This is the first year I'm offering any sort of advice on shopping for high-definition television -- but even so, my first thought is that it's still best to wait. Prices are going through a historic deflation, with 30-inch flat screens now widely available for less than $2,000, and this trend shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
That said, if you must shop now, my own (highly subjective) picks would fall along these lines:
Under 30 inches, you arguably shouldn't be buying an HDTV at all. You won't be able to see the extra details from the typical viewing distance. Get an "enhanced definition" set that only supports the minimum resolution allowed for digital TV.
From 30 to 35 inches, get an LCD HDTV. There are cathode-ray-tube sets available, but in this range they're not that much cheaper than an LCD, yet weigh far more and occupy far more space.
From 40 inches on up, get a "microdisplay" set. This bit of jargon refers to DLP ("digital light processing"), rear-projection LCD and other sets that use an internal array of digital processors to project an image inside a shallow cabinet -- like a traditional rear-projection CRT, but without the hefty weight or the thick cabinet.
What about plasma TVs? Plasma gets a lot of the publicity, but this technology falls short in one key way: Not the much-discussed risk of burn-in, in which a graphic constantly displayed on the screen may become permanently imprinted on it, but the fact that almost all of the seemingly affordable plasma sets lack high-definition capability. Their resolution maxes out at the lower end of the digital-TV scale (digital TV allows for 18 different levels of resolution, with only those with 720 or more lines of resolution counted as high-def).
Whatever type of advanced television set you procure, think about how you want to get a signal into it -- and how you might want to over the next five to 10 years. (No pressure!) At a minimum, think about holding out for a set with an ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) tuner, whichis the circuitry you need to tune in a digital broadcast over the air. (Confusion alert: NTSC, short for "National Television Standards Committee," is plain old analog TV.)
The next option is a CableCard slot, which will let you plug the set into a cable signal without needing a cable box -- even if you subscribe to such premium channels as HBO. (This slot accepts a compact subscriber card that your cable company provides.) Yes, this means you can go back to watching TV using only one remote control and one box across the living room, that being the TV itself. With a CableCard you can't, however, use interactive cable services like pay-per-view.
If you do buy a TV with one of those two reception technologies built in, make sure it has analog component-video outputs, which will send out the picture to any existing video-recording system you might own, free of potentially burdensome copying restrictions.
Lastly, whatever set you get, make sure you look at the picture yourself before buying.
-- Rob Pegoraro