How much should I spend on a TV?

With TV prices at an all-time low, how much should you really spend on a new TV?

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
5 min read

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

TVs are a big purchase, and price is a significant factor for most of us. Naturally your budget and needs will determine how much you can/want to spend.

But if you're a little flexible on your budget, or if you're totally confused as to what to buy, this guide will help you narrow down the options.

The sections below are broken up into different ways to approach the TV buying decision. Each one is a valid way to shop, so it's just a matter of picking which feels best.

Just buy performance
The attribute people want most in their new TV is "good picture quality." Well, sure, but what does that mean? Pretty much all new TVs have better picture quality than all but the best from a few years ago, so "good picture quality" is largely a given. How good, of course, is a different question. Here's a list of CNET's top picks for picture quality. This year, the VT50 from Panasonic was the clear winner. Why? Three words: contrast ratio and uniformity.

This route is pricey, as you'd expect. Which brings us to...

Just buy price
On the opposite end of the spectrum is just going for price. What's the best deal? I'd be wary of this route, though, as many low-price offerings are low price for a reason. Remember that "good picture quality" given? Well, not so much with the true bargain basement stuff. No-name TVs generally look much worse than their tier-one overlords. As in, if it isn't one of the big names (LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, etc.), take caution.

Also, if you see a brand that makes you think "Hey, I remember that!" (Westinghouse, Kodak, and so on), it's almost always a Chinese company that purchased the rights to the name to sell cheap LCDs. Gary "HDGuru" Merson has an interesting article on this phenomenon: "Name brands in name only."

So again, be wary. That said, there are some great deals at the low end of the price spectrum. Ty found the TCL 40-inch LCD to be highly not bad. Samsung's E450 series plasmas are quite decent, and crazy cheap. Panasonic's U50 series plasmas are a little more but are 1080p.

It might take a little more research, but there are gems of big TVs for small money. Speaking of big...

Just buy size
I understand this argument, I do, but it's just as perilous as the "Just buy price" idea. Two companies (Sharp, Vizio) got all sorts of headlines this year offering impressively large TVs (60 inches and over) for impressively low money. However, the big Sharp TVs CNET reviewed and the one I reviewed for S+V both got middling marks for picture quality. Hmmm, maybe I should recant that "Good picture quality" given. The same is true with the Vizios (though at least they're a better value). If you just want the biggest TV you can afford, go for it. Just know that there are trade-offs to get a TV that big for that cheap.

Or, you can just get a projector. There are front projectors for around $1,000 that offer great picture quality, and can make an image more than 100 inches diagonal. Several $3,500 models offer some of the best picture quality you can get of any display technology. A dedicated screen can run you a few hundred to a few thousand depending on what you want it to do (masking, retractability, increasing brightness, etc.). I make my case for projection in my "Don't buy a jumbo LCD TV, buy a projector" post.

If you're going this route, or even if you're not, "How big a TV should I buy?" is worth checking out.

Somewhere in between
The above are the extremes, but of course there are many, many TVs that offer a combination of size, price, and performance.

There is, sadly, no perfect TV that offers all three at the same time. For the most part, pick two. Size and performance will be expensive. Size and price won't look great. Price and performance will have to make considerations with size. Where on the triangle is your perfect TV? That's all on you.

For what we reviewed at CNET this year, the ST50 series from Panasonic (yes, Panasonic again), offered a compelling blend, as did Samsung's E6500 plasma series. Here's our list of 2012's best HDTVs overall.

Plasma over LCD
There are pros and cons with any technology, but don't disregard plasma, as many do. Plasma TVs generally offer better picture quality than LCDs, and do so for a lot less money. For example, our pick for best overall picture quality is a plasma, which costs around $3,700 for a 65-inch. The best LED LCD didn't perform as well, is 5 inches smaller diagonally, and is $4,600.

There's more to it than that, of course, which is why I recommend checking out "LED LCD vs. plasma vs. LCD."

Just buy features
There are a few companies that specialize on packing lots of features into their TVs (Smart, 3D, etc.) for low prices. The features are the last aspect of a TV you should consider. All Smart TV features can be accessed by an inexpensive media streamer like Roku or Apple TV. You may be into 3D, but the vast majority of content you'll be watching is in 2D. I recommend buying on performance, size, or price, but only consider features if it's a tiebreaker between two TVs you like.

Other considerations, other costs
If you buy your TV in a store, they're going to try to up-sell you on cables and extended warranties. Don't get either. Check out "Why all HDMI cables are the same," and "Are TV extended warranties worth it?" For that matter, why are you buying in a store?

Also don't forget that you'll need to give that shiny new HDTV some actual HD to play on it. Just because you have an HDTV doesn't mean you're watching HD. Check out "How to set up an HDTV," "What is upconverting," and "When HD isn't HD." You'll need to pay your cable/satellite provider for the HD channels, if you aren't already (or it's not included like it should be). Blu-ray is also an excellent source of HD programming.

You can also get HD for free.

With just a little research, you'll undoubtedly get an awesome TV. I know this because there are a lot out there, and there's one that's perfect for you.

Oh, one last thing. Make sure you set it up correctly with a decent setup Blu-ray.

Got a question for Geoff? Send him an e-mail! If it's witty, amusing, and/or a good question, you may just see it in a post just like this one. No, he won't tell you which TV to buy. Yes, he'll probably truncate and/or clean up your e-mail. You can also send him a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.