. $500) , part of the new Series 4 Samsung LCD TV line. Initial reports are limited, but discussion at AVSForum indicate that the sets in this series are even better, with improved specifications such as higher contrast and faster pixel response time compared to their predecessors. Features aren’t especially generous, but there’s decent connectivity with three HDMI inputs, including one conveniently mounted on the side.

If you are looking for something even smaller and less expensive, the 20-inch Vizio VX20L (*est. $400) bears consideration. It is a smaller screen version of the Vizio VX32L discussed above. The set boasts only modest connectivity with just one HDMI input, but the Vizio LCD TV has a reasonable feature set including a game mode, a PC input and a QAM-compatible digital tuner; however picture-in-picture, which was offered on an earlier version of this TV, has been eliminated. User reviews are generally complimentary about the picture quality, and near ecstatic about the value. Poor sound quality is the negative that’s cited most often.

Of course, almost any LCD computer monitor could be used as a television through your computer. But since monitors don’t include a tuner, you’ll need to install a TV tuner card in your computer to receive over-the-air or analog cable TV (tuners for digital cable TV are both rare and expensive), and you’ll have to boot up your computer to watch television. Many monitors now include an HDMI input in addition to the more typical VGA and DVI connections. For more on computer monitors , see the separate ConsumerSearch report.

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Important Features: LCD TVs

You should consider the following factors when shopping for an LCD TV:

  • Decide whether you want plasma or LCD. LCD TVs are available in a wider variety of sizes and prices. Plasma displays are found only in sizes of 32 inches or larger. Although plasma TVs are a little less expensive than large-sized LCD TVs, many LCD TVs have higher resolution. The best LCD TVs, such as those in the Sony BRAVIA XBR and Samsung 81F lines, are able to approach the black levels achieved by plasma. Reviews say LCDs are brighter but have more viewing angle issues than plasmas, making them an iffy choice for big family rooms where several people may be watching at an angle.
  • Picture-in-picture allows you to view two video sources at once, with one appearing as an inset in a small window on the screen. Single-tuner PIP lets you watch TV in one window and another source (such as a DVD) in the second window. A set with two tuners enables you to watch two television sources at once. Be aware that some cable boxes will negate a dual-tuner PIP feature and may only allow you to watch one digital source at a time. Many manufacturers are eliminating PIP, especially from lower-priced TVs.
  • Look for lots of HDMI inputs. This connection keeps the signal all-digital, avoiding degradation that can occur as the signal passes through other components (such as a cable box). HDMI carries high-definition audio as well as video. Some satellite receivers and DVD players connect through this port, and it is a must for viewing the output of a high-definition DVD player. HDMI also supports HDCP, a copy-protection standard that prevents people from making copies of high-definition movies. Many high-def DVDs can’t play in full resolution except through HDMI. Instead of an HDMI port, some sets and monitors provide an HDCP-compliant DVI-D connection. That connection carries digital video, but not digital audio. HDMI is backward compatible with DVI-D, and HDMI and DVI-D components can be interconnected using adapter cables.
  • Match TV size to the size of your room. Because HD LCD screens have higher resolutions than older TVs, you can sit closer than what used to be the norm. That means you can get away with a bigger screen. Even so, 52-inch screens that look great in a showroom may overwhelm a small room.
  • Shop around for price. In our research, we found big price differences from retailer to retailer, so it pays to look around.
  • Verify that the TV comes with a stand or mounting hardware. Most LCD TVs come with a basic table stand, but wall-mounting hardware, if not included, could cost an additional $100 to $200.
  • Check the manufacturer’s policy before buying online. Some manufacturers have strict policies regarding authorized dealers. For example, if you buy a Sharp LCD TV from an unauthorized dealer, you’ve probably voided your manufacturer’s warranty. However, the retailer may offer a substitute warranty. We found a substantial price differential between Sharp’s authorized dealers and discounters. Be sure to calculate your threshold for risk on such a large purchase and to ask the dealer about warranty coverage.

If you aren’t completely attached to the idea of a flat panel, you get more big-screen for your money with one of the latest rear-projection TVs. These models, which are based on LCD, DLP (Digital Light Processing) and LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) technology, are much thinner and lighter than older CRT-based rear-projection TVs. Please see our separate report for more information on projection TV . It’s possible to find a 1080p 50-inch rear-projection TV for less than the price of a 42-inch LCD TV with the same resolution.

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