Cheap HDTV Battlemodo: The Best Sets Under $US900

With so much financial strife, it sounds insane to splurge on an HDTV now. Good thing there are 40" or bigger sets to be had for under $US900. But which ones don't suck?

To find out, we grabbed five HDTVs you can find on the street for under $US900—some require a little snooping to find that price, but they're out there. We've got four LCDs and one plasma, with four of them were discount brands, while one was from a pretty top name brand. We're looking at a few things: are any sub-$US900 TVs actually watchable? Are any lower-tier brands as good as big name brands? And finally, which TV delivers the most bang for the buck?

The HD Guru Gary Merson and Cnet senior editor for TVs David Katzmaier—two guys who know more about HDTVs than I know about my mom—graciously came by to help us calibrate the sets, in order to coax the absolute best picture out of them and give us some insights on what we should look for.

Here's how we set up the tests: Every set was calibrated with a THX Optimizer disc, with an emphasis on getting the darkest possible blacks while maintaining detail and acceptable brightness, since blacks are LCDs' big weakness, and the most likely attribute to suffer in cheaper sets—in more expensive sets, like Sony's LED-backlit Bravia XBR8, a lot of what you're paying for are deep, detailed blacks. From there, we tested the sets playoff style—two at a time with a 2-way HDMI splitter using The Dark Knight on Blu-ray as the test disc because it's a beautifully shot film with all kinds of perfect HDTV test scenes, and its excellent master makes it solid source material. Plus, it's the one Blu-ray movie everyone will own. And it's awesome. So, two may enter, only one may leave: The set that wins the showdown advances to the next round. Here are the five cheap HDTVS:

•Insiginia NS-LCD42HD-09 1080p LCD$800 (Note: We actually tested the 52-inch version because Best Buy didn't have the 42-inch model, but they assured that the guts are the same, so we assume that the results would be the same)
•Toshiba Regza 42RV535 1080p LCD $875-$930
•Vizio VO42LF 1080p LCD $830 MSRP-$880
•Vizio VP423 720p Plasma $830 MSRP
•Westinghouse VK-40F580D 1080p LCD$850-$899

Round 1: Toshiba Regza vs. Vizio LCD

It's pretty much a blow-out: The Regza wowed us against the Vizio with blacks that weren't just deeper, but more detailed with a much cleaner contrast. In night-time skyscraper shots, you could make out windows and other smaller details much more clearly. The Vizio's viewing angle was not nearly as wide as the Toshiba, and it had a more noticeable colour distortion at a 45-degree angle. Colour wise, the Vizio might be a bit more appealing, because even after calibration, they tend to be more saturated. The Toshiba had noticeable instances of showing shiny moire pattern when panning down a building that was essentially a set of verticals lines—in other words, they got kind of warped. But dialing down the sharpness, as David suggested, reduced this quite a bit. Both sets have below-par motion resolution, one of Gary's favourite picking points. If you watch text as the camera zooms by, it gets mad blurry, but as Gary himself admits, most people don't notice this kind of thing unless it's super egregious.

Winner: Toshiba

Round 2: Westinghouse vs. Vizio LCD

This was a really tough one. We went ahead and slotted the Westinghouse against the loser of the first LCD battle because we noticed it had a really obnoxious backlight issue during calibration: It's much brighter on the right than on the left, a problem that gets worse when you view it off-angle. The picture exaggerates how bad it is, but it's definitely noticeable.
That aside, it performed favourably against the Vizio. It has a better viewing angle with less distortion as you swing to the side. But it also has some of the moire problems we noticed with the Toshiba. Motion isn't fantastic on either set. What did the Vizio in was how badly it crushed the blacks vs. the Westinghouse. In other words, at the brightest black level we considered acceptable, a lot of detail was lost. Gary pointed out the problem there—which you'll see again in the plasma: Its settings don't have fine enough gradations for picture fine-tuning. It got brighter or darker in huge leaps, preventing us from finding a happy medium with solid blacks that have detail. So, as we said, it's a tough one. If the Westinghouse didn't have the backlight issue, it would've won hands down.

Winner: Tie.

Round 3: Vizio vs. Insignia
The Insignia is the worst set we tested. It's just bad. The blacks are really crushed, the details are mushy, the colours don't pop—we even tried tweaking post-calibration to bring them up, but it just made them look unnatural—and the few aspect-ratio options all resulted in a noticeable portion of the picture being cut off, even as it displayed perfectly on the Vizio LCD next to it. If you buy the 42-inch version for $US800, you're getting hosed. If you buy the $US1500 52-inch version, you're just screwed. It made the Vizio, the loser in previous rounds, look almost amazing.

Winner: Vizio

Final Round: Toshiba Regza vs. Vizio Plasma
This was the hardest fought battle of the competition. We gave the plasma a bye to skip to the final, because we rightly figured plasma's inherently better picture qualities suited it for a boss battle, the Sagat to LCD's Ryu.

One of plasma's greatest strengths against LCDs is that, unless you're talking about super-high-end LED-backlit LCD, plasma will beat LCDs with darker, richer blacks every time, simply because of the technological differences. So it was stunning that the Vizio essentially forfeited this advantage by crushing them. Hard. They were darker than the Toshiba's, obviously, but bringing the brightness up to a level where you could make out the same dark details seen on the Toshiba without washing out the picture was impossible because of the controls. Gary says he routinely advocates that TV makers build in finer gradations in adjustments, and in this case, the ability of the user to more finely adjust the picture. Better controls would have been to the Vizio plasma's tremendous advantage.

The Vizio plasma maintained its other inherent strengths though. It had zero viewing-angle trouble, looking essentially perfect from all angles. Motion was better, with more details preserved, in signs for instance, as the camera passed by. Like the other Vizio set, the LCD, colours were verrry saturated, especially out of the box, with a lot of red in the picture. Calibration helped, but the Toshiba still seemed to provide more accurate colour. A few people in our office who passed by said they preferred the extra pop of the Vizio plasma's colour and saturation, so this might come down to a personal preference.

At our viewing distance of six feet, the difference in detail between the 1080p LCD and 720p plasma was noticeable, particularly when we examined facial details and hair. The 1080p Toshiba was, well, more detailed than the 720p Vizio plasma. From nine or more feet away though, most viewers would be hard pressed to discern a difference in screen resolution.

In the end, we, along with Gary, came down on the side of the Toshiba. Its