With the long-awaited transition to digital broadcasting just around the corner (February 17), many shoppers will take the HDTV plunge during the holidays and beyond--and stores eagerly await them. Even if you plan to buy online, it's smart to eyeball sets in a local big-box store, but don't take everything you see or hear at face value. Here are some issues to be aware of.
Check the Content
In a recent visit to a Best Buy store, I noticed that the inexpensive sets were playing a recorded HDTV loop (sales reps couldn't say whether it was 720p or 1080i, the two broadcast HD formats), but the pricey units in the store's upscale Magnolia area were playing different content--some of broadcast quality, but some from media. Not surprisingly, the set playing a Blu-ray movie looked best, since Blu-ray is the only source of native 1080p content.
Best Buy wasn't systematically promoting its fancy sets, though: Next to the set with the Blu-ray hookup, another expensive HDTV was playing a standard-def DVD movie, which made it look markedly inferior to its neighbor. More and more sets offer 1080p resolution, so try to play a Blu-ray Disc for your evaluation.
Examine the Hookup
At the same Best Buy, the content loop on the main floor traveled through coaxial cable to the antenna-in port; the Magnolia sets were using either component (analog) or HDMI (digital) inputs. Reportedly, some retailers use lower-quality composite-video hookups to make inexpensive sets look worse than pricier models linked via component video or HDMI. Peek around the back of sets to check their connections, and try to compare only those playing the same content through the same hookup.
Avoid the Brightness Trap
In brightly lit stores, LCDs tend to look brighter (and more attractive) than plasma sets do--especially since most manufacturers ship them with brightness at its top setting. If you expect to watch television in a well-lit room, you'll want a bright screen to stand up to the illumination. But if you watch TV at night or in low lighting, you might find excessive brightness irritating. Turn it down to see if the picture still looks good.
Consider Distance and Viewing Angle
Regardless of how far from your set you sit at home, emulating that distance in a store with narrow aisles is difficult. Also, some LCDs don't look great when viewed at an angle, so check a set's image quality from the sides and from above. If a TV is on a bottom shelf or high on a wall, try to have it placed at a more real-world level.
Resist Cable 'Upsells'
Don't splurge on high-end digital cables. Since digital content isn't subject to the vagaries of analog media, you should be fine with a decently shielded cable for $10 to $20, depending on length.
Verify All Sales Claims
A salesperson at Sears insisted to a colleague of mine that all consumer electronics stores charge a 10 percent restocking fee for returns; but that isn't the case. Unless you do your own research, you'll never know whether the rep is offering help or a hard sell.