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LCD and plasma TVs Lower price and higher quality add up to good deals
Image of LCD and plasma TVs

If the uncertain economy and high gas prices are getting you down, here's news that could lift your spirits: Prices of flat-panel high-definition TVs continue to fall, while their performance continues to improve.

That makes this holiday season a prime time to buy a television. The timing is perfect if you need to replace an old analog set before Feb. 17, when the U.S. switches to all-digital over-the-air broadcasts.

Earlier this year, it looked like LCD and plasma TV prices were starting to level off, but with a glut of sets on the market, the latest predictions are that LCD HDTVs will cost about 20 percent less than they did last year. Research firm DisplaySearch expects 46- and 47-inch 1080p LCD sets to sell for an average of $1,350, and 40- and 42-inchers for $990. The 32-inch LCD category could be red hot, with some sets selling for $500 or even less. And 15- to 19-inch LCD models are expected to drop to $200 by year's end.

With plasma TVs, look for price cuts of 20 to 30 percent. A 50-inch 1080p set will sell for just under $1,600 on average, DisplaySearch says. Another firm, Quixel Research, predicts more aggressive pricing during Black Friday sales, with major-brand plasmas of that type selling for $1,500 and secondary brands as low as $1,000. During 2009, Quixel forecasts that prices of 58-inch plasmas will dip below $2,500.

It's not only lesser-known labels selling at bargain prices. Some big names, notably Samsung and Sony, now offer lower-priced lines through mass-market retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target. That could cause a shakeout among smaller TV brands that compete mainly on price.

Getting better all the time

Meanwhile, improvements in display technology are boosting HDTV performance: 24 of the 56 LCD TVs in our Ratings (available to subscribers) had excellent high-definition picture quality, and all but three of the others were very good.

With plasma sets, 10 of the 25 sets were excellent for HD, and all but two of the others were judged very good. Among LCDs, 120Hz technology, which doubles the screen's frame rate to reduce motion blur, is trickling down from the highest-priced TVs to lower-priced sets. Sony recently announced the first 240Hz model, and we expect others to follow suit.

More brands—including LG, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony—have sets with LED backlighting rather than conventional fluorescent lamps. Manufacturers say that LED lighting can provide a wider color gamut, better contrast, deeper blacks, more consistent brightness, longer life, and better energy efficiency. We're testing LED-lighted sets and will report on them soon.

A number of HDTVs offer direct access to the Web. Models from Panasonic (VieraCast), Samsung (InfoLink), Sharp (Aquos Net), and Sony (Bravia Internet Video Link) can access content from online partners.

Several companies are experimenting with ways to send video signals to a TV using wireless technology rather than cables, which could simplify installation. Few such sets have come to market, but TV makers such as LG, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Westinghouse are working on it.

Another exciting development is the debut of a display technology called OLED (organic light-emitting diode). The first OLED TV, the 11-inch Sony XEL-1, $2,500, was impressive when we tested it recently. Sony and Samsung have larger prototypes, but there's no word yet on availability.

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