As I’ve said before, “the whole world is going flat!” No matter where you go, you can find flat screen TVs. Even the grocery store is not immune to this phenomenon. Many are selling “cheap” flat screens with brand labels like Voyager, Apex and Element. With flat-panel prices dropping close to 40% from 2006 to 2007, a person can easily be tempted by these “new” or “no-name” brands. These brands can easily undercut Sony and Sharp’s prices by hundreds of dollars. Prices now start well under $500 for a 32-in. LCD TV, and under $300 for a 19-in. model.
The most prominent low-cost brands include: Vizio, Westinghouse Digital, Polaroid, Funai, Insignia (house brand of Best Buy), and Olevia. You could also include include older names like Magnavox, Philco, and RCA. All of these sets now come out of factories in either Taiwan or China. However, there are pitfalls to these cheaper sets.
Image Quality - While the price of LCD flat panels continues to drop, the image quality of LCD HDTVs in the 26-in or below size has diminished somewhat also. In earlier years, top of the line panels were available in this size range. However, today’s pricing pressures force some set makers to step down performance to screen resolutions of 1024 x 768 to keep the price low. If you want the best LCD glass within an LCD HDTV—one that features superior contrast ratios, off-axis viewing, signal processing and 10 bit color (1024 shades of gray versus 256)—you need to consider a name brand. In screen sizes of 32-in. and below, compare off center viewing, color, upconversion of standard definition sources and motion smear. You will find the range in performance from fair to really poor.
Aspect Ratios - Gone are the days of the boxy 4:3 sets – even for the smaller screen sizes. Today, everything is widescreen. However, it should be noted that these sets may not offer a true 16:9 aspect ratio. In fact, many of the smaller screen sizes have an aspect ratio of 16:10, 15:9 or less and may offer small black bars at the top and bottom of the screen when displaying a widescreen image. And, even in these smaller screen sizes, they must now include a digital ATSC “Over-the-Air” tuner. If possible, make sure that the set also includes a QAM cable HD tuner. Since two-thirds of the U.S. population receives their TV signals via cable, it makes sense to have a cable HD tuner built-in. What will this do for you? Except for scrambled movie channels, you may not need a cable box with a set that includes a QAM tuner for channels that are “in-the-clear.”
Warranty - These cheaper brands will save you money, initially. However, the cost to repair may exceed the purchase price. Many of these sets have lousy factory warranties. With some brands, there is simply no service after the warranty expires. While enticing, what commercials and dealers don’t reveal is that to utilize the warranty, you have to shell out several hundred dollars more. And, once the warranty expires (anywhere from 90-days to 1-year), you are on your own to get the set fixed because these low-cost manufacturers literally “wash their hands” of your purchase. You are left with taking the set back to where you purchased it in hopes that they will fix it. In many cases, the electronics retailer will tell you to contact the manufacturer, and send it in for repairs.
It is highly recommended to check with the manufacturer’s web site to learn the in-warranty service costs (don’t forget shipping fees) and the charges for post-warranty service before you make the purchase. And, sometimes, out of warranty simply means “out of luck.” If you have to send a 26-in. or 32-in. TV back to the manufacturer (at your cost) for repairs, the money you saved up front will quickly evaporate. Your retailer will try to sell you an extended warranty. However, the extended warranty could cost hundreds of dollars, and may never be invoked. Many consumer advocates advise against them.
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Dennis has been involved with Consumer Electronics forever it seems. His 25+-year career includes a 12-year tour of duty at Consumer Reports magazine, as well as stints as a product reviewer, market analyst, technical editor, and consultant for the electronics industry. He lives in Ossining, NY with his two children, one demanding cat and piles of A/V equipment.