TV: It's A Flat World, After All

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Diving into the world of big TV can be a daunting prospect, but we've been doing your homework. Over the past few months we've checked out close to 100 models in all sizes and shapes, from the diminutive, 20-inch Humax liquid-crystal-display TV with DirecTV built in ($700) to a 103-inch Panasonic plasma--a $50,000 beast so big that installers have to come to your home to measure the doorways and room to see if it will fit and test the floor to determine if it can handle the 475-pound weight. (The TV prices quoted are typical retail prices, not manufacturers' suggested prices.) There's something for everyone. We've looked at plasmas from Hitachi, Panasonic, and Pioneer, as well as LCD sets from Dell (DELL ), Sharp, Samsung, Sony (SNE ), and Toshiba (TOSBF ). We've checked out projectors and rear-projection sets from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), Mitsubishi, Epson, and ViewSonic.

The good news is that manufacturers are so intent on throttling one another that prices are falling sharply even as the technology in each set improves. The "sweet spot" for set sizes has edged up to 37- and 42-inch plasma and LCD models, such as Samsung's LN-S496D LCDand Sony's 40-inch XBR Bravia. That's where you get the most TV for the money. But buyers often think bigger. Many current HDTV owners are sorry they didn't buy a bigger set--as in 50 inches or more. The chief consideration in supersizing your set is whether owning a high-definition DVD player is in your future (page 110), since those players look best on really big screens. The fine print there? You'll need a set labeled "FULL HD1080." That means it offers 1080 progressive resolution, which is what makes high-definition DVD players shine.

We were blown away by the overall quality of most of the big-name brands. They deliver deeper blacks, brighter colors, and more detail than ever before. Many now throw in technology to "upscale" grainy analog broadcast television, and they help you take full advantage of the increasing wealth of HD sources by including loads of inputs for your HD TiVo, cable, and satellite boxes.

With the competition stepping up a notch, it was a tough call choosing our favorite set--until we feasted our eyes on Sharp's new 52-inch Aquos LC-52D62U. The long-overdue redesign of the $4,700 LCD set looks great, and the TV delivers one of the brightest, crispest, and most colorful pictures we've seen in all kinds of lighting. If that doesn't suit your fancy, take a gander at our other picks after reading the cheat sheet below for choosing the perfect centerpiece for your home theater.

By Cliff Edwards

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