If you have already converted your living room into a home theater (popcorn optional), you’re not alone. Two out of three U.S. households now own large, flat-panel HDTV sets, according to the NPD Group, the consumer-technology research firm. That’s bad news for manufacturers’ bottom lines, but good news for you this holiday season.
"Black Friday and the month of December -- that's when you'll find the best deals on TVs," says NPD analyst Ben Arnold. He predicts that prices on the day after Thanksgiving will be even lower than they were last year. TVs with screens that measure 32 inches to 42 inches should average from $275 to about $500.
But, says Louis Ramirez, senior features writer at Dealnews.com, there are more deals in the 42-inch category. "Even if you think you want a 32-inch TV, I recommend that you look at the 42-inchers as well."
When and what to buy. A 42-inch TV -- or even a 32-incher -- may be too large for a child's room, cramped home office, kitchen or bedroom. For those spaces, petite sets with screens ranging from 19 inches to 24 inches are a better bet. In late summer, Walmart's Web site had them for prices ranging from about $100 to $260. Samsung's 22-inch UN22D5003 -- which lists for $300 but often costs less than $200 in stores -- has a clear, crisp display and is a solid choice.
Ramirez says that the deals in November will be on what he calls third-tier brands, such as Insignia and ProScan, which often lack the display quality and features of the pricier brands, such as Samsung, Sharp and Sony. If you want a premium flat-screen TV -- no matter the size -- he advises that you shop in December because that's when those models go on sale.
Features to look for. Less-expensive TVs are often marked "720p," meaning that they have a screen resolution of 1280-by-720 pixels. Pricier sets are generally 1080p -- 1920-by- 1080 pixels -- and show more detail. However, for a 32-inch or smaller set, 720p resolution is good enough.
"At that size," says Ramirez, "unless you have eagle eyes, you're probably not going to tell the difference between 720p and 1080p. Plus, there aren't that many 32-inch sets that have 1080p, and you're going to pay about a $100 premium for the ones that do."
Features commonly found on 40-inch or larger sets, such as 3D and LED backlighting, may also be lacking on many small flat-screens. But you might not miss all of them. "Even in sets over 32 inches, I don't see a lot of consumers clamoring for 3D," says Arnold.
Built-in Internet access, usually via a Wi-Fi or wired connection, does make sense, however. Currently, only 5% to 10% of small TVs offer it, but, says Arnold, "I expect to see the trend going toward more of those sets being connected." If you want access to Internet-based services, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, but your small TV lacks Wi-Fi, then a set-top box, such as Roku ($50 to $100), is an inexpensive option.
Arnold says he also expects more small sets to be equipped with applications for social media services, such as Facebook and Twitter. But, says Ramirez, "at 32 inches, you're probably looking for the cheapest TV you can get, so you're not too concerned about those features."
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.