SMART BUYING


Giant Screens, Smaller Prices

Bad news for TV makers means good news for you. Simply put, “manufacturers are trying to unload a lot of boxes,” says retail analyst Ben Arnold, of the NPD Group, a market-research firm. A sluggish economy is partly to blame, of course, but there’s also the issue of saturation. More than 60% of U.S. homes already own an HDTV, Arnold estimates, and the industry’s latest offerings don’t offer a compelling reason to upgrade.

So far, 3D isn’t the next big thing. Although many new sets are capable of displaying 3D shows, the technology hasn’t caught on with buyers, probably due to the scarcity of 3D content and the fact that 3D TV viewers must wear special glasses. “I think the 3D thing is still a work in progress,” says Arnold.

The new-year advantage. The first quarter of 2012 will see top-brand 55-inch LCD TV prices drop under $1,000, and you may even find a 60-inch set costing three figures, says Dan de Grandpre, CEO of Dealnews.com, a Web site for bargain hunters. While 55-inch LCDs have gone on sale below $1,000 before, these deals will become much more common in 2012.

You can already buy some 50-plus-inch plasma models for less than $1,000. Although many people had written off the technology a year and a half ago, plasma is making a comeback, and it might work for you, depending on where you set up the screen and what you enjoy watching. Provided your room isn’t too bright, plasma screens offer a sharper picture and are better for sports and video games because they don’t have the motion-blur problems of cheaper LCDs. Look for a good deal on Samsung’s 51-inch PN51D450 Series-4, which lists for $800. Dell was recently selling it for just $650.

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If you’re shopping for something a bit smaller, the 46-inch Sharp Quattron (LC46LE830U) is a stylish set with excellent picture quality, and it was recently priced just under $1,000. The Quattron has a 120-Hz refresh rate, which is important for watching fast-action sports. (A 240-Hz or higher refresh rate is good, too, but sports fans should steer clear of cheaper, 60-Hz TVs.)

The weeks leading up to the Super Bowl are typically a good time for TV shoppers, as manufacturers cut prices not only to lure football fans but also to clear out last year’s inventory. This year may be even better: The slowdown in TV sales will likely force retailers to discount even more aggressively. “There may not be a bad time to buy a TV these days,” says Arnold.

What to look for. Although 3D has been a dud so far, there are other features essential to an optimum high-def experience—and often these are features you could overlook. For instance: The more HDMI ports (for connecting devices such as a cable box, Blu-ray player, game console, DVR and video-streaming device), the merrier. The cheaper the TV, the fewer HDMI ports it has. “People sometimes forget how quickly they’ll fill up their HDMI ports,” says de Grandpre, who points out that many TVs have only three or four of these important connectors. And many bargain sets, including 32-inch LCDs from Dynex, Haier and Westinghouse, have only two.

Another factor to consider is whether you really need an Internet-ready TV—one capable of receiving online streaming serv­ices without additional hardware. These sets often cost at least $100 more than similar models without built-in Internet connectivity, according to de Grandpre. You’ll save money by buying a TV that isn’t Internet-ready, then connecting it to a Wi-Fi streaming device, such as a Roku box, which sells for as little as $50.

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