Tech Buyer's Guide: Entry-Level TVs

In an excerpt from our new Tech Buyer's Guide, learn everything you need to know to buy a bargain flat-screen this year

Popular Science Tech Buyer's Guide TVs

Each day this week leading up to Black Friday, we'll excerpt a chunk of our new Tech Buyer's Guide here on the site to arm you with the skills and the picks to get the most from your weekend shopping madness. Here are our picks for bargain flat-screen TVs and our buying advice for TVs in general. Check out the guide for our picks for high-end TVs, as well as 15 other product categories.

LG 47LH50

Courtesy LG

The PopSci Pick: LG 47LH50

This highly connected set may leave you wondering why you pay for cable. The 1080p LCD TV is one of the first to offer built-in Web-video streaming, and it offers more choices than most of its upstart competitors.

Plug the 47-inch set (there are identical 42- and 55-inch models as well) into a home network, and in a matter of seconds, Netflix subscribers can play any of the site's more than 17,000 "Watch Instantly" movies at no additional charge. Or you can access more than 14,000 pay-per movies through the Vudu service. The TV's elegant YouTube interface lets you browse clips as easily as you can from the site (note that YouTube video seldom looks great blown up to TV size). Finally, built-in Yahoo Widgets provide Web-based news, sports, weather and more in an interface that's easy to navigate with your remote and read from the couch.

As for picture quality, you'll have few complaints. The 47LH50 can't offer the deep blacks that the best LCD and plasma sets do, but the colors are rich and accurate and can be adjusted with great precision. And when you're sitting cozy on the couch watching a movie from Vudu or Netflix instead of having to run out to Blockbuster, small performance flaws might seem less significant.

Panasonic VIERA TC-P50X1

Courtesy Panasonic

The Bargain: Panasonic VIERA TC-P50X1

Although LCD TVs get most of the attention these days, plasma TVs often give you a better picture for the money. Like most plasma sets, the 50-inch Viera delivers deep, dark blacks, superb contrast and excellent shadow detail. At $1,000, the TC-P50X1 has to cut corners somewhere, so it offers only 720p resolution, not the 1080p resolution of most sets this size, but unless you're watching from five feet away, you probably won't notice the difference. It also lacks advanced color controls, although the deep black levels more than make up for that omission. Even with those small compromises, few TVs offer such a competent picture at such a reasonable price.

Mitsubishi LT-46153

Courtesy Mitsubishi

The Splurge: Mitsubishi LT-46153

As flat-panel TVs get thinner and thinner, their sound gets thinner too. With its Unisen line, Mitsubishi puts the oomph back into TV audio. The 46-inch 1080p LCD TV uses 16 speaker drivers and some fancy digital processing to create a convincing surround-sound effect without having to scatter speakers around your room. Just add a small subwoofer, and you'll really be rocking. Best of all, you won't have to operate a second audio system or deal with yet another remote control. The LT-46153 isn't quite as good as the best TVs when it comes to upconverting standard-def material like DVDs, so be sure to use it with high-def sources like Blu-ray and high-def cable and satellite boxes.

Buying Advice: Stats That Matter

Contrast ratio: This is the most important spec for today's video displays, but it's also the most misleading one. It refers to the ratio of the brightness of the whitest whites the TV can produce to the blackest blacks it can produce. The whites aren't really a concern, because almost every TV these days is pretty bright. But not all TVs can manage dark blacks. When you're watching the Star Wars movies on a TV with lousy black levels, instead of seeing a field of inky black space punctuated by brilliant white stars, you'll see a gray screen with stars that don't stand out like they should. Deep black levels can even enhance color reproduction, because you can get darker shades of each color.

Contrast ratio can be misleading, however, because manufacturers usually measure it under wildly unrealistic conditions. Thus, a TV with a 50,000:1 contrast ratio won't always give you deeper blacks than a set with a 10:000:1 ratio. The exception is new sets with full-array LED backlighting and local dimming, which often boast contrast ratios of 1,000,000:1 or higher. Any set making such an extreme claim probably has pretty good contrast and fairly deep blacks. But in general, trust your eye and not the number. If the picture looks washed-out to you, move on to another set.

Resolution: You'll see two numbers: 720p and 1080p. Each refers to the number of horizontal rows of pixels that make up the picture. On screens 55 inches or larger, the improvement in detail you get from 1080p really pays off. Budget shoppers shouldn't rule out a set with 720p resolution, though. On a screen 50 inches or smaller, it's difficult to tell 720p from 1080p at a viewing distance of more than about five feet. Many low-priced plasma TVs in particular are 720p, and the deep black levels of these sets can be worth the tradeoff in picture detail.

