HDTVs: 2011 holiday tech gift guide

HDTVs: Smarter and less expensive

If you're looking for an HDTV, both you and your gift's recipient are in luck. Prices are down compared to last year for both plasma and LED-based LCD models, and there are more high-end Internet options than ever.

You're also not alone. TVs were the most popular electronics items purchased on Black Friday this year, thanks in part to lower prices that some are predicting will hold through February.

So, which to buy? Plasmas still rule for watching in dark rooms and for viewing pretty much any kind of movie. But if you're a CNN addict or your TV must reside in a more light-filled space, you might want to consider an LCD model instead.

And yes, of course that's a dramatic over-simplification. Given the money and bragging rights at stake here, it is well worth taking the time to do your own research to find out what's right for you. There are many factors to consider, from contrast ratio and refresh rate to viewing angle, viewing distance and how large a room you'll be tricking out with the HDTV.

A larger number isn't necessarily better, either; even the most expensive models can have some funky on-screen vibrations or other problems, especially above 240Hz refresh rates. So it really pays to know what you're getting.

And a word to you Apple fans: Analyst Gene Munster is absolutely convinced that the company will launch an official TV, not just another set-top box, in time for the 2012 holiday season. He suggested recently that the Apple version will be amazing enough to make it worthwhile to hold off buying any new TVs until it debuts. (He also said the Apple TV will likely be twice as expensive as any other comparable set, but it will naturally play well with Apple iGadgets.)

In the meantime, here some worthwhile prospects to check out.

Samsung UN46D8000 46-in. 1080p 3D LED TV

This all-round performer earned one of PC World's highest ratings in its most recent HDTV roundup. Its 46-in. 1080p full HD screen delivers great colors, with fabulous image quality and brightness. Its sound is also very good; the only downer is it's more expensive than other similarly sized units.

The set itself is slim good-looker, as PC World's Yardena Arar explains:

With its Series 8 models, Samsung can lay claim to one of the skinniest bezels in the business: less than 0.25 inch between the edge of the 46-inch UN46D8000YF and its 1080p LED-backlit LCD panel. And because the bezel is mostly clear, with a silvery edge, the set's image seems to occupy its entire surface. (Read the full review

.)

Features are plentiful: 3D support with two included pairs of active-shutter glasses, Wi-Fi, a Web browser, an optional webcam and a two-sided remote that features a QWERTY keyboard. Samsung's bevy of Web apps includes support for Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, Pandora, Netflix and many more via the company's on-screen "Smart Hub." You can watch TV as you chat with friends, for instance.

Customers seem to love the UN46D8000 every bit as much as the professional reviewers do: More than 180 people on Amazon have given it four or five stars.

But Arar has a caveat: "If you don't plan on using its advanced features, you may prefer a less expensive set with good image quality and comparable size." On the other hand, you can find the UN46D8000 at numerous retail outlets for considerably less than its $2,700 list price, so it pays to shop around. If your pockets are really deep, Samsung also offers this set in larger 55-in., 60-in. and 65-in. models.

-- Johanna Ambrosio

UN46D8000 46-in. LCD TV from Samsung

Street price: $1,567 - $2,607

Summary: This HDTV has it all -- a great picture, wonderful audio and advanced features that a geek could really love.

LG Infinia 50PZ950 50-in. 1080p 3D plasma HDTV

With a 1080p full HD screen, a great 3D experience and all the Web options any techie could possibly want, LG's 50-in. Infinia has much to recommend it.

If anything, it could be a bit over-the-top with all the features it includes. "Its only disadvantage is that navigating through its hundreds of apps and options can be a bit tricky," says PC World reviewer Sarah Jacobsson Purewal. (Read the full review.)

But hey, an entire computer industry was built on that premise, so it shouldn't stop anyone.

