The Ultimate HDTV Buying Guide

Super Bowl season has become high season for HDTV shopping, but exotic models make it challenging.

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With the end of the football season comes the biggest season for TV sales. The run-up to next month's Super Bowl prods potatoes off their couches and into the stores, anxious to see the big game on a bigger screen.

Even those who bought their flat panel in recent years might not rest comfortably. TV manufacturers are working hard to keep viewers antsy to have a set with the latest in cool technology. Think of TVs more like a computer, says Scott Birnbaum of Samsung, the world's largest TV manufacturer. "Yes, a computer might last 20 years. But you want a new one every few years so you can get all the latest features."

[Windows 7 is one incentive to upgrade a PC—see what's best in the new Win7.]

We studied the hundreds of flat-panel sets that plastered walls at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and have distilled a quick guide to today's key options:

Plasma vs. LCD. This long-simmering battle has been decided for most buyers. LCDs (liquid crystal displays) are thinner, lighter, and more energy efficient. Newer models have also improved on earlier weaknesses: The image fades less for viewers sitting to the side, fast motion leaves little or no blur, and contrast has improved so images don't appear washed out. Plasma can still be the right choice for some people, as it still produces the best picture with darker blacks that make for even better contrast. And plasma is usually still cheaper, particularly at larger sizes of 50 inches and wider. But nearly 80 percent of the TVs sold this year will be LCDs, say market researchers at DisplaySearch.

60, 120, 240—Hut! For LCD buyers, this number reflects how well a screen can reduce the blur from fast motion. Manufacturers have given it a variety of names, such as Sony's MotionFlow or LG's TruMotion. Standard TVs refreshed the image 60 times a second, or 60Hz. A couple of years ago, software began producing an extra image between scans to produce a virtual 120Hz that smoothed image motion. Many higher-end sets go an image further with 240Hz, which nearly eliminates the trails, say, behind a fast-moving hockey puck. Sports is one justification for paying the premium for 240Hz, which might run $200 on a 46-inch set. Action movies and fast-moving bars of text, such as stock tickers, can also look better. Almost anyone should consider 120Hz, which doesn't carry much of a premium these days.

Fuller HD. The debate over 1080p, or "full HD," is also nearly over as it gets more difficult to find sets with less resolution, particularly among LCD screens. Buyers might save $100 or so by settling for 720p in a plasma or LCD set. And they wouldn't miss much, especially on screens smaller than 50 inches across that don't much show off the added pixels. There also isn't much 1080p content, which for now is mostly found on Blu-ray discs. That said, 1080p is the rule on any set with advanced features, such as 120Hz refresh rates or Internet connectivity, and not a bad thing to have for the small added cost.

[Manufacturers are looking for features other than larger screens to sell new TVs.]

LED. To shine light in an LCD display, manufacturers have typically used fluorescent tubes. Some models now use LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that use less energy and allow for thinner designs. One upcoming Samsung model uses LED at its edges ("edge-lit") to make it pencil-thin, only 0.3 inches deep. Other, more expensive sets spread an array of LEDs across the back of a screen and improve its contrast; turning off a group of LEDs can make for blacker blacks. Adding edge-lit LED typically adds $250 or more to a set's cost. LED backlighting can add $1,000 to a large model. The energy savings aren't great, perhaps $15 a year. LED backlighting can improve the picture but not enough to justify the added cost for most buyers. An exception might be edge-lit LED where ultrathin is important, say for a TV that will hang on the wall.

[LEDs were just one of the new technologies featured at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.]