Cheap HDTVs for Black Friday and Beyond

Find out how far you can expect to stretch your hard-earned entertainment dollars during the holiday shopping season.

Consumer confidence is down, the foreclosures keep coming, and you're pinching pennies while Wall Street seems to have reverted to business as usual. Fortunately, one thing may bring back your holiday spirit: cheap TVs. That's right, this year's holiday shopping season may bring TVs at deeper price cuts than usual.

What You Can Expect for Black Friday 2010

Let's start with the numbers. According to market research firm iSuppli, HDTV manufacturers had an unusually high inventory of TVs (especially LCD TVs) as September 2010 began, meaning that they'll need to sell, sell, sell. Due to the oversupply, iSuppli has pegged Black Friday's HDTV prices to be as low as $200 to $300 for a new 32-inch 720p TV, and $500 for a new 42-inch 1080p TV.

At those prices, don't expect to snap up a full-featured 3D TV with a 240Hz refresh rate, though; for that kind of money, you're probably looking at lower-tier manufacturers like Emerson, whose sets are already pretty cheap.

Still, we're willing to bet that the price cuts will extend to big-name brands, too. That's because practically every TV manufacturer is making the transition from CCFL-backlit LCD TVs to LED-backlit TVs in their midrange and high-end sets. Even manufacturers like Panasonic, who have traditionally stuck to making plasma TVs, now offer at leasr one LED-backlit LCD model.

Since LED-backlit LCD TVs generally look better and use less energy than their CCFL-backlit LCD counterparts, it won't be long before the CCFL-backlit LCD set goes the way of the cathode-ray tube television. In fact, we're already seeing some evidence of this shift: Some vendors have marked down Samsung's excellent 46-inch LCD LN46C650, which was a great bargain at $1300, to as low as $900.

It doesn't stop there. After all, if LCD prices plummet, they'll eat into plasma TV sales, since plasmas typically cost 25% less than an equivalent LCD TV. The net result: Manufacturers are likely to cut prices on plasma TVs so that they won't end up with a similar inventory problem in early 2011.

Don't plan on seeing plasma TVs priced in the bargain-basement $300 to $400 range, however. Instead, you'll probably see larger, cheaper plasmas with a mix of midrange and high-end features for $700 and up. For example, the new 50-inch Samsung PN50C490, a 3D-ready 720p TV that costs only $1099, has been selling online for as liitle as $950. That's a lot of television for your money.

Not up to the challenge of Black Friday shopping? Don't worry. Though you might miss out on a shot at those elusive $200 to $300 HDTVs, you'll still be able to find a good deal on a good television. That's because the inventory oversupply most likely will linger until January.

$200 HDTVs: Not for the Discriminating Shopper

If you're salivating at the prospect of a $200 no-name HDTV, don't feel bad. Outside of hardcore home-theater enthusiasts, most people simply try to buy the largest TV their budget allows, without thinking much about brand or extra features.

Nevertheless, just because you can buy a 32-inch TV for $200 doesn't mean you'll be happy with it after you bring it home. From what we've seen in the past, cheaper TVs can't hang with the established brands in side-by-side image comparisons. And you won't going to get desirable features like Internet streaming options, advanced image tweaking controls, or USB/SD card slots for looking at pictures or playing audio/video. You can still expect several HDMI, component, and composite video inputs, so all your existing home-theater devices should work fine with your new TV, though you might have compatibility issues with universal or nonstandard remote controls.

If you're not especially picky about color accuracy or motion blur, a cheaper TV can work well as a secondary TV--something the kids can use for playing video games, which typically have more saturated, cartoony colors than movies. Keep in mind that you're more likely to notice image quality problems in larger sets than in smaller ones, because the same image is displayed over a larger surface, making the flaws easier to spot. So you might find that a $300 32-inch set looks better than a $500 42-inch set because its imperfections are harder to spot.

Don't forget to read "10 Things You Need to Know Before Buying an HDTV" and our "HDTV Buying Guide: Making Sense of the Specifications" for more tips on picking the best TV for your budget. If the idea of assembling your own setup appeals to you, check out "Build a Better Home Theater for Less Than $1000" for some suggestions on how to put together a solid home entertainment center on the cheap.

Are You a Name-Brand Buyer? Here's What to Look For

Those of you who give your TV manufacturers cutesy nicknames (yes, some people do refer to their Samsung, Panasonic, or LG TV as "Sammy," "Panny," or "Algy," respectively) can still find plenty of good buys during the holiday season.

The price wars will be fiercest among plasma TVs, as relatively economical sets from Samsung and LG (like the LG 50PK950 and the Samsung PN50C490) pressure lower-cost plasma specialists like Panasonic to drop their prices even lower. If that happens, you'll likely see a healthy mix of 50-inch sets in the $700-to-$1100 price range, with varying combinations of features.

You might find such sets equipped with 1080p or 720p, 2D or 3D, Internet-connection, ten-point white balance or a THX-certified color preset mode, and so on. Ideally, you'd be able to pick a set that has all the features you want without having to pay full price for a high-end model that has a bunch of features you'll never use.

If you want to stretch your dollar to the limit, however, ask these questions before committing to a TV purchase.

Are 3D glasses included? Some 3D TVs include glasses with the set, while others don't. At $150 per pair, the glasses are not a trivial expense. After you roll the cost of the glasses into the purchase price, you might find that it makes more sense to buy a pricier TV that comes with the extras included in the base price.

Do you need the streaming services? TV manufacturers have been racing to add support for a whole host of streaming services (Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Video on Demand, and Netflix, among others) as well as apps like Twitter and Yahoo Gadgets. But you can also get those services on your TV with external set-top boxes like the Roku HD for about $100. You might be able to save a few bucks by buying a cheaper set with weaker Internet features and then buying a connected set-top box separately.

What's the right size/resolution for your room? The difference in image quality between a 720p set and a 1080p set depends in large measure on the size of the set and on your physical distance from the set. Buy a larger TV, and 1080p will look significantly better than 720p. Sit farther away from the set, however, and you won't notice the difference as much. And of course, unless your source media is 1080p (Blu-ray discs, newer game consoles, and some Internet video sources), it won't matter nearly as much. So before you buy, look at what you watch and where you watch it, and at how much you want to future-proof this purchase.

This story, "Cheap HDTVs for Black Friday and Beyond" was originally published by PCWorld.

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