Particularly noteworthy on this set is a motion-controlled remote that Purewal compares to a Wii controller, although not as accurate. It supports flicking, rotating and pointing, "and works reasonably well," she says. The 50PZ950 also includes a regular remote, customizable apps and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The screen is surrounded by a thin black bezel and has a bevy of ports and peripherals. To view anything in 3D, though, you'll need a pair of active-shutter 3D glasses (the powered type).

But its real strength is all the Internet options you get courtesy of the LG Smart TV platform. Once you're set up, you can customize the look and feel of the dashboard so it has just what you want on its entry screen. Social media, weather, news, streaming media, sports and other apps are at your fingertips. The set doesn't come with built-in Wi-Fi, but does include a Wi-Fi dongle.

Customers seem to really love this TV, with around 80% of Amazon posters giving it four or five stars. The PZ950 is also available in a 60-in. model.

-- Johanna Ambrosio

Infinia 50PZ950 50-in. plasma TV from LG Electronics

Street price: $1,377 - $2,019

Summary: The LG Infinia 50PZ950's sleek look and overall picture quality combine with an Internet setup that most desktop computers would be lucky to have.

Vizio Razor XVT3D650SV 65-in. 1080p LED 3D TV

This is just about as top-of-the-line as a TV gets. It also has a top-of-the-line price, at $3,189.99 suggested retail, though you can find it for less if you shop around. At this writing, for instance, Amazon has it for $2,498.00 and RadioShack.com for $3,099.99.

As one of the largest edge-backlit LED models available, this 65-in. stunner features a 120Hz refresh rate, 1080p full HD and surround sound. There's also a full suite of Internet apps, as well as 802.11n Wi-Fi, social networking, photo uploading options and a Bluetooth-equipped remote with slide-out QWERTY keyboard.

It also delivers "flicker-free" passive 3D that's up to 50% brighter and causes less eyestrain than other types of 3D screens, Vizio promises. Included are four pairs of 3D glasses that can do double-duty in the local movie theater.

PC World's Yardena Arar writes:

If you've been waiting for a full-featured, big-screen LCD TV -- and by big, I mean 5-feet-plus on the diagonal -- that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, the Vizio XVT3D650SV may well be the answer to your prayers... Only a few years ago an LCD TV this size would easily have set you back more than $5,000. Plus, there's so much to like about this set -- and relatively little to complain about. (Read the full review.)

On the not-so-great side, Arar says, it consumes a fair amount of power for an LED set, and audio is "just adequate." Other complaints have to do with uneven black levels and some fast-motion strangeness. Nor can customers play their own video, photo and music files on the TV; that media-playback support is still promised in a future firmware update, Vizio says.

And, as with any high-end TV, you need to invest some time to figure out how to fine-tune it to make you happy. For their part, customers weighing in at Amazon seem to be enjoying it, with most giving the unit four or five stars and only a few complaints.

-- Johanna Ambrosio

Razor XVT3D650SV 65-in. LED 3D TV from Vizio Inc.

Street price: $1,900 - $3,100

Summary: This is a tremendous HDTV, in all senses of the word; it's got a gigantic screen, and outsized Web and connectivity options to go along with it.

To 3D -- or not?

The advice my colleague Valerie Potter gave in last year's holiday gift guide still holds: Your best bet is to buy a great HDTV that allows you to watch both 'regular' and 3D content. And this isn't just because 3D content -- aside from games and movies, of course -- is still at a relatively slow trickle, ESPN and the 3net channel (from Discovery, Sony and Imax) notwithstanding.

It's mostly because the technology itself just isn't settled quite yet. The active vs. passive 3D debate rages on, as does the issue about which types of 3D glasses are least obtrusive and get the best viewing results.

Which is maybe the best reason of all to wait. Manufacturers are working on 3D sets that won't require glasses at all -- Toshiba's announced a 55-inch LED model, and NICT and JVC Kenwood have demonstrated a 200-inch monster.

These new technologies should be perfected by the time you buy your next HDTV, and in the meantime you can always check out PC World's picks for models that provide especially great 3D viewing.

-- Johanna Ambrosio

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