I'm thinking of buying a new high-definition television (HDTV) !

buying a flat screen tvSo you’re thinking of making the leap from the old tube TV and getting a big screen of your own; you’ll be able to watch movies and play on your PS3, Xbox, or Wii all in high-definition. You’ll even be able to surf the Internet for funny and cool clips with your friends. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to you and you’re buying a gift for someone you love ... your son, your daughter, mom, or dad … and you really want to get them something good – something they’ll feel great about. Perhaps, even, you have already bought a new HDTV. Whatever the case, congratulations on your decision! There’s nothing that will change the way you experience entertainment than with a flat-screen HDTV and media-entertainment system. The sound and pictures will keep you and your guests filled with emotion for time on end and you have also taken a step away from the good-old dark ages and one step into the future which is the modern world.

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What type of HDTV should I buy: Plasma, LCD, or LED?

plasma vs lcd tvFundamentally, plasma TV’s are being discontinued. That said, Plasma screens are still good and won’t just breakdown on you because they stopped selling them. It is also highly unlikely that manufacturers will stop supporting and servicing them. As of October 2009, if you shopped around you could pick up a good 46” plasma for around $1200. Plasmas have a nicer picture quality than LCD’s and can show a more vivid color range. They do, however, use significantly more power and are said to be better viewed in darker environments (like a basement den).

LCD’s are roughly the same price or more expensive. They fare better in bright rooms and have a longer shelf-life than plasmas. As of writing this text, LED TV’s were relatively new to the scene and were very expensive. They do offer phenomenal picture quality and ultra-low power compared to plasmas and LCD’s. They are also thinner and sleeker.

So what should you buy? If you’re going for the long haul, there are two good strategies: a) buy a good LCD or plasma screen and hold on to it for years; or b) get it and hold on to it for 2-5 years at which point you could sell it at roughly half the price you bought it for or less (fair market price?) on Kijiji or Craigslist. Then, buy an LED TV when prices will have come down.

The best way to pick a TV is to walk down the aisles and single-out the ones that look best to you without looking at the brands or specs. Once you see one with picture quality you like, it’s time to look at the specs.

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What size should my TV be?

37, 42, 46, 50, 52, 60 inchThis depends on how far you plan on sitting from the television set. When you walk down the aisles in stores, a TV might look smaller there because of the big open space but it will feel bigger once it’s in your room. Which size to get depends on preference but a good rule of thumb is to leave a 12 to 15 foot distance between you and a 46”screen. If you’ll be sitting closer then go with something like a 37”, or even smaller if you need to.

If you really want to find out, bring a measuring tape with you to the store and get as close as you can to the screens before the viewing becomes uncomfortable and/or blurry. Then, measure that critical distance.

What specifications (specs) should my TV have?

1080p, 1080i, 720pYou’ll want good specs so you can actually enjoy your TV in the coming years as opposed to loathing it. Also, plan a few years down the road by knowing that technology does become obsolete. It’s wise to get good performance not just for entertainment pleasure but to keep your TV relevant down the road. This will help keep the resale value higher.

Make sure your TV is 1080p or 1080i compliant. This means a screen resolution of 1920x1080. It's the way to go moving forward with technology. Do not go with 720p. Anything lower than 1080p/i and with a different ratio (1920 : 1080 = 16 : 9) may provide lower, less enjoyable, quality when viewing your flat screen. Demand 1920x1080 and don’t settle for less. Watch out for pushy sales-people on 720p’s. It’s your money, therefore it’s your say. Having said this, know that standard DVD’s have a lower resolution than 1920x1080 and so playing them on a 1080p/i set will provide good quality, but not true, optimal, HD pictures. To truly take advantage of a 1080p/i TV, you’ll need to get a Blu Ray player.

Next, make sure you get a good contrast ratio. For Plasma’s the typical value is already very high at roughly 1-3 million : 1. This is where the better color vividness and distinction between dark colors comes from. For LCD’s, try to get 80,000 : 1 or better.

You’ll also want a good refresh-rate on your screen, say 120Hz, and a good response time… say 4-6 milliseconds (ms). These are factors in eliminating motion blur, which is more important on bigger screens. You don’t want to get motion sickness while watching action movies like Iron Man or every day sports.

What are all those confusing wire jacks on the back of the TV?

rca, component, hdmiIn the dinosaur age (metaphorically speaking) entertainment technology focused on connecting your VHS and Beta playback units using an RCA cable. These are the yellow, white, and red circular jacks representing video, left stereo-audio, and right stereo-audio respectively. Today, RCA is still used but the trend is moving towards the HDMI cable. There has been a lot of buzz about this.

The reason is that HDMI carries both very high-speed video plus surround-sound audio signals all in one compact wire. HDMI cables are designed to support the extremely high data rates needed by today and tomorrow’s entertainment technology. Say good bye to messy wire-balls living behind your TV and say hello to fast, reliable, organized, connections. If you’re trying to identify the HDMI jacks on the TV, they look like a wider, flat, USB jack.

