31 May 2007


A few weeks ago I made that most bourgeois of purchases, a high-definition plasma TV. Those of you who are around me with any frequency know that I've been working up to this for about a year, and you're probably sick of hearing me go on about it. But rather than just say "this is what you should buy," I'm hoping that what I learned during the process may help some of you make the right decisions, or at least avoid making the wrong ones. I apologize for the length of this post, but this is a substantial purchase, one you don't want to make impulsively.

I didn't buy a big TV to show off. My 12-year-old 32" TV was acting cranky for the first few minutes every time it was turned on, and I figured it was the beginning of the end. (In 1995 it was the cheapest set available in that size, and I've definitely gotten my money's worth from it.) Also, because of my poor eyesight, I've always had to sit closer to the TV than I would like, so I wanted a bigger set to give me a little viewing flexibility. At first I considered just getting another tube TV. The largest cathode-ray tube TVs still available are 36", but let's face it, the CRT is old technology that's on its way out; manufacturers have sharply cut their production of tube TVs and are offering few choices these days. So there wasn't any advantage there, even before I'd factored the advent of high-definition broadcasting into the consideration.

For sheer size, nothing beats a projection set (now generally referred to as DLP). They are the least expensive of the large (42" and up) HD sets on the market, and considerably slimmer than the hulking styles of a few years ago, but after viewing several models in stores, I decided against them. Except for the most expensive ones, DLP sets don't offer as sharp a picture as other formats; they have a lamp or bulb that needs to be replaced after a few years; and there are still issues with viewing angle--in one store, I had to crouch down to avoid the darkening of the picture that occurs when you look at it off-angle, and that was the deal-breaker.

So it came down to plasma vs. LCD. Both have some pluses and minuses, but the bottom line is the bottom line: LCD sets cost more than plasma sets in comparable sizes. This is supposedly going to change in a few years, but for now it is still more expensive to manufacture the larger LCD panels. I was comparing a 50" plasma to a 46" LCD, and even at the end of the model year, the LCD cost 20% more. LCD sets do weigh less than comparably-sized plasma sets, but how often do you need to pick up your TV anyway?

Plasma sets are susceptible to burn-in if you leave the set on the same channel for too long (from news crawls or "bugs," those network logos that are always in the same spot on the screen), or watch lots of standard-definition broadcasts with the black bars on the sides, but the risk declines after the first 100 hours or so of use, and if you've bought one of these things, you should be making the most of HD anyway (and thus filling the entire screen area).

I knew exactly which model I wanted four months ago, but I decided to play the waiting game because I knew the price would be dropping when the newer models appeared in the spring. I read up on the models that were being introduced this spring, but the consumer electronics industry has a tendency to
remove features in order to achieve specific price points. I wanted a certain feature that had largely been eliminated on the 2007 crop of TVs in my price range, and since there weren't any significant changes to the technology, I wasn't losing anything by choosing an outgoing model, and I saved several hundred dollars by waiting and buying strategically--after prices had been reduced, but before the remaining stock sold out. The drop in price between January and April amounted to 25% of the price I ultimately paid.

Then there was the matter of where to make the purchase. I imagine there are plenty of people who would just wander on over to the nearest shiny-gadget emporium and get whatever model is on sale that week, but that's not me. The big stores' selection tends to be broad, but not deep. I found only two local stores that purported to carry the model I wanted, and both were charging full retail (which you saw if you followed that link up above), which was hundreds (eventually thousands) more than what some online stores were charging. I checked at Costco; they have a fairly liberal return policy, and I figured a good price would be worth the trouble of asking my one SUV-owning friend to help me get the thing home, but they typically carry just a few models, whichever ones they've been able to negotiate the best deals on that quarter, and the one I wanted wasn't one of them.

Beyond these factors, I've mentioned that I like to be mindful of where my money goes, and I prefer to support independent businesses when possible. There are plenty of those online, but most savvy shoppers these days know that not all online stores are created equal. This is particularly true with items like heavy, bulky TVs. Shipping them is expensive; some sites just pass that cost along to you, while others offer free (but painfully slow)
delivery; the best sites offer a variety of delivery options, depending on how much you're willing to pay and how fast you want your TV to arrive. You can pay upwards of $200 and get only "curbside delivery," which means just what you think it means: the box comes off the back of the truck and gets put on the ground, and from there you're on your own. Hopefully you've called a friend or two to help you up those two flights of narrow steps.

The other crucial piece of information is that many online electronics retailers will not accept returns of big TVs for any reason, even if it doesn't work right out of the box, and even if they are an authorized dealer for the brand. This is basically because they don't want the trouble and expense of coming back to pick up that lemon set you just bought. In cases like this, you have to deal with the manufacturer directly. This can be a wildly variable experience, and there are horror stories all over the web that may put you off buying the thing completely, or may just drive you back to your local
shiny-gadget emporium.

You really have to read all a site's policies carefully in order to make an informed decision. I was determined to get the "white-glove" treatment: full, indoor delivery service and setup, and I was willing to pay extra for it if necessary, but what I really wanted was to get it for free. Ultimately I found the model I'd chosen, at a substantially reduced end-of-model-year price, at Crutchfield, an independent catalog and online retailer with a superb reputation, excellent customer service, a 30-day return policy, and free delivery and setup. It took a bit of effort on my part, keeping tabs on price drops every week or so over the course of several months, but it was worth it. Deciding on a specific model first, and being familiar with the company, kind of knowing that's where I wanted to buy from, made the process a lot easier.

We've been enjoying the TV for a month now, and it's as great as I expected it to be. The cable company just added three more high-definition channels last week, and hopefully more will be added soon. And in case anyone's wondering, I didn't throw away the old TV. It
still had some life in it, so I passed it along to a friend.

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