Get the Picture: How to Buy a Flat-Screen TV

Good news: Your old TV is going into retirement.

We know how many Super Bowl parties you will be going to this weekend and cannot deny that the onset of TV envy can be quite sudden. It starts by visiting your friends' apartment, where they show you their new 52-inch flat-screen hung ever-so-chicly on the wall. Your tube starts to feel ancient (hey, you bought it when Brad was with Jennifer and the Red Sox were underdogs. What'd you expect?). Still, you try to convince yourself you're sophisticated and don't need those fancy gadgets. You'd rather read, anyway. Bright, bold flat-screens are so Big Mac, and you're strictly grilled chicken. No bun, please.

Then you get home and the game's on. You put down War and Peace (okay, you never even picked it up) and turn on your TV. Panic sets in as images of the 52-inch wonder race through your head. You start to think, That 60-yard pass would've been way better on a flat-screen TV. And then you look to your right and see that your spouse must be thinking the same thing. How do you know? He's staring at War and Peace, halfway considering it. There's only one cure: a flat-screen of your own. Here's how to end your TV envy for good.

Know the Basics
When it comes to flat-screen TVs, LCDs (liquid-crystal display) and plasmas are the two best options. Either one will give you a quality picture, and they're available in thin, sleek models. Which one you pick basically depends on your budget, where you're planning on putting it and how you use your TV (that means you, video gamers).

Plasma vs. LCD
There's literally a “go big or go home" mentality when you're buying a plasma TV since they don't come any smaller than 40 inches or so. The good news is that if size matters to you (and why wouldn't it?), plasmas will give you the most screen for your buck. Typical plasmas range from about $800 to $2,000 for a 42-inch set and $1,500 to $4,000 for a 50-inch model. You'll pay in that same range for LCDs that are up to 10 inches smaller...which is actually a lot. LCDs are catching up, but plasmas still offer the most accurate colors, deep blacks and contrast. Plasmas are also better if your couch isn't directly in front of your TV, but is instead angled a bit.

So why even bother with LCDs? There are really four reasons... For one, plasmas can have what's called “burn-in," which is when a pixel breaks and the image on the screen is more or less left there. This can happen if the screen doesn't change frequently, like when you're playing a video game. LCDs don't have this issue. Also, if you have an influx of natural light in, say, your living room, an LCD might be the better option since they come with an antiglare surface that blocks sunlight. Plasmas are also made with thick glass, making them almost twice as heavy as LCDs, so they're more difficult to mount. For a flat-screen smaller than 42 inches, like for your bedroom or kitchen (or pimped out bathroom, if your house looks like something out of MTV's Cribs), LCDs are more or less your only option and cost between $600 and $1,300 for a 32-inch model. Just keep in mind: In order to view an LCD, you need to sit directly in front of it.

Resolution is another big issue to consider. A 1080p (full HD) TV will cost you more, but it's definitely worth it. That being said, don't despair if a 720p is more in your price range. Wondering what we're talking about? Basically, the higher the number, the sharper the image.

Size totally matters. You don't want to put a 32-inch TV in your big living room and then squint to see the screen. That's why your viewing distance should be 1.5 to 2.5 times the diagonal measurement of your TV screen. So if you buy a 50-inch TV, place your couch between 7 and 10 feet away.

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Warranty Wisdom
Truth is, if a TV is going to break, it'll likely happen during the first year when the warranty that comes with your purchase is still in effect. It's also worth noting that flat-screens have an A+ track record for not needing repairs. The moral of the story? Your money is much better spent on getting your TV installed by a professional.

Hanging Hints
Nobody likes to be told to do their homework, but we unfortunately have to go there. Find out the year your apartment building or house was built/renovated and also what types of material the walls and studs are made out of. Older homes, for example, often have plaster walls, which can make wall installation a lot more difficult.

And remember this: Hire a pro. We know you want to save where you can, but skimping on installation costs won't be worth it when your new TV goes falling off the wall.

Play It Safe
Bring a list of hookups you use to the store with you to be sure you're looking at TVs that are compatible. A Blu-ray player, for one, works best on TVs with 1080p.

Nestperts: David Katzmaier, senior editor and all-things-TV guru for; Billy Widman, installation pro (he's seen it all) and co-owner of custom-electronics company Sound Concept in New York

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