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What to look for when buying a new TV

LCD or plasma? 55 inch or 60 inch? Smart or not-so-smart? Figuring out the right TV for you isn't hard... mostly.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Confused about what TV to buy? Please allow me to de-confusify you. From technology (LED, LCD, plasma?) to size, to features, there are a lot of choices to make when deciding on the right TV.

Narrowing down the options isn't as hard as it seems, though, and that's what this article is all about.

First, we'll start with what to look for in the TV itself. Later, we'll talk about the shopping process.

Choosing the TV
One of the most common regrets from those who bought a new TV is that they "could have gone bigger." Chances are you can get a TV much larger than you're considering. I certainly can't see into your living room (or can I?), but I'm going to guess you're sitting about 10 feet from your TV. At this distance, you're not going to see pixels unless you get a TV larger than what's currently available (unless you've got really good eyes). This isn't to say you have to get a big TV, just that you can go big if you want. If you're curious, check out How big a TV should I buy?

Once you've got the size worked out, and if you're like most people, you want the best picture quality possible. Or at least, the best picture quality you can afford. This is a lot harder to determine, as every major specification from every TV company is 100 percent completely worthless. Every single one. In the case of contrast ratio, the single most important spec, they're flat-out lying. Worse, you really can't judge picture quality in a store, as the TVs aren't likely set up correctly, and the store lighting is going to make certain TVs seem washed out, which they won't in your home.

What's the recourse? Well, reviews. CNET reviews most of the major models. There are also a few other sites (like my other digital abode, Sound+Vision), that do in-depth reviews with extensive objective measurements. In my opinion, objective measurements in concert with subjective impressions are key to any review.

You'll find that among the sites that have the objective with the subjective, there's often a common take on many models. If I review the same TV as David but for another Web site, for example, we might disagree on what deserves a 3 versus a 4 in a subjective rating, but we're almost always in agreement on what's a 5 and what's a 1. So if a TV is well reviewed here, it's going to be well reviewed elsewhere. If it's well reviewed everywhere, it's a safe bet it's a good-looking product. If you're not familiar with the jargon, check out How to read an HDTV review.

And what about that age-old question: LCD or plasma? Well, there's a lot to that question, enough for its own article. Check out LED LCD vs. plasma vs. LCD.

Once you've got a general idea about size and performance (and technology), that should be about 90 percent of it. What's left is features, and there it's all about what you're looking for. All the high-end TVs have 3D and Smart TV features. If you're not looking to spend in the high-end, you can certainly save some money ditching features like Smart TV and other bells and whistles. Unfortunately, this also means that you'll be stepping down in performance. There are some gems in the middle price ranges, though, like Panasonic's ST50 and U50 series and Samsung's E450 series.

OK, at this point in the process, you should have an idea what TV you're interested in. Now where do get it?

Most people still buy their TVs in a store. Costco has an excellent return policy (90 days) if you're a member, plus they extend the manufacturer's warranty out to two years (in most cases this doubles the warranty). Amazon pays for return shipping within 30 days, and usually has better, or at least the same, prices as any store. For more on this, check out Buying an HDTV: Online or in-store? and How not to get ripped off buying an HDTV online.

If you decide to get a TV in a store, there are a few important things to keep in mind. The store is going to make very, very little (if anything) on the TV itself. That's how small the margins are, even on many of the expensive models. So the only way the store can make a profit is by selling you high margin items. Soundbars and home theater systems are typically high margin products (or at least higher margin). These are absolutely worth getting.

In fact, I think anyone buying a TV should get some sort of audio product to go with it. No TV on the market has good sound. If you've ever had trouble understanding what people are saying, or you can't turn up your TV loud enough to hear what's going on, it's probably not you. It's the tiny, crappy speakers in your TV. Check out Why is my TV's audio so low?

But there are items you unquestionably shouldn't get in the store. Cables are the biggest. Sales people are going to hard-sell you on getting some expensive HDMI cable, claiming it's the only way your TV will work, or that it will make your TV look better than a cheap cable. "You paid a lot of money for this TV, you want it to look its best, don't you?" They're lying to you. Maybe that's harsh; they might not know any better. HDMI cables either work perfectly, or they don't work at all. The picture and sound from a $3 cable is exactly the same as the picture and sound from a $100 cable. Don't be fooled. Check out Why all HDMI cables are the same and the HDMI cable buying guide.

The other aspect is extended warranties. Every store will offer this, and so will most online retailers. The fact is, TVs are very reliable, so you're unlikely to need any sort of warranty. Things that can go wrong with the TV are most likely to occur right away, when you're covered by the store's return policy. The next most likely is in the first year, when you're covered by the manufacturer's warranty. For more, check outAre TV extended warranties worth it? Check out the comments too, as some readers have some good perspectives based on math.

Bottom line
So what TV should you buy? I'm not telling you, because I can't. There are too many personable variables. What TV would I buy? Well that's a different question entirely (Answer: I wouldn't).

What it comes down to is this: If you get a TV from one of the name brands, it's going to be better than just about any of the TVs available five years ago. Modern TVs, for the most part, are very good, so don't stress too much. It's going to look great in your house.

For even more depth on all this, check out David's excellent 2012 TV Buying Guide.

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.