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Market research company iSuppli predicts that 11.897 million flat panel plasma and LCD HDTVs will sell during the fourth quarter.
updated 11/8/2010 8:25:50 PM ET 2010-11-09T01:25:50

Whether the day after Thanksgiving is called "Black Friday" because of the day's heavy traffic or because it signals the beginning of the selling period when most retailers go from being in "the red" to being "in the black," it unofficially marks the start of the holiday gift giving buying season.

Market research company iSuppli predicts that 11.897 million flat panel plasma and LCD HDTVs will sell during the fourth quarter, up slightly over 6 percent from the same period in 2009. Broken out by type, iSuppli forecasts plasma sales should increase over 9.3 percent for Q4 compared to last year while all LCD will be up by 5.61 percent. Clearly, HDTVs are among the most prized gifts. So whether you're giving one to a loved one, your family or yourself, it's important to pick the right one. Here's our advice.

Size Matters
Job one is to pick the right screen size for your needs. HD LCDs range from 19 inches to 65 inches and plasmas from 42 inches to 65 inches. LCD screens 37 inches and smaller generally feature 720p resolution, though there are a few sets as small as 32 inches offering 1080p.

There are 42 inches and 50 inches 720p plasma sets as well, with all plasma sizes available in 1080p. Rear Projection TVs are not flat, with a depth of around 15 inches. They are offered in screen sizes from 60 inches to 82 inches and provide the biggest image for the least amount of money, with street prices starting at under $1000. All use a single replaceable lamp light source (except one model using lasers). All rear projectors are made by Mitsubishi.

Which size is right for you? Consider your budget, room size, seating positions and finally if it's an issue for you, the size of the cabinet in which you're placing the set. Our exclusive HD Guru viewing distance chart (which can be downloaded in PDF format here) tells you how close you need to sit to see full resolution with a given 720p or 1080p display. Sit farther away and of course you will still get a great picture, but human vision limitations will prevent you from seeing the set's full resolution.

HD Guru
A handy flow chart to help you cut through the jargon and the flood of features in today's HDTVs.

LCD or Plasma?
LCD is your only choice if size or budget constraints limit you to size below 42 inches. While you have a choice of plasma or LCD at 42 inches and above, HD Guru and most other experts agree that plasma beats LCD (including those labeled "LED") in overall picture quality.

Why? Plasma offers uniform picture quality as you move off-axis, meaning everyone in the room essentially sees the same picture. LCD does not. Off axis, all LCD displays exhibit changes in color, black level and brightness, though some models, offer better off-axis performance than others.

Plasma offers overall better black levels, with blacks always appearing deeper especially when viewed off-axis compared to LCDs, because plasma has the ability to shut light off at a pixel level. Because LCD is a back-lit technology, the best it can do — and not all LCDs have it — is dim large blocks of pixels using a feature called "local dimming." It's not nearly as precise or effective as actually turning off individual pixels and adjacent high contrast images often produce a halo artifact.

CCFL or LED back-lit LCD TV?
A relatively recent advance in LCD technology uses LEDs (light emitting diodes) to illuminate the picture in place of the more commonly used thin fluorescent tubes called CCFLs. Though some set manufacturers choose to call their LED back-lit sets "LED TVs" they are still LCD TVs!  However, LED backlighting has a number of advantages, one of which is lower power consumption compared to both traditional back-lit LCDs and plasma. For a given screen size, plasma consumes somewhat more power than CCFL back-lit LCDs. Price wise, large screen plasma (50 inches and over) are significantly less expensive than traditional CCFL LCD and LED LCD. The cost differential is higher than the savings in electricity one can expect, even after 10 or more years of use.

The CCFL lamps within LCDs contain mercury, a toxic metal, while LED LCDs and plasmas are mercury free, something to keep in mind when disposing of an old LCD TV. (Check out our recycling article here for more information.)

Another LED advantage is the capability of very bright images, which makes them preferable to both CCFL back-lit LCDs and plasma if you do a lot of daytime viewing, in very bright windowed rooms that lack shades or curtains. For typical room lighting conditions plasma HDTVs produce sufficient image brightness for outstanding picture quality.

Edge-lit versus back-lit LED
Manufacturers use LEDs to either edge light or back light their LCD sets. Edge lighting can produce thin profile sets that are less than an inch deep. Back lit sets offer the aforementioned advantage of local dimming, which can produce extremely dark black levels.

Edge lit LEDs may have white and black uniformity issues at the picture perimeter while off-axis brightness of both LED formats tends to fall off somewhat more rapidly than does the same panel lit using traditional CCFLs. However, overall, LED back-lit sets with local dimming produce the best LCD pictures.

Standard LCDs incorporate a 60 Hz refresh rate. This produces motion resolution of around 320 lines (per picture height) out of a possible 1080 lines. 120 Hz refresh ups the motion resolution to around 600 lines, while 240 Hz kicks it up to 900 lines or higher.

Once the refresh rate is increased to 120Hz or higher, a number of image artifacts appear (see related story). In addition, test material reveals unwanted artifacts present in all types of 120, 240 Hz LCD HDTV.

For the best LCD picture, either traditional or LED back-lit, choose one with either a 120Hz or 240Hz or 480 Hz refresh rate. Note the are LED LCDs that claim 480Hz refresh, really just use a 240 Hz circuit and sequentially fire the LEDs within the backlight.

1080p plasma sets produce artifact free, full 1080 line motion resolution. Panasonic's VT20/ VT25 series and Samsung's 8000 model plasmas offer a 96Hz refresh rate that produces images free of the judder (seen as uneven pans) found in all 60 Hz panels (plasma and LCD) without any of the artifacts associated with 120/240Hz LED/LCDs.

If you're looking accurate image reproduction, consider THX Certified designs that provide near ideal out of the box color temperature and color point accuracy when set to the THX picture option. THX is available on select LG and Panasonic HDTVs. User calibration controls, included with many top of the line HDTVs allow (with proper test equipment and signals) near perfection image fine tuning. (Learn more about THX Certification here.)

New for 2010 is 3-D capability. It is available on select LCD models from Samsung, LED LCDs from Samsung, Sony, LG, Sharp and Toshiba and plasma HDTVs from LG, Samsung and Panasonic. Screen sizes range from 40 inches  to 65 inches for LED LCD, 40 inches to 55 inches for LCD with CCFL backlights and 42 inches to 65 inches for plasma. All Mitsubishi rear projectors do 3-D with the aid of a $99 interface box.

Buying your HDTV
This year's holiday supply of HDTVs is excellent, due to slower-than-anticipated sales with prices around 25 percent lower than last year. To boost sales, set makers are kicking in with extra savings on a variety of models in the form price reductions, instant rebates, dealer incentives, or bonus offers including free Blu-ray players with TV purchase and multiple free 3-D glasses with 3-D capable TVs.

You can find the great only pricing from Pricegrabber and Amazon using our links within their respective ads on the right side column. For tips on buying a set at a brick and mortar store, check out our feature "Getting the Best HDTV Price."

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