May 24, 2010, 10:50 AM — Since a large HDTV is one of the bulkiest and most expensive electronics purchases you can make, you'll want to make the right choice from the get-go. Prices online tend to be lower than those at brick-and-mortar stores, but we did find some attractive in-store deals as well.
Start by visiting a store, and test-view the TVs in action. Get a feel for the various sets' designs, and ask the salesperson questions. Then decide whether to buy in the store (where you'll pay sales tax and sometimes--but not always--get free delivery) or look for deals online (where you can often get free shipping and usually not pay sales tax).
We investigated ten prominent retailers--both brick-and-mortar stores and Websites--in search of attractive product options and reliable buying advice in six purchasing categories: HDTVs, laptops, desktop PCs, digital cameras, hard drives, and printers.
(See the box of links at right for our appraisals of the other categories we looked at, and for a description of our methodology for choosing the winners and losers in each category.)
Here's what we found in the HDTVs category.
Our research for this story covered ten retailers: Amazon.com, Best Buy, CDW, Newegg, RadioShack, Sears, Staples, Target, TigerDirect.com, and Walmart. Nationally, the highest-ranked retailer for large HDTVs was Best Buy, which impressed us with the range of models it had available. The Best Buy salespeople we spoke to earned high marks for their answers to our HDTV questions. The best information came from staffers who worked in the store's television department; they usually explained technical details--such as refresh rate and contrast ratio--with accuracy, clarity, and patience.
Some models that Best Buy sells are available only at its stores, where regular prices tend to be higher (by as much as $200 or $300) than the ones at online retailers. In-store sale prices are more competitive, but they may still be higher when you factor in the sales tax and possible delivery and setup fees.
Amazon was the top online-only retailer of HDTVs in our research, thanks in large part to having the best, most diverse selection of models and manufacturers. (Click to enlarge the accompanying chart to see all of the stores in our survey rated for HDTVs.)
Amazon's Website is easy to use, but the store and its many third-party retailers may have different sales policies. If you buy a 40-inch or larger TV directly from Amazon, you receive free delivery and unboxing in your home, along with Amazon's 30-day return policy and (maybe) no sales tax. If you buy from one of Amazon's third-party partners, the shipping fee, return policy, and sales tax will depend on the vendor.