Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How we bought a TV

A 46" flat panel LED LCD HDTV (how many acronyms can we use in a row?) is now gracing the wall in my basement man cave. Up until last night the man cave was the hobby cave and sitting room. A TV transforms it over night into "the room Bill will spend the most time in".

This was probably my wife's motive when she suggested we buy this beautiful piece of electronic goodness. In fact, there's no probably about it, it was her motive. She wanted to reclaim her living room from my clutches. There's been far too much World Cup, Golf, Wimbledon, and baseball game viewing the last few weeks, and I honestly think she'd had enough of it. Not that she'd admit that, necessarily.

It was all triggered by a Best Buy Coupon that Katie got at the pride parade that promised a $100 gift card with the purchase of $1000 or more. She brought up the idea on Sunday afternoon and it had me quickly looking at the available deals. I'm all about playing the zero financing game, particularly if you can buy a product for close to what you'd get if you didn't have the deal. That's becoming tougher. Increasingly, stores like Best Buy are offering "zero down" deals but what you might not notice if you don't shop around is that you're not getting a particularly good deal. I see no real downside, other than the cost of these deals is often shoveled back into the cost of the item.

I've worked this deal with a number of items recently - our Tivo, the deck furniture, and the dishwasher. We buy it with zero interest for x amount of time, and then I set up a monthly payment in my bank's bill pay system to pay it off a month shy of when that deal expires. Of course, if you don't pay it in full, you get robbed - we're talking 25%+ interest rate. I'm assuming that's what ends up happening to a certain percentage of people, but I've never let it happen to me.

So we ended up buying a TV at Best Buy utilizing 3 years, no interest (which we'll probably pay off in a couple of months, but it helps the cash flow for now). We borrowed a friend's truck to take it home, because delivery was another 100 bucks. Another thing - Best Buy's prices are often higher on their web site than those in store, but they still charge sales tax. They offer free delivery online, but on TV's at least, that appeared to be a wash - if you chose to have the TV delivered. Do it yourself, and you save a bit.

Modern flat panel displays are quite light, and other than the size, are not difficult to move around. There's a wide array of options to choose from. We ended up deciding on a size and type, and then looking at what reviewed well on consumer reports. Type is less of a factor now - plasma is the older, established technology, but most of the shortcomings of LCD screens in the past are gone. The price differential is very small now and several companies have gotten out of the Plasma game altogether. So we decided to focus on LCD displays, although the differences between the two at the end of the day are pretty small. Sony Bravia and Samsung LCD panels topped the reviews, with Toshiba and LG also ranking well. I know Sony had some issues over the past few years from talking to some of my AV oriented friends, but they've come back strong this year. I looked at the Sony

Once we had a size, it was up to how much we were going to spend on features. Pretty much all the TV's sold now support 1080P (was not the case just a few years ago). The key differentiators on LCD displays right now are the types of lighting the TV's use, the engine that drives the picture and the speed refresh of the screen.

As far as lighting goes, there are LED or conventional back-lit displays. LED TV's are new and use less energy than traditional back lit. The price difference on these has gotten to be quite small. LED lit displays command a few hundred more dollars, but the difference in energy use seems like it might be worth it over the life of the TV.

The engine that drives the TV can make a big difference in the picture. Sony has the Bravia engine, which works very well, and the Samsung models we looked at achieved similar results via their own engine (the engine is the differentiator since the actual display hardware in a Samsung or Sony TV is virtually identical since the panels are made via a joint-venture between the two companies).

The last item, which I failed to consider before landing in the store for the final purchase, is the refresh rate. Many of the LCD TVs are 60hz refresh, but increasingly being offered at 120hz. The advantage is you get less blur when watching sports. The sales person at Best Buy convinced us to buy the higher refresh rate TV. It was only 80 more than the model without.

So we ended up with a Sony Bravia EX700 series 46" panel. I'm very pleased with it so far. We already had a Tivo capable of HD which we moved to the new TV. I bought an expander for the Tivo as well, since the HD capacity of it was suspect without. I plugged it in via the HDMI cable and it just worked. TV's have gotten so much easier to use with HDMI.

The only issue I've had so far is that the audio was lagging on some of the high def channels. This was being caused by the optical audio out on my Tivo having a delay. I hooked up the optical output to the TV instead and the delay went away. Probably good anyway, since I'm going to have to use the TV to do switching until I buy a different amp, an effort that also gets much easier with HDMI cables that carry both picture and digital audio.

Haven't bought a blue-ray player yet. I'm tempted to get a PS3 to provide that functionality and also have a video game system, but I won't pull the trigger on that for a while. We just canceled Netflix and our movie watching has gone down for the summer. I can rent high-def movies from amazon on demand and will probably use that to fill the gap.

Ironically, this will probably get me watching less TV because we put the TV in our basement, which separates it somewhat from the day-to-day activities of the house. And this is a good thing, because in the end, I want to read more anyway. Funny how that works.