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Budget shopping tips: TVs

Senior Editor David Katzmaier shares some general tips on shopping for TVs on a budget.

Despite being "only" 720p, the Panasonic TC-P50X1 is a great bargain. Sarah Tew/CNET

Flat-panel TVs are no longer playthings of the rich. In fact, dirt-cheap models can be had in every screen size and from numerous diverse makers. Here's a guide to finding your way through the budget HDTV morass.

Bargain brands vs. name brands
Value brands like Vizio and Westinghouse, along with even lesser-known names like Dynex and Haier, compete head-to-head against the Sonys and Panasonics of the world. You can get a great deal with an off-brand, although you should still do your research. When considering a bargain brand it's always worthwhile to see how much you're actually saving versus the same size, entry-level TV from a better-known brand, especially in larger screen sizes. Maybe that couple hundred dollars savings isn't worth it to you, especially over the long lifespan of the typical TV. If you do go for a bargain brand, look around online for user opinions to spot any potential lemons. Often, however, you'll find most buyers are happy with their HDTVs, regardless of brand.

Don't forget about 720p
1080p resolution is everywhere these days, especially among larger LCDs, but that doesn't mean you can't find less-expensive 720p plasma models around. Did you know you can get a very good 50-inch 720p plasma, Panasonic's TC-P50X1, for around $900? You can send even less at the 42-inch size. Trust us, you probably won't miss the extra pixels.

You don't need a 120Hz or 240Hz LCD
If you have your heart set on LCD instead of plasma, it's worth remembering that motion blur--the reduction of which is the main selling point of 120Hz and 240Hz LCD TVs--is really difficult for most people to make out. Moreover, chances are the blur you see is inherent in the source, not the TV, and those higher refresh rate TVs can't do anything about blur in the source.

Going big? Think rear-projection
It doesn't have to be all plasma and LCD when you want a really big picture. Large rear-projection TVs are still being produced by Mitsubishi--and nobody else, aside from some older models. They can cost thousands less than similarly sized, or significantly smaller, flat-panels.

Compare in person, buy online
Let's face it: especially with HDTVs, you'll get a better price online. But we recommend checking out the set in a retail store, if you can, before pulling the trigger online. If nothing else, you'll get a good idea of how the set's external appearance looks--although picture quality is often difficult to judge under the bright lights of the store. When buying online, it also pays to try to get free shipping, and definitely make sure the online vendor has a solid return policy.

Don't buy an HDMI cable in the store
Despite the marketing hype, all HDMI cables are essentially identical--you're not going to get better performance from an $80 cable than you would from a $5 cable. That's why it always makes more sense to buy cheaper HDMI cables widely available on online retailers. We've got the full scoop on our HDMI cable quick guide, along with some recommended stores.