Refresh rate: The base number here is 60 hertz, but now you'll see 120 and 240 hertz as well. This refers to the number of times per second that the screen refreshes; if it's too slow for the action on the screen, you can see motion blur. A 240-hertz TV might look better than a 120-hertz set, but the improvement won't be as dramatic as 120 hertz compared with 60. You don't have to worry about refresh rate if you choose a plasma TV, because the inherent high-speed operation of plasma panels practically eliminates the possibility of motion blur.

Number of HDMI inputs: A spare input or two is good for future-proofing. Every TV will have inputs for older source devices like VCRs, but HDMI is the most important because it's the latest standard and you'll find it on everything from Blu-ray players to Xbox and PlayStation 3 to high-def cable and satellite boxes. Even if your current DVD player doesn't have HDMI output, your next one will. An easy-access HDMI (or just plain audio/video) input on the side of the TV can come in handy for plugging in camcorders and other temporary items, especially if you plan to mount your TV on the wall, which will make changing cables on the back difficult.

Features to Look For

LED backlighting offers better contrast, better color, lower power consumption and (usually) a slimmer chassis. TVs with full-array LED backlighting generally outperform those with edge-lit LED backlighting.

USB inputs let you play music and photos on the TV from a thumb drive; some even let you play videos. A memory-card input is even more convenient, because you can pull the card from your digital camera and put it straight into your TV for big-screen slideshows. Make sure the TV accepts the same memory card (SD or Memory Stick) that your camera or camcorder uses.

Internet-video streaming is now found even on many affordable TVs. The idea is that you can tap into video sources like CinemaNow, Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand through an interface customized to work on a TV screen with the TV's remote control. YouTube and Yahoo Widgets have found their way onto most major brands this year, but other services may be on only a few, so make sure the TV you choose carries the services you want to watch. And remember that to use these services, you need a broadband Internet connection and either an Ethernet connection or a wireless bridge that can connect your TV to your Wi-Fi network.

The THX logo tells you that a TV has been tested and certified by the engineers at THX, an engineering spin-off of Lucasfilm founded to establish standards for audio and video performance. This is the same company that certifies most of the world's best movie theaters, so they know what they're doing. Perhaps more important, all THX-certified sets include a THX picture mode, which gives you studio-perfect color without professional calibration.

DLNA stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, a consortium of electronics manufacturers that have worked together to make their products communicate even if they wear different brands. A DLNA-compatible TV can access photos, videos and music stored on any DLNA-compatible computer, hard drive, digital video recorder or cellphone that's able to access your home network. And unless you're running an ancient system like Windows 98, your computer can probably be DLNA-compliant, at least with the addition of DLNA software.

Wireless HDMI allows a TV to receive its video and audio signals from a transmitter that resides in your equipment rack. This feature makes it much easier to wall-mount your TV, because you don't have to worry about hiding the audio and video wires.

Detachable speakers eliminate unnecessary clutter in systems that use a separate audio system.

Wireless HDMI allows a TV to receive its video and audio signals from a transmitter that resides in your equipment rack. This feature makes it much easier to wall-mount your TV, because you don't have to worry about hiding as many wires.

Detachable speakers eliminate unnecessary clutter in systems that use a separate audio system.

What You Can Skip

Slim-design TVs that measure a mere one inch thick may look really cool in the store. But if you're mounting your TV in a cabinet, there's no reason to pay extra for a super-slim TV.

Judder reduction eliminates the jerky-looking motion that sometimes occurs when you watch material that was shot on film. This feature is found on LCDs with 120- and 240-hertz refresh rates and on some plasma TVs. Although anti-judder can make movement look smoother, it often makes film-based material look like video; you may notice that old movies take on the visual aesthetic of shot-on-video sitcoms like Saved by the Bell. And that's not the look you want for Lawrence of Arabia.

Advanced picture adjustments available on the latest TVs—such as gamma, noise reduction, and separate red, green and blue drive controls—often require a great deal of knowledge and skill to set properly. Some of them are impossible to set correctly without the use of lab equipment costing thousands of dollars. Geeks may find such complexity irresistible, but with most TVs, if you simply select the Movie or Cinema picture mode and the Warm color temperature and tweak the brightness and contrast a little, you're getting more than 90 percent of the performance the TV can deliver.