HDTVs, video players and Web media: What's worth your money

Consumer technology columnist Rob Pegoraro demo's Apple's reboot of its consumer electronics "hobby," the Apple TV.
By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 10:22 AM

If you've waited until now to buy a new HDTV, I can guarantee one thing: You'll spend less for a given screen size than somebody who made that purchase last year. (Ahem.)

But you'll still face many of the same decisions as ever.

LCD or plasma? Get an LCD unless you'll be watching the set in a room with few or no windows - but take care to buy an LCD with a matte screen coating, lest a glossy finish yield the same glare issues as many plasma sets. ("LED" sets aren't a third category; they're LCD sets with a light-emitting diode backlight instead of conventional fluorescent illumination, which should save energy and allow for deeper blacks and brighter colors.)

If you get an LCD set, however, you'll have an extra decision to make: 60 Hz, 120 Hz or 240 Hz? The numbers refer to how many times a second the set redraws the image; 60 is the standard, but 120 and 240 Hz sets digitally double or quadruple that to smooth out fast-moving action. I've seen 120 Hz sets make scrolling fare like movie credits look better than their 60 Hz counterparts, but 240 Hz isn't worth it.

Most medium- and large-size sets offer 1080p resolution that exceeds what you can watch over the air and most of what's on cable or satellite. Since 1080p has become a standard feature, that's fine - but don't pay extra to upgrade from 720p on a smaller set.

The upgrades that are worth paying extra let an HDTV serve as more than just a TV. A USB port or SD Card slot make it easy to show off photos or videos on its large screen. "Connected TV" Internet software allow an HDTV to play video or audio streamed from such sites as Netflix, Amazon or Pandora; if the set includes WiFi, you won't have to run a network cable to it first.

If you're thinking about canceling your cable or satellite service, an HDTV that displays the free TV Guide On Screen data broadcast by local stations will let you see what's coming up on the air.

What about 3-D TV? That's the problem right there - this technology remains a long way from consumer relevance, thanks to a lack of content, the need to wear special glasses to see any 3-D effect and the extra price of 3-D. You should feel safe leaving 3-D viewing for the local high-end multiplex.

If you already have a perfectly functional HDTV, you might be looking for a video player to plug into it. Blu-ray players now start at $100 even in mass-market stores, but "upconverting" DVD players (which, like Blu-ray players, electronically enhance DVDs to make them look closer to high-def) start at less than $50. (A few DVD recorders linger on in the market, but none include that TV Guide feature, meaning you have to schedule recordings VCR-style by punching in dates and times.) If you get a Blu-ray player, look for one with its own Internet media software and WiFi connectivity. But again, don't spend extra for 3-D support.

Discs aren't the only way to watch rented movies, though. A Web-media receiver can tune into a wider variety of Internet content than any "connected" set. Apple's $99 Apple TV has gotten the most headlines and is a good way to view the music, photos and movies on your own computers. But Roku's boxes, which start at just $60, offer a far wider choice of Web sources - including, as of a week ago, Hulu Plus. You'll probably see Google TV on display in some Sony sets in stores; unfortunately, that promising software looks like a bust, between its tricky setup and the obstructionist behavior of TV networks that have blocked Google TV devices from access to video at their sites.

TiVo's digital video recorders represent yet another way to tune into what's on the Web - and, of course, replace a cable service's DVR. But be wary of this company's holiday special, which trades a reduction in the sale price of a Premiere or Premiere XL TiVo for a substantial hike in its monthly service fees.

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