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Flat Panel TV Buyer's Guide

posted on September 07, 2010 in Music and Video, TVs & Video Players, Guides & Reviews, 3DTV :: 5 comments

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Updated in September 2010.

Not that long ago you couldn't afford to think about buying a flat-panel TV. Tagged with high-four or even five-figure prices, plasma and LCD TVs were a status symbol of the luxury class. Today you can find a 22-inch flat-panel TV for less than the price of good stand mixer. But as with most things, cheap doesn't mean better. Features, size, design and even sound all come into play when buying a plasma or LCD television.

Picking the Right Screen Size

Your space will determine the size of HDTV you need. In the kitchen, a 15 or 19-inch TV may be all the space you can spare on a countertop or shelf, and that's fine if you're watching Sesame Street over breakfast from a few feet away. It's a different story in the family room, where you'll be sitting eight or more feet from the screen. To get the full big-screen experience you'll want a model that's larger than 40 inches.

HDTV prices generally correspond to the screen size, although additional features such as built-in DVD players can add to the cost of a smaller model. You can find a 15-inch HDTV for well under $200 and a 65-inch TV for well over $5,000. In between are many sizes including 26-, 32-, 37-, 42-, 47-, 50, and 55-inches. Also, TVs are grouped into classes. A TV designated as "42-inch class" might actually have a screen size that's slightly smaller than 42 inches.

To determine the right screen size for your room, use the general rule of thumb that the viewing distance should be is 1.5 to 3 times the diagonal measurement of the screen. So a 50" model would work well if your viewing distance is between 75" to 150" (7'3" to 12'6"). When shopping for a TV, position yourself the same distance from a TV as you would be in your own home to make sure you are comfortable with the size before you buy.

Plasma vs. LCD

The debate on which technology is better has taken-on the legendary proportions of cats vs. dogs and vanilla vs. chocolate. And manufacturers have added a new flavor to the debate, "LED", which is still LCD but with LED backlighting instead of flourescent.

Yet as each technology has advanced, the differences between the two have become less pronounced. But each still has its benefits and drawbacks. Here's what you really need to know.

Advantages of Plasma

  • Plasma TVs have much wider viewing angles than LCDs, and this can make a big difference if your family is sprawled across the living room when watching TV. With many LCD TVs, watching off-center can significantly impact the picture quality. And it's not just side-to-side—vertical viewing angle comes into play if you're mounting your HDTV above a mantle or dresser.
  • Plasma TVs generally have deeper black images and higher contrast in dark scenes. LCD is catching up in these areas. LED-backlit models with “local dimming” can be controlled according to the program material, allowing for some portions of the screen to be dark and others lit, but it's still not up to the quality of the better plasmas.
  • Plasma TVs are also able to display motion on the screen better than LCDs because they use a different technology that doesn't blur during fast motion scenes. LCD manufacturers have been bringing out panels with 120Hz and 240Hz refresh rates that offer significantly better motion processing than 60Hz LCD panels, but still not up to plasma. The increased LCD refresh rate also has the side effect of causing film content to look more like video, which is not appealing to many people.

Advantages of LCD

  • LCDs are capable of producing a brighter picture than plasma, which may make a difference in brightly lit rooms where some plasmas can appear washed out.
  • LCDs, especially the LED-backlit models, are usually thinner and lighter than plasma TVs—an important consideration if you will be hanging the TV on a wall.
  • LCDs use significantly less power than plasmas. Expect to save up to 60% in energy costs running an LED-backlit LCD over an equivalently sized plasma. This may add up to $50 or more over the course of a year.

In short, plasma still rules for the best picture (and that's really why you're buying a TV, isn't it?). But if you're placing the TV in a bright room or concerned about your energy costs, an LED-backlit LCD may be the better option.

Contrasting Contrast Ratios

The contrast ratio is the difference between the whitest and darkest images that a TV can produce, and is a critical component of overall image quality (think of the difference between watching Star Wars where space is a dark grey, rather than pure black). A higher contrast ratio is better than a lower one and, in general, plasmas have better (often much better) contrast ratios than LCDs.

