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Big Deals on Big-Screen TVs for the Super Bowl

Herb Weisbaum, TODAY contributor
Friday, 25 Jan 2013 | 12:43 PM ET
Consumers shop for televisions in Walmart.
Getty Images
Consumers shop for televisions in Walmart.

Sometimes the turtle really does beat the hare. If you scurried out on Black Friday to buy a big-screen TV during door-buster deals, you may be kicking yourself now.

The days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday are traditionally the best time of year to snag a deal on a super-sized set. Most retailers run promotions to cash in on the action and clear out old inventory.

The price-watchers at dealnews.com found the best deals on sets that are 55- and 60-inches. For a 60-inch name-brand set, expect to pay around $900. But you can find 60-inch LCD TVs from off-brand manufacturers for as low as $688.

"Big-screen televisions are about $200 cheaper than they were last year at this time," said Louis Ramirez, dealnews.com senior feature writer. "And 3D sets have really come down in price."

What can you expect from a new TV?

"In 2012, we saw evolutionary, not revolutionary changes," said Jim Willcox, senior editor and TV expert at Consumer Reports. "Later this year, we'll see two new types of TVs: ultra-definition sets that have four times the resolution of standard TVs and sets with OLED technology (Organic Light Emitting Diodes)."

OLED sets should start arriving this spring or summer, and they're going to be pretty expensive, probably $10,000 or more.

I spoke to Willcox at length about buying a big-screen TV. This is a major purchase, one you'll be living with for a long time, and price is only one factor to consider.

Q: Manufacturers have come up with some pretty innovative things on their TVs. Which ones should we be looking at when we go to the store?

Jim Willcox: Internet sets are the cool thing. TVs now have full web browsers, so you're able to access social media sites or see how your eBay auction is doing.

Internet capability seems to be more popular than 3D which was the buzz a year ago. With Internet sets, there's just so much content now going into the TV that manufacturers had to figure out a good way to present that material and organize it to enable viewers to find the stuff that they want.

There are some novel ways to control the TV using gestures. LG has a magic remote that you use sort of like a Nintendo Wii controller. Last year, Samsung introduced high-end sets that give you the ability to use hand motions to move through menus.

And some remote controls now have near field communications technology. People like to display the content they have on a cell phone or portable device on their TV. With Sony's new remote, you tap your phone to the remote control and whatever's playing on your phone magically appears on the TV.

Q: The biggest decision most buyers will have to make is the technology. Do they want Plasma or LCD? How do you decide?

J.W.: In recent years, manufacturers have dealt with one of the weaknesses of LCD (liquid crystal display) sets: motion blur during fast-moving scenes – something that's obvious with sports. We see 120 Hz and 240 Hz technology addressing that.

The one issue that LCD hasn't addressed especially well is viewing angle: Those who watch at an angle don't get the same great picture as those who are in front of it. There are some sets now, for example from LG, Vizio and Panasonic, that use what are called IPS panels (In-Plane Switching technology), that have wider-than-average viewing angles for an LCD.

LCD TVs tend to do better in brightly lit rooms. So if you can't control the brightness in the room, an LCD may be a better choice.

Plasma has unlimited viewing angles and very good black levels for high contrast, if that matters. So in a lot of ways plasma is very good. A couple of years ago, people were counting plasma out, but certainly in the bigger-sized TVs, plasma is more affordable then comparably featured LCD TVs. Right now, we're seeing some great deals on plasma TVs.

The bottom line: LCD technology has gotten better. So for a lot of people if performance is relatively equal, it comes down to price.

Q: All the sets look good at the store. In many cases, they're tweaked to look their best. With that in mind, what do we do when comparing sets?

J.W.: It is very difficult to compare. First, it's not a great environment, there are probably huge fluorescent lights, but it will give you an idea of the TVs reflectivity. So if you have a bright room at home and you're having a hard time watching that TV in the store, chances are you'll have the same issue if you bring it home.

Again, viewing angle is still an issue with a lot of LCD sets. So I'd suggest that you move off to the side of the set and see if the picture starts to look washed out. That could be an issue if you have a lot of people over to watch TV or if you don't have a sweet spot in front of the TV where most people sit.

And don't forget about the sound. As sets get ever thinner there's less cabinet space for companies to install good sound systems. If you don't plan to use an external sound bar or sound system, you may want to crank the sound on that set to a level that would be comparable to what you would have in your house. Does it sound good? A lot of them don't.

Q: Once you get the set home, there are things you can do to get the best-looking picture possible. Can you help with that?

J.W.: Sure, and that advice has changed recently. TVs used to be set for the retail environment. You brought them home and they were in "torch" mode. The picture was too bright and the colors were over-saturated. Now almost the opposite is happening because all the TV manufacturers want to hit the Energy Star standards. So the picture may be too dim.

Check the setting. Normally, one says "retail" and the other says "home." Click the home setting. If the set is in the "eco" mode, which is the energy-saving mode, put it in one of the more natural-looking presets. Typically that's "movie," "cinema," or if the set has it, the "THX" setting. In our testing, we found that THX is the most accurate.

If you want to tweak the picture from there, go into the manual settings and fool around with the brightness, contrast and color controls. You can play around all you want and no matter how badly you screw it up, you can hit the "default" or "restore" button and get back to the original factory settings.

Q: When it comes to a new TV, size does matter. You may be disappointed with a set that's too small if you can afford more. But it can be unpleasant to watch a set that's too big for the room. Run down the guidelines for us.

J.W.: For a big screen TV you probably don't want to sit closer than about seven or eight feet. As a general rule, eight to 12 feet for a 50 to 60-inch set is a good.

Some of the new Ultra HD sets that are coming out have ultra-high resolutions. You can put your face almost next to the TV and not see the pixel structure, so that technology is going to let people sit a lot closer than they do now, if they want.

Remember, you want to have the whole TV in your field of vision. You don't want to be panning and scanning the picture because you're sitting to close to a set that's too big.

To make your shopping easier, the editors at Consumer Reports put together a list of their Top TV picks for Super Bowl XLVII.

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