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Technology

Nab a Deal on a Big-Screen TV

The old sets aren't much different than the new ones -- and they're cheaper.

Ah, springtime. Birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and big-screen TVs are screaming deals that can't be beat. What's so special about spring? Retailers are making room for new TV sets that were launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, so they're dropping prices on older models.

But this leads to a conundrum as old as the seasons: Buy one of last year's closeout TVs and save a few bucks, or invest in a new, 2010 model as a hedge against obsolescence? This year, at least, the answer is clear: Get a closeout model and save some money.

Consider the Sony Bravia sets. Last year's 52-inch VE5 Eco Series HDTV runs about $1,550. Sony's new model, the KDL-52NX800, features some cutting-edge tech that early adopters will pay for, but it costs $1,250 more.

The sweet spot. For the best dollar-per-inch value, look for sets selling for about $1,000. At that price, you'll find 46- and 47-inch LCD sets, as well as 50-inch plasmas, from top vendors such as Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp and Sony. Still too pricey? Top-tier 42-inch TVs go for $700 to $800. The savings at this price level aren't as great, but you can still pocket $100 by buying last year's model.

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If you haven't shopped for an HDTV in the past year, you're in for some surprises. Many LCD models -- even some of the remaining 2009 models -- are stunningly thin. And with refresh rates that have gone from 60 Hz to 120 Hz, the newer sets do a better job of displaying fast motion, which is especially important for watching sports.

Another trend is LED backlighting on LCD sets. The use of LEDs -- light-emitting diodes -- conserves energy and reduces bulk, making those incredibly thin sets possible. And Internet-ready TVs are becoming more popular. The sets offer wired or wireless connections (sometimes both) to a home broadband router. That lets you watch movies delivered online from Netflix or other video services on your TV, as well as access popular Web services, such as Facebook.

Many people are buying TVs online and having them shipped to their homes. Before you agree to this, read the vendor's return policy. It should be consumer-friendly. For example, you shouldn't have to pay a restocking charge if the set arrives damaged. And when the set is delivered, the package in which it is shipped should be pristine. "If there's a hole in the box, don't accept the TV," says Gary Merson, a consumer-electronics analyst at HDGuru.com.

If you decide to buy on-site, you typically have three choices: warehouse clubs, national chains such as Best Buy, and -- Merson's favorite -- regional stores. What's so great about the local guys? Merson says that their salespeople often operate on commission, giving you some room to negotiate a lower price.

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3-D: Maybe next year. One much-hyped feature of new high-end sets is 3-D. "I strongly advise against buying a 3-D TV unless you are very rich or must have the absolute newest gadget available," says Dan de Grandpre, editor in chief of Dealnews.com, a bargain-hunting Web site.

You won't miss much. There's little programming in the format. Plus, the technology will likely add hundreds of dollars to the cost of an HDTV -- especially once you factor in the cost of 3-D glasses, which cost $150 to $300 a pair.

Although 3-D at home is a novelty now, it could be a good deal once programming becomes more common and prices drop.