Unfortunately, most manufacturers now list a “dynamic contrast ratio,” which has practically no value for comparison purposes. The dynamic contrast ratio is calculated using artificial image processing that will never occur during real content and the process for measuring the contrast ratio differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. At best, you can use dynamic contrast ratio for comparing models within a single brand. Otherwise, just ignore it.

In our recommendations, we offer models that demonstrated excellent contrast during real-world testing.

Choosing Your Screen Resolution

Resolution refers to the number of pixels and lines in a video image. The most advanced and expensive LCD and plasma TVs today offer 1920 x 1080p resolution (often referred to as “Full HD” in marketing terms), meaning they are 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels high. Currently, only Blu-ray and a handful of other sources deliver video material that can take full advantage of that resolution.

A flat-panel display with 1280 x 720p resolution is still an HDTV and will display high-definition video from TV programs and DVDs. If you primarily watch standard definition DVDs and programs over the air, via cable or satellite, a 720p TV is more than acceptable and will be a much less expensive alternative to 1080p.

HDTV viewing distance chartWhat many people also don't realize is that unless your viewing distance is relatively close to the TV, you get no benefit from 1080p over 720p—the human eye simply isn't capable of seeing the difference. Use the chart on the right to determine if a 1080p set makes sense for you. (chart data courtesy


3D has come a long way from the red-and-blue-lensed glasses that moviegoers donned in years past. Today’s 3D is smoother, sharper and, most importantly, there’s an increasing amount of content available in 3D. In addition to 3D Blu-ray movies, there are 3D broadcasts on satellite (DirecTV has three channels) and 3D video games, and many TVs will also convert any 2D programming into 3D, though it’s not as high quality.

If you want the best quality TV on the market, it will be a 3DTV–whether you want the 3D or not. Think of it as a feature you can use when you want to. Otherwise, it's too early in the game to be stretching your budget to get a 3DTV.

Tv inputsGetting Enough Inputs

When buying a flat-panel TV, consider how many connections you will need and of which type. Generally, you will need one connection for your DVD or Blu-ray player, one connection for your cable, satellite or FiOS box, one connection for a video game console, and it is convenient to have a side input free in case you want to hookup a video camera. Ideally, you should use HDMI connections for each device to get the best quality. However, older devices may only allow component or composite video connections. For more information on hooking up devices to your HDTV, check out Getting High-Definition on Your HDTV.

Samsung App Store

Internet TV 

Most TV manufacturers offer Internet connectivity–wired and wireless–and the ability to run apps on their mid-range and high end models. You can't browse the Web, but through the manufacturer's portal you can find video and photo services like Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, YouTube, Picasa and Flickr. And more recently, Twitter, Skype and Facebook have shown up. By the end of 2010, Samsung promises there will be 200 apps in the Samsung App Store.

Photo and Video Viewers 

Some TVs come with USB slots or built-in memory card readers that enable you to view digital photos and home movies directly on TV. Although most digital cameras and camcorders come with a video cable to connect the camera to a TV, you may find going directly from a card or USB flash drive to be more convenient.

Our Picks

To determine "Our Picks," we combine research from a wide gamut of leading technical review sources, actual owner experiences from public review forums and our own evaluation, based on decades of reviewing experience, of the products and their features.

Our goal is to select products that we believe will provide you the best ownership experience, with solid underlying functionality, expected long-term reliability and intuitive operation. In other words, we would buy these for ourselves and recommend them to friends.

In general, if we recommend one size of a particular manufacturer and model (e.g., the 52” LG 52LD550), we would also recommend other sizes of that same model line (e.g., the 32” LG 32LD550).

See our Shopping Tips at the bottom of the article for additional advice when buying through Amazon.

All prices are current as of September 8, 2010.