In addition to RCA and HDMI, modern HDTV’s may have Component, VGA, DVI, and USB cable jacks. Component is very similar to RCA but there are multiple wires for the video signals. There is one wire for each color type. Media enthusiasts swear the picture quality is better with the Component cable than with the RCA cable, but some people never notice a solid difference and don't think they are worth buying. Plus, Component cables can be more expensively priced.

The VGA and DVI jacks are for connecting your computer and using the TV as a computer screen. Their necessity depends on whether your computer’s video card uses VGA or DVI. Some computers today actually provide HDMI output for both video and sound and there also exists DVI to HDMI adapters. VGA is still-used but is an antiquated cable connection, while DVI is contemporary.

The USB jacks are there so that you might be able to directly connect USB sticks or digital cameras to view pictures and movie clips. They can sometimes also serve to connect diagnostic tools to the TV and perform firmware upgrades.

What types of cables will I need?

rca cable, component cable, hdmi cableCables can be expensive in general and are a topic themselves, but rest assured that you can find cheap ones, especially at online stores.

Will you just keep the TV on a stand and flip channels from a couch? - Or are you planning on connecting all kinds of things to the TV, like a gaming console, computer, Blu Ray/DVD player, sound-system, or others? If you won’t do too many things like this you won’t need to pay much attention the different connectors at the back of the set.

At the very least, you’ll need the standard coaxial TV cable jack to connect straight to your satellite or cable box while making sure the TV has a set of built-in speakers. If you plan on using your TV with other peripherals, you will need a few HDMI and RCA jacks. A digital optical audio out (TOSLINK) would be nice or may even be necessary to connect audio to your sound system. Maybe even a DVI, VGA, and USB jack for connecting a computer and USB peripherals.

What is important is that when you browse the aisles at the retailer or online store, make sure you examine the back of the prospective TV or look at its specification sheet to identify what cable jacks it has. Do they suite your needs? This is an important question. Otherwise, you may end up with a large expensive item that won’t let you set things up the way you want. You may not be able to use your entertainment and computer equipment and will have to repackage and return a large heavy TV to the store at your own expense(time, money, and effort).

If you’re surprising someone else with the TV, try asking that person non-obvious questions about what they’d do with a big flat-screen and if they’re into sound systems and computers. This may reveal what kind of cable jacks you need really make the ultimate gift.

Some TV’s only have one audio OUT so make sure your sound system has the same connector type IN. Also make sure the TV has compatible video inputs.

Should I get an extended warranty or service plan?

extended warranty, service planThis depends on the person. Essentially what you are doing is buying insurance for a predetermined block of time on an item you are purchasing. Companies are no longer standing behind their products as they used to, perhaps due to the complexity and cost of fixing and replacing parts. They have been transferring the burden of dealing with defective products to the consumers as manufacturer warranties on electronics are often valid for just one year from purchase.

Typically, the likelihood of a defect varies according to the Bathtub Curve. Manufacturing defects manifest themselves early and are caught shortly after the item was produced (i.e. when it’s first used). As time goes by, the likelihood of detecting defects drops since manufacturing defects are normally seen early. Eventually the likelihood defects bottoms out. This bottom can last for years. As the item is used, normal wear and tear occurs until one day, towards the so-called end of the item’s life, the item's performance is significantly degraded. During this later period, the likelihood of detecting a defect is greater. Plotted over time, the resulting curve has a "U" or bathtub shape; hence the name.

So, with a one year manufacturer’s warranty in mind, where is your product on the curve and do you need the service plan? It’s hard to say for sure and retail sales people will pressure or scare you into buying one. If the company making your item has a reputation for quality, maybe you don’t need it. If you’re concerned about the item breaking abnormally, then maybe an extended warranty will give you the peace of mind you need. In the grand scheme of things, extended plans only cover you for about 4 to 5 years at most, hopefully ending your coverage near the bottom of the curve where you shouldn't need it. The warranty will offer you limited protection against latent defects: the ones that don't appear right away but that aren't due to normal wear and tear.

So is a plan worth it? The answer is yes if the plan lasts longer than the manufacturer warranty AND if the plan costs a small percentage of the item’s price. If the plan costs 25% or more of the item’s price then you could be better off just buying a newer better item when and if the time comes. Not only will it be newer, but it may even be cheaper and improved. If a 4 or 5 year plan costs, say, 5-10% more than the item, then it’s probably worth it. 10% of $1,500 is $150, making your total price $1,650 ... not that much different for a much bigger warranty!

Sales representatives will often have a catchy phrase like "if anything happens to your item, with this plan you can just bring it back." When they say this, this is your cue to take a deep breath if you need to, to step back, and to not let yourself be rushed into giving an answer. It’s your money, therefore your say. Use a calculator to do the math then give the sales person your answer. You’ll have made a much smarter and informed decision and you’ll feel good about it.

If you are averse to risk, then maybe just go ahead and get the plan anyways for your own peace of mind and enjoyment of the item. You only live once, right? The item will just be more expensive for you, that's all.

It all depends on the person. Just don't forget to read the warranty policy's details first!