Flat-screen TV upgrade 2010: What a difference five years makes

It's the moment no technology enthusiast wants to face. Faced with a dead flat-screen TV, the hunt for a new set was on.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
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Libe Goad/Dan Ackerman

It's the moment no technology enthusiast wants to face. For me, it came the evening of November 10, during a screening of (embarrassingly enough) the Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott version of "Robin Hood" on Blu-ray. About halfway through the film, the picture on my plasma TV blinked off.

After attempting to revive the set by turning it off and on, unplugging and reconnecting the power plug, and other basic troubleshooting, I had to face the hard conclusion that my television was dead. At least it performed one last selfless act by saving me from the second half of "Robin Hood."

The set in question may not have been one of my wisest investments. Purchased almost five years ago in a brief thrall of frugality, it was a 42-inch plasma from Maxent (a company briefly in competition with Vizio for the king-of-bargain-TVs title). To be fair, it served with distinction for half a decade (and was better than the 2003 42-inch Daewoo plasma it replaced), but the Magnavox 32-inch tube TV that predated both of those is still going strong at nearly 10 years, despite being purchased as an open-box Circuit City display model.

TV upgrade 2010: What a difference five years makes (photos)

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The game is afoot
Thus, the hunt for a new TV was on. And, as the past five years have seen an exponential explosion of options, features, and prices in flat-screen televisions, it was largely unfamiliar territory.

The very next morning, I consulted the TV-buying oracle: CNET's David Katzmaier. If you're shopping for a new TV, there's really no better resource. Even better, I was armed with the three words any guy would want to hear from his wife on the subject of buying a television: "Don't cheap out." (Your mileage in this area may vary; it helps that I'm married to a fellow technology journalist.)

I first asked Katzmaier if I could comfortably trade up to a 50-inch set (or larger). Based on my room size, with exactly 6 feet from the TV to the front of the couch, he said that 50 inches would be a perfect fit, neither too large nor too small. I already agreed with his general preference for plasma over LCD, so based on my size and budget, he came up with a couple of suggestions.

Libe Goad/Dan Ackerman

To 3D or not 3D?
The first was the 50-inch Panasonic Viera TC-P50G25, which he calls "the current all-around bang/buck champ...with its unbeatable combination of excellent quality and great pricing." Based on the brand's stellar reputation, I've always wanted a Panasonic, and this seemed to be an excellent choice.

But my other big issue was 3D. I've been a steady 3D skeptic, but it's also been five years since I actually had to make a decision about buying a new TV. If it wasn't too much of a price premium, did it make sense to get a 3D-capable set? Once again, the wife weighed in. Fresh off her latest turn as an official judge for Spike-TV's VGA awards, she said that, while it wasn't a must-have, she was interested enough in 3D gaming to seriously consider it.

Katzmaier's suggestion in the 3D realm was the 50-inch Samsung PN50C7000. The overall picture quality was not quite as good as the Panasonic, but it was still excellent, and it was a strong 3D performer with plenty of extra features, such as online video streaming and widgets.

Libe Goad/Dan Ackerman

Wires: The tangled web
The Samsung sounded like a winner, but my next concern was about how to transfer the tangled rats' nest of wires that make up my current entertainment center to a new TV. My previous set came along just as HDMI was becoming popular, and had only two HDMI jacks, along with two sets each of component and composite jacks.

Additionally, my 5.1 speaker system is another charming cheapie--an old Sony Dream System HTiB, with no HDMI connections at all. With the exception of a PlayStation 3, all my devices went through a component video switcher, and into one of the component video inputs on the back of the (now-dead) Maxent TV.

With four HDMI ports (and one set of component jacks), I could finally connect everything via HDMI, but I'd still have to split off the audio signals into the component video switcher to get the audio into my speakers. It's a bit of a hassle, but I'm considering replacing the Sony Dream System and component switcher with a new receiver (such as the $250 Onkyo TX-SR508, as seen in my official CNET Holiday Wish List), which supports HDMI 1.4a for 3D and Audio Return Channel (which lets audio from TV-based Web streaming pass back to the receiver via HDMI).

With at least a firm picture in my head of how I'd hook everything up, I dove in and ordered the Samsung from Amazon. At about $1,500, it was a little more than I planned to spend originally, but I was swayed by an Amazon bonus (available through December 4) on Samsung 3D TVs, offering a free Blu-ray player (the entry-level Samsung BD-C5900) and a free "3D Starter Kit" that included two pairs of active shutter glasses, which typically run about $120 each. (Note: I've also seen similar free bonus offers on Amazon for Panasonic and Sony 3D TVs.)

Cold turkey
By the time my order was submitted on Thursday evening, the earliest delivery date for Amazon's scheduled delivery service was the next Tuesday. That would mean almost an entire week free of video games and television--a bold experiment in nearly cold-turkey withdrawal for a confirmed media junkie.

But while this ordeal interrupted my Call of Duty: Black Ops campaign, it was also a refreshing change of pace. In addition to my usual routine of sampling New York's finest bars and restaurants, I found myself spending my time writing, recording music, and even cooking. I finished one book (Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars"), and started another (Gary Dell'Abate's "They Call Me Baba Booey")--both via the iPad's Kindle app.

To be honest, it wasn't entirely cold turkey. During the six days, I dialed in to two episodes of "Charlie Rose" via Slingbox, "Fringe" and "30 Rock" via Hulu, and one episode of "Modern Family" via ABC's iPad app.

Libe Goad/Dan Ackerman

The arrival
Much to my surprise, Amazon's third-party delivery service showed up right on time Tuesday morning with the Samsung. I had to help carry the set upstairs myself, as the second delivery guy stayed with the truck, and the first delivery guy essentially shoved the box through my front door and split, instead of unboxing the TV and testing it, as promised by Amazon. Nevertheless, by New York service-appointment standards, it was considered a roaring success.

Having moved the old set out of the way (and finally unbolting an even older unused wall mount from the brick wall behind it), I followed the quick-start guide instructions in the box, assembled the base, and screwed the TV into it. Setup was fast and painless--especially as this 50-inch model weighed about half of what my old 42-inch one did.

As Katzmaier had promised, the Samsung PNC7000 works like a dream (although my 3D glasses haven't arrived yet). I did, however, have to download a firmware update to remove an overly aggressive dejudder effect, as chronicled here. The next step will be to reprogram my Logitech Harmony One universal remote--easily one of the most useful gadgets I've ever owned.

You can see the entire breakdown and setup process, as I remove my old TV and hook up the new one, in the accompanying gallery, along with step-by-step commentary. Hopefully, this travelogue will be helpful to anyone going through the television-buying process, especially if, like me, you're caught by a surprise equipment malfunction and don't have weeks or months to shop around.

And, if unlike me, you can't walk across the hall and grab CNET's David Katzmaier for a personal consultation, it's worth noting that his in-person advice exactly mirrored what he says here in his recent Best TV picture for the dollar roundup.