The Best Budget Friendly

Panasonic Viera TC-P50C2 50-inch plasma TV (Amazon: $700)
Panasonic Viera TC-P50C2This panel may not have the latest technology, but it delivers a solid picture at an amazing price.
Picture size: 50 inches
Plasma/LCD: Plasma
Resolution: 720p
3D: No
Internet Apps: No
Other screen sizes in this line:
46 inches (Amazon: $530)

LG 47LD450 47-inch LCD TV (Amazon: $700)
LG 47LD450A basic 60Hz set that delivers a good picture at a great price.
Picture size: 47 inches
Plasma/LCD: LCD
Resolution: 1080p
3D: No
Internet Apps: No
Other screen sizes in this line:
32 inches (Amazon: $430)
37 inches (Amazon: $535)
42 inches (Amazon: $600)


The Best Entry Level: Under $1,000

LG 46LD550 46-inch LCD TV (Amazon: $900)
LG 52LD550 52-inch LCD TV This high-quality 1080p resolution LCD TV with 120Hz motion technology is ready for just about anything. There are Internet apps for access to streamed video from Netflix, Vudu and YouTube, Skype (with a compatible LG webcam), wireless Internet access (with a Wi-Fi adapter) and wireless video streaming when your components are plugged into a compatible transmitter.
Picture Size: 46 inches
Plasma/LCD: LCD
Resolution: 1080p
3D: No
Internet Apps: Yes
Other screen sizes in this line:
32 inches (Amazon: $620)
42 inches (Amazon: $760)
52 inches (Amazon:$1,350)
60 inches (Amazon: $2,200)

Samsung PN50C490 50-inch plasma 3DTV (Amazon: $990)
Samsung PN50C490 plasma 3DTV This plasma is the best bargain going for 3DTV. And you won't be sacrificing image quality. It uses the same underlying panel technology that Samsung uses for its higher end plasma models.
Picture Size: 50 inches
Plasma/LCD: Plasma
Panel Resolution:
3D: Yes
Internet Apps: No
Other screen sizes in this line: none 


The Best Mid-range: $1,000 - $2,000

Samsung UN55C6500 55-inch LCD TV (Amazon: $1,800)
Samsung UN55C6500This LED-edge-lit LCD model stands out for its overall great picture quality and ultra-thin profile (1.1 inches thick). The 120Hz TV also has access to Samsung's impressive new app store, which features free and premium content such as Skype, Netflix and ESPN Next Level.
Picture Size: 55 inches
Plasma/LCD: LED Edge-lit LCD
Resolution: 1080p
3D: No
Internet Apps: Yes
Other screen sizes in this line:
32 inches (Amazon: $920)
40 inches (Amazon: $1,200)
46 inches (Amazon: $1,390)
65 inches (Amazon: $3,570)

Panasonic Viera TC-P50G25 50-inch plasma TV (Amazon: $1,055)
Panasonic TC-P50G25 50-inch plasma TV A superb THX-certified picture with deep blacks, detail in dark scenes, and rich color is complemented by extras like Internet apps, including Netflix, Twitter, and Skype (with a compatible Panasonic webcam), and integration with a Panasonic babycam or front-door camera.
Picture Size: 50 inches
Plasma/LCD: Plasma
Resolution: 1080p
3D: No
Internet Apps: Yes
Other screen sizes in this line:
42 inches (Amazon: $900)
46 inches (Amazon: $1,085)
54 inches (Amazon: $1,420)


The Best High End: $2,000 plus

Samsung UN55C8000 55-inch LED-backed LCD TV (Amazon: $2,800)
Samsung UN55C8000 55-inch LED-backed LCD TVAuthentic color and rich blacks define the picture on this 0.9" super-thin top-end 240Hz 3DTV. We're also we're big fans of Samsung's impressive new app store, which features free and premium content such as Skype, Netflix and ESPN Next Level.
Picture Size: 55 inches
Plasma/LCD: LED-backed LCD with local dimming
Resolution: 1080p
3D: Yes
Internet Apps: Yes
Other screen sizes in this line:
46 inches (Amazon: $2,100)
65 inches (Amazon: $6,000)

