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Which TV Specs Really Matter – and When to Get the Best Deal

Buying a television can be confusing, and the manufacturers like it that way. But it's actually a lot simpler than it seems. So let's dig into the specs that matter, the marketing hype that doesn't matter, and the timing secrets to help you get rock bottom prices.

The big news in TVs this year is that there is no big news. Manufacturers and retailers don't have any major new TV improvements that will compel consumers to upgrade.

The Come-Ons
3D TVs haven't motivated buyers to spend more or upgrade. Paying a premium for smart TVs with apps and streaming features built-in seems unwise given that you can purchase a Roku LT for under $50 or an Apple TV for under $100.

Thinner TVs are swanky, but if you're happy with the frontal view of your TV, you're probably not going to upgrade just for a more streamlined side-view.

The new technologies we saw announced earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show — like OLED and 4K TVs — are still too expensive to manufacture for the mainstream. Sony is offering an 80 inch 4K set, and the price is $25,000 — YIKES! Even if the price were half that, or a quarter, the improvements in image were nice, but not nice enough to get me to pull out my wallet.

Eight Tips to Get the Best Set for the Least Money
So what are the most important factors you need to know before you buy? The only mechanism manufacturers and retailers can use to get consumers buying TVs this year is to encourage us to upgrade our screen size by offering lower prices on BIG sets. That brings me to…

TIP #1: Look for the most striking discounts in sets 50 inches and up
Increases in production for larger LCD and LED sets have brought prices way down over the past few years. On Black Friday 2010 the doorbuster price on a 55" HDTC was $798. This year we've already seen mid-year sales of 55-inchers as low as $580 (source: dealnews.com).

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You may not find prices that low, but you can see the trend, and it's a good one for consumers because no human has ever gotten a TV home and thought "Gee, I wish I'd bought a smaller set." OK, maybe a few design-conscious book lovers have thought that, but then they watched the Planet Earth documentary or the Super Bowl on their new 50-incher and changed their tunes post-haste.

[Related: What Not to Buy Now]

TIP #2: Ignore these specs: contrast ratio, refresh rate, viewing angle
The manufacturer wants you to think the numbers and the technical details around these specs guarantee a better picture. They don't. Instead, understand that TV picture quality has an element of subjectiveness in it. Does one set look better to you? If so, don't let the aforementioned specs dissuade you from the set you like best.

One caveat, refresh rates have evolved; there was some initial improvement in motion blur (artifacting of the image in fast-motion scenes) in the jump from 60 Hz to 120 Hz. But TV reviewers generally agree that the upgrade from 120 Hz to 240 Hz is meaningless (source: PCMag.com).

TIP #3: Look hard at how dark the TV can get in night scenes
The depth of black is the number one factor TV reviewers use to assess picture quality. Do night scenes look grey or mottled? Does the TV offer localized dimming which helps turn the lights off on dark portions of the set improving the depth of blacks? Let your own eyes be the judge.

TIP #4: LED/LCD/Plasma is a choice based on budget

  • LED backlit LCDs (commonly referred to as LEDs) are generally brighter and blacker than LCDs.
  • LCDs are cheaper than LEDs.
  • Plasmas have great depth of black but use a lot more energy. They are also heavier and wider, but they have the lowest price of the three technologies.

If you can afford it — LED backlit TVs are the best for bright rooms and daytime viewing. Plasma screens a good choice for smaller budgets and darker rooms.

TIP #5: Matte vs. Glossy screen
This was the number one factor for me when I bought my last TV. I have a bright living room with lots of windows that reflected on my previous Plasma TV's screen. Watching football during the day entailed blackout curtains and blankets draped over glare spots. Some manufacturers do not make sets with matte screens. Others only make matte screens. I ended up with an LG LED that I can watch to my heart's content even on sunny days.

TIP #6: Audio
If you're not planning to use external speakers, you'll want to get the folks on the floor to turn down all the other sets so you can determine how crisp the built in speakers sound. Also, make sure the set actually HAS speakers; it's not a given these days.

TIP #7: Number and type of ports
How many HDMI ports do you need? How many will you need? I also like sets with USB ports or SD card slots so I can view pictures straight off my computer or digital camera.

TIP #8: For the best price WAIT, WAIT, and then WAIT A LITTLE LONGER
The first monster discounts of the year came with limited quantity doorbusters right around Thanksgiving. But then prices go up in late November and early December. In late December, shoppers see better discounts, and then prices hit rock bottom in the New Year right around the Super Bowl.

[Related: Can You Fix a Scratched DVD with a Banana?]

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