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Big-screen TVs win 3rd place on the wish list

When it comes to choosing the best HDTV, we use a tried and true, simplified approach. All you have to do is consider three things: what you want to watch, where you're using the TV, and how much you can spend.
Image: Vizio
As prices for High-Definition TVs continue to fall, competition among established brands such as Sony and scrappy upstarts like Vizio is fierce. With a tasty mix of thoughtful design and low price, this Vizio VU42LF wins our pick for the best budget HDTV.Vizio

Each year the Consumer Electronics Association polls American consumers about their holiday wishes. This year, in a surprise upset of techno-lust over good will, a new PC took top spot as the most-wanted item, followed by peace and happiness.

With this in mind, we’ve offered shopping guides for PCs and online good deeds over the past few weeks.

This week we tackle the third-place finisher on the holiday hot list: a big-screen TV.

Part Three:

Holiday Wish List: Big-Screen TVs
If you’re feeling overwhelmed shopping for a High-Definition Television (HDTV) you can hardly be blamed. Set one foot in any big-box retailer and the massive, floor-to-ceiling banks of TVs are enough to glaze anyone’s eyes over.

As prices continue to fall, competition among established brands such as Sony and scrappy upstarts like Vizio is fierce. With this battle royale comes extravagant marketing claims and even more mind-numbing jargon. Last year it was 1080p resolution. Lately, 120Hz refresh rates are being trumpeted as the must-have feature.

The good news is that we can help you choose the best HDTV with a tried and true, simplified approach. All you have to do is consider three things: what you want to watch, where you are using the TV, and how much you can spend.

Garbage in, garbage out
The most important rule to keep in mind with HDTV is the Garbage In, Garbage Out principle. The source is everything when it comes to picture quality. If you feed lousy looking digital cable into a high quality HDTV it’s still going to look lousy when it comes out on the screen. An HD-DVD or Blu-ray disc, on the other hand, can look absolutely pristine on the same HDTV.

Take time to examine your viewing habits before buying. If you just watch cable and standard DVDs you can save some money and buy a 720p LCD HDTV. If you’re planning on subscribing to HD cable or satellite programming and have already taken a side in the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray face off, you’ll reap the benefits of a larger, more expensive 1080p plasma or LCD micro-display.

A day and night difference
Each HDTV display technology performs best in specific lighting conditions. While some plasma HDTVs boast anti-glare screen treatments, they’re generally underachievers in a bright room. Plasmas and micro-displays need darkness for their brilliantly detailed, richly colorful pictures to shine.

LCD displays are the workhorses of the HDTV world. Their bright, strong picture can stand up to artificial light and sunlight without losing much luster.

Money, money, moneeeey
HDTV prices have plummeted in the last few years. According to research firms DisplaySearch and WitsView, the average price for a 42” LCD HDTV fell from $2,223 in June 2005 to $1,478 as of August this year.

There are budget-, mid-priced and high-end displays in each of the main HDTV categories: LCD, plasma and LCD micro-displays. The best HDTVs in each price bracket, based on this reviewer's testing of dozens of sets this year, hit all the display technologies.

Best on a budget
Anyone would have been hard pressed to recognize the Vizio brand two years ago. This year they became the top seller of LCD HDTVs in the U.S. with a tasty mix of thoughtful design and low prices. Our pick for the best budget HDTV is the Vizio VU42LF ($1,200,

The 42” LCD space is crammed with offerings from dozens of companies, but few can match this unit's features and performance. The 1080p display produces surprisingly deep blacks, long the bane of LCDs, and an impressively detailed picture. The menu is easy to navigate and (gasp!) the remote is sensibly designed and illuminated.

Best mid-priced
Micro-displays, the nom du jour for rear projection HDTVs, have come a long way in the past three years. Where they once resembled faux-woodgrained monoliths, today's models strike a svelte profile. Sony’s micro-displays are a thing of beauty – things get even better when you turn them on. The Sony KDS-60A3000 ($2,199.99, puts the big in big-screen with a bang. You won’t find a better 60” HDTV picture for this price anywhere.

Image: Sony TV

The massive screen real estate and spectacularly detailed picture add up to the definitive HDTV “Wow!” experience. This baby is bristling with typically solid Sony video processing features but the 120Hz Motionflow technology stands out. When film-based content, say on a Blu-ray disc, is detected, the number of frames per second is doubled. The resulting picture is deliciously smooth and natural.

Best high-end
Pioneer is the undisputed champion of plasma HDTV and the PRO-150FD ($7,500, ), their 8th generation of plasma displays, is the crown jewel of HDTVs. Sure, the price is steep, but this is a case study in getting what you pay for.

Image: Pioneer

HDTV-to-English Dictionary
To help you with your shopping, here is a decoder ring for the secret language of hi-def.

HDTV:High Definition Television. A digital TV standard featuring increased visual detail, enhanced sound, and widescreen picture.

LCD:Liquid-Crystal Display. Charged, colored crystal-filled cells sandwiched between sheets of glass. Used in flat-screen computer and TV displays.

Plasma:TV technology using tiny cells of ionized gas that trigger colored phosphors.

Micro-display or Rear Projection:A TV that uses LCD or Liquid-Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) and digital microchip technologies.

Resolution:the sharpness of an image or TV display, usually described as horizontal lines (480, 720 or 1080) or horizontal x vertical pixels (1280x720, 1366x728, etc.)

Pixel:from “picture element”. Dots of color that make up the picture on a TV. The more pixels a TV can display, the sharper and clearer the picture. Thus, a 1366x728 display will be superior to a 1280x720 one.

Interlaced Scanning: the little “i” in 480i and 1080i (see below). This is a method of displaying a picture on a TV where odd-numbered horizontal lines are "painted" or filled in, followed by even-numbered lines. The picture may have some jagged edges or blurs.

Progressive Scanning: the “p” in 480p, 720p and 1080p and the best way of displaying a TV’s picture. Every horizontal line of the picture is filled in every 1/60th of a second. The image is less likely to have noticeable defects.

480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p: different resolutions for TV pictures. The number refers to the horizontal scan lines and the letter designates interlaced or progressive. 480i is regular analog TV, 480p is a DVD’s resolution and 720p, 1080i, and 1080p are high-definition TV resolutions.

HDMI: High-Definition Multimedia Interface. A digital connection standard used between an HDTV and audio/video components. Both video and sound are transmitted via HDMI.