Panasonic Viera TC-P50VT25 50-inch plasma TV (Best Buy: $2,600)
Panasonic TC-P50VT25 50-inch plasma TV If you want the best 3D (or 2D) picture, look no further than the THX-certified VT25 series 3DTVs. The panel uses new super-fast phosphors to eliminate ghosting and has the blackest blacks on the market. You'll also get an assortment of Internet apps including Netflix, Skype (with a compatible Panasonic webcam) and Twitter. One pair of 3D glasses is included.
Picture Size: 50 inches
Plasma/LCD: Plasma
Resolution: 1080p
3D: Yes
Internet Apps: Yes
Other screen sizes in this line:
54 inches (Best Buy: $3,000)
58 inches (Best Buy: $3,400)
65 inches (Best Buy: $4,300)


Shopping Tips

Amazon's low prices and free shipping make it one of the best places to buy an HDTV. But in addition to selling directly, Amazon also offers a marketplace with many sellers, some of whom charge shipping fees, have poor customer service records or who have return policies that are much more restrictive than Amazon's.

So when purchasing an HDTV, always pay attention to who the seller is. You will see the seller's name right above the "Add to Cart" button next to the words "Sold by...". You can review the seller's return policy and customer feedback by clicking on its name. To pick a different seller, look in the "More Buying Choices" box under the "Add to Cart" section.

And if you see a deal from a vendor that looks too good to be true, it probably is—you may be buying a refurbished or used TV with potential defects and a limited warranty.

See 6 Great Tips for Shopping on Amazon for more helpful adivce.

Discussion loading

I am retired and have

From Joe Catera on November 08, 2010 :: 5:08 pm

I am retired and have been researching the the “big flat sceen” tv for the lasr 4 years and now am ready to purchase.  My research for the size and type of room where the tv will be located is narrowed down to a 3D 60” plus plasma, a 3D Blu-ray Disc player with a modest DVD home theater.  I like watching movies and sports and do not play video games.  I want ability to get rental of movies thru the TV.  My deilema is two-fold.  First I have decide based on my research a Plasma 1080 with Apps either a PANASONIC VIERA, or a
SAMSUNG. Secondly I have visted many electronic stores and the “techs” mostly agree with my the models I have selected.  However not all do .  This is where it becomes very confusing for me.  Last and not least I will purchasing this unit with Bonus points I have accumulated over the last 20 years.  I have a budget of approxmiately $4,000. I am also restricted to buying the unit from my local Sears store if I want it delivered and set up. Please help to make my final choice.


Hi Joe,For that screen size

From Josh Kirschner on November 09, 2010 :: 7:04 pm

Hi Joe,

For that screen size and for 3D, the Panasonic VT25 series and the Samsung C8000 series are your best choices.  Both are excellent TVs, with a slight edge to the Panasonic for image quality and to Samsung for apps.  And both will give you a better picture than LED-backed LCD displays.

Neither, though are available through Sears. Are you set on going through them? In terms of cost, you can get the 63” Samsung PN63C8000 on Amazon for around the same price as the 58” Panasonic VT25. And Best Buy carries the Panasonic, you may be able to negotiate a deal with the store manager.

If you don’t need 3D and can go with a slightly smaller screen size, the 54” Panasonic TC-P54G25 above will only run you $1,400 and provides picture nearly as good as the VT25.

Keep in mind that you can deliver apps through the Blu-ray player as well.  So you could certainly go with the Panasonic TV for the slightly better picture quality and use a Samsung Blu-ray player to deliver apps.

Finally, setting up one these TVs is pretty easy.  As long as you have someone to help you lift it out of the box, there’s just one cable to plug in (HDMI) for your cable/satellite, one for your Blu-ray player and you need to connect it to your home network either through Wi-Fi or an ethernet cable.

For the “home theater”, it wasn’t clear whether you actually intend to set up a surround sound experience or just go with the TV’s built-in speakers.  But figuring out the right home theater set-up is a more complex conversation.  In general, try to spend as much as you can, because cheap systems sound…cheap.  Home theater in the box systems won’t blow you away, but they are often less expensive than buying individual compenents.

Hope this is helpful. Please feel free to respond with additional questions or clarification.


