This is a great time to buy an HDTV. Televisions in 2011 have taken 2010's hot trends--3D, Internet apps, and LED lighting technology for LCD sets--and made them better and cheaper. Today, most sets from major manufacturers offer a wide array of Internet-connected features and 3D support through active-shutter or polarized 3D glasses. Traditional CCFL-backlit LCD panels have nearly disappeared from store shelves, supplanted by their LED-backlit or LED-edgelit cousins, which deliver more-vivid color and sharper contrast despite using less power overall.
Meanwhile, plasma TVs haven't managed to get quite as skinny as LED-edgelit sets, but they're still very much alive and kicking; and some of the plasmas that we tested earned image quality scores comparable to those achieved by high-end LED sets that cost nearly twice as much. If you're looking for big and less expensive, plasma is still your best bet--as long as you're okay with a television set that consumes up to twice as much power as an LED TV of equal size.
Our PCWorld Labs jury of testers found that this year's sets did not display content significantly better than last year's, though the refresh-rate war seems to be largely over. LCD sets used to handle motion-heavy scenes far worse than plasmas, since LCD sets couldn't refresh the screen image fast enough to keep up, and as a result the video sometimes looked blurry. Now Sony and Samsung are offering LCD televisions with refresh rates as high as 960Hz, though most LED sets remain at 120Hz or 240Hz--and exceeding 240Hz may not make things look better.
In fact, we often notice more "juddering" (image artifacts created when fine patterns warp or vibrate on screen) in 240Hz sets than in 120Hz TVs--so don't be fooled into thinking that the bigger number is always better. Read our online feature "LCD HDTV Motion Features: How Do They Work?" to understand why this happens.
In our testing we've found that each television in a model line performs similarly regardless of its screen size, so you can expect 46-inch, 55-inch, and 60-inch Samsung D8000 series TVs to perform equally well. When shopping for a TV, find the model line you like best and then choose the size that's right for you. For tips on finding your ideal TV size, read "Five Common HDTV Questions, Answered." Clicj the thumbnail image at right to see our Top 10 HDTVs chart.
If you're buying a new midrange or high-end TV from one of the major TV manufacturers, you can expect it to look great. Our jurors rate TV image quality on a 100-point scale, and the difference between the TV with the highest marks for image quality and our number-ten choice was a mere 6 points.
The top three sets nailed our image-quality tests. The Samsung UN46D8000 and the LG Infinia 47LW6500 did suffer from fine patterns in certain test scenes (a brick wall, for example, or a city skyline) vibrating slightly. The Sony Bravia 46HX820 had slightly lower scores in brightness and color, but delivered better detail levels and handled the intricate-detail test scenes flawlessly. Overall, video on all three sets looked fantastic.
The Infinia 50PZ950, LG's flagship plasma set, received color, detail, and brightness scores on a par with those of the top three, but it struggled in our motion tests: A scrolling movie clip of a seaside town looked choppy and vibrated a bit on the 50PZ950, while the other top sets rendered it smoothly.
The Vizio XVT3D650SV, LG Infinia 47LW5600, and Samsung PN51D6500 all delivered generally good image quality but had a few additional minor flaws. The Vizio suffered from slightly muted color; the LG showed less contrast; and the Samsung showed more problems with detail and motion than the top three did.
Images on the Panasonic Viera TC-L42D30 weren't as good as on competing sets, due to muted colors and a greenish tint. The same company's Viera TC-P50ST30 had oversaturated skin tones and motion problems; and the Sharp LC-60LE835U looked too dark and had a relatively narrow range of good viewing angles.
This story, "The top 10 HDTVs of 2011" was originally published by PCWorld.