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We’re a big fan of value here at MakeUseOf. We prefer software that is free or inexpensive and we prefer hardware that provides bang for the buck. Yet we also recognize that, when it comes to hardware, going with the cheapest option isn’t always the best idea.
The compromise between price and quality comes to a head when purchasing an HDTV. Almost everyone is going to make a television purchase at some point in their life, yet quality information about value-oriented sets can be hard to come by. HDTV companies do not usually send these sets to journalists to review – they instead send more expensive models with gee-whiz features.
Let’s shed some light on the topic and see how you can take home a great HDTV without spending a small fortune.
LCD vs. LED vs. Plasma
LED has become the new dominant technology among high-end HDTVs, but value buyers will often find themselves pitting HDTVs with different technologies against each other. The best option depends on your needs.
LCD sets are no longer in vogue and sometimes considered outdated, but a good LCD can still hold its own. The main drawback of an LCD is relatively poor black levels, which hampers contrast and can cause dark scenes to appear washed out. With that said, the best LCDs can match poor LED sets – and the LCD model is often less expensive. This is a good pick for a general-purpose television that will be used in a variety of lighting conditions.
LED options are hard to find on a budget, but there are a few options. As mentioned, the use of LED does not guarantee better black levels, though LEDs are better on average. LED sets also tend to be the slimmest – particularly edge-lit models, which can be an inch thin or thinner. This is a good option for buyers who want decent black levels without making other sacrifices – though, as noted, not all LED sets are superior to LCD alternatives.
Plasma is the king of budget image quality. These sets offer the deepest black levels, offer good color accuracy and rarely suffer from motion blur. Modern plasmas are also no thicker than LCD alternatives. Plasmas always have a reflective display, however, which makes them a poor pick for bright rooms.
Forget Web Connectivity
If you visit an electronics retailer you will almost certainly see a large display of big, beautiful sets placed smack in the middle of your view. These sets will be surrounded by cardboard cutouts, stickers and banners telling you about their wonderful features. They have built-in Netflix! Web connectivity! Angry Birds!
Manufacturers love these features because they justify higher prices. But anyone buying an HDTV needs to stop and ask – do I love these features as well?
Let’s take web connectivity as an example. Browsing the web on your television might seem cool, but most of the built-in browsers bundled with HDTVs are not enjoyable to use. Services like Netflix and Hulu Plus usually work well, but they’re nothing that you can’t find in a $99 Roku.
If you can forget about these features you can find a set with good picture quality at a low price. In fact, manufacturers often use the same basic display panel for an entire line of televisions. The least expensive one in the line – the one without web connectivity or apps or other extras – usually offers a picture quality similar to the most expensive set in the line at a much lower price.
Consider Cutting 1080p From Your Plasma Purchase
If you have decided to go with a plasma set you will need to make a choice between 720p and 1080p. The difference is resolution. A 1080p set has roughly twice as many pixels as a 720p television.
That sounds like a big deal, but it might not be. There are limits to the detail the human eye can resolve, and as you sit further away from a set, those limits can become a limiting factor. You may not be able to notice the difference between 1080p and 720p if you sit about 6 feet away from a 42” television or eight feet away from a 50” television. Even if you do notice the difference you may not find it large enough to distract you. An exception is use with computers – in this case, 1080p can be a benefit.
Accepting 720p resolution opens you up to some excellent budget products from LG and Samsung, both of which offer surprisingly good 50” plasmas for $500 or less. Jumping to a 1080p option will generally cost at least an extra $200 – which isn’t worthwhile if you don’t sit close enough to perceive the difference.
Accept Some Motion Blur On LCD/LED Sets
Until recently, almost LCD and LED televisions had a refresh rate of 60 Hz. The same has been true – and is still true – of most computer monitors. This has been used for years because it’s usually sufficient. But in can, in some cases, allow for motion blur when an object moves quickly across the display.
Increasing the refresh rate to 120 Hz can help rectify that. And since bigger numbers are better than smaller numbers, manufactures have taken the concept to the extreme. It’s now possible to find televisions with 240 Hz, 480 Hz and even 960 Hz labels slapped on their bezels.
But ask yourself – do you even find this a problem? You shouldn’t spend money fixing what isn’t broken. There are also issues with the way the image processing that enables high refresh rates impacts image quality. Many of us have become accustomed to motion blur and feel as if something is missing from a film when it is removed.
Going with a basic 60 Hz or 120 Hz set instead of a 240 Hz+ model can save you a couple hundred dollars. And remember, if the television is in the same model line as the more expensive 240 Hz+ version, it probably uses the same display panel.
Taking Basic To The Bank
Obviously there is a theme here. If you want to buy an HDTV with good or even great image quality, but you don’t want to spend a lot on it, you should take out the added features. Refresh rates, web connectivity, even 1080p resolution (in the case of some plasma sets) can be kicked to the curb.
The savings can be dramatic. The Samsung UN46ES6100, for example, is about $1000 less than the UN46ES8000. What’s the difference? Well, the UN46ES6100 is “only” 120 Hz and it lacks some high-end features like a built-in camera for video conferencing, but otherwise it’s the same. And guess what? The UN46ES6100 has more favorable consumer reviews. Or you can buy the UN46EH5000, which is a 60 Hz set lacking web connectivity that’s half again the price of the UN46ES6100. It has even better consumer reviews.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the UN46EH5000 is a better HDTV than its more expensive cousins, but I am saying that neither of those alternatives justifies their premium. The basic model provides good image quality at a low price – and isn’t that what most of us want?