Since my original posting a

From Joe Catera on April 01, 2011 :: 11:05 am

Since my original posting a couple of things have occured.  First I purchased a 32” LCD Samsung Series 450/430 from Best Buy for $360 less tax.  Bought the extended warrany (4 years for $70 and HDMI Cables for $40 which I have sinced returned.  My TW cable guy told me I did not need them.  Upon unpacking same & awaiting the cable guy to hook up my new DVR HD box I discovered in attemting to attached the “bracket base to the stand, which caused the set to be drastically lean forward & “very not level” at all.  I called Samsung CS & was told they were sorry and offered no solution.  They also calimed BB shuld not have sold me this set,  They calimed it was a 2011 model & should not have been sold same???? They then promised to call me back with a solution but never did.  Bottom line to this story after calling BB…. they advised me to bring the set back to them ( 20 mile round trip) @ my expense, for exchange. The problem with the original set was the “bracket was “molded wrong” and there wasn’t enough of the correct of screws supplied.  Now the picure on this Sansung is great, ( at least I think it is since this is my first HD set.  This set was purchased for my bedroom & gave me a “dry run” on purchasing my Big ticket item 60 plus inch for my family room.  To say the least I was very diasppointed with both Best Buy and Samsung on how they reacted to my problem. This was hardware problem not electronic.  Doesn’t give me a good feeling for Samsung’s QC procedures.  That set should have never left their factory in this condition.  Best Buy didn’t leave me with any good feeling as well since their attitude (even when I purhased the 4 year warranty) was “bring it back and don’t bother me with this trivia.

Now to get back to my second major change to original posting is I don’t have to use my bonus points at Sears.  I can use them anyware TV’s are sold. So here I am based on my recent purchase… what to expect on my “big set with accessories” purchase. What to buy Samsung out Panasonic in ?  Best Buy ?????? They were eager to sell but not so eager to support.  What do I do when I sink over $4,000. into a large set.  How do I get to someone I can trust to give me a straight honest answer on what components I need. I look forward to some honest good advice.

Joe Catera


Let's take this one piece

From Josh Kirschner on April 04, 2011 :: 8:38 am

Let’s take this one piece at time.

Problems do occur with TVs, frustrating as it may be, which is why we recommend you always buy from someplace you can return it for free, like Best Buy or Amazon (form Amazon directly, not a third-party seller). If there’s an issue during hte return period, it’s almost always better just to get a new one than try to repair under warranty, which can take weeks and still not be fixed properly.

Best Buy extended warranties generally aren’t worth the money. Many TVs come with a one year warranty and your credit card may automatically double that to two (check with you credit card issuer). And if the TV has issues, they’re most likely to occur early in its life. If you really want the comfort of a warranty though, check prices on before you buy from Best Buy.

Best Buy $40 HDMI cables are a pure ripoff. If you need one, buy it from Amazon instead for under $10.

For your big set, both Panasonic and Samsung make excellent sets. Our preference is still for plasma as you get better picture quality for less money. If you’re buying a set with built-in apps, Samsung definitely has the edge over Panasonic in apps. But keep in mind you can also get access to Samsung’s apps with one of their Blu-ray players. For overall picture quality, Panasonic’s plasmas still rule the roost.

If you want to save a bunch, check out the remaining 2010 models. You can save up to 50% over similar 2011 models and the technical upgrades were pretty minor. We give some of our recommended models here: Many may be sold out at this point, but worth a look.

Hope that helps.
Josh Kirschner


70 inch sharp or 60 inch samsung

From sandman on December 28, 2011 :: 2:33 am

I am looking for some help.  I have a Samsung 47 inch and just moved to a bigger space and would like abigger tv.  The tv is 12 feet minimum back from the couch and our ceilings are about 14 feet.  The TV has to be placed above the fire place so almost 6 feet.

1) Could we fit a 70 inch hdtv?
2) 70 inch Sanyo led and 60 inch Samsung is in our budget.  Is it worth the extra inches given the quality of tv?

Thanks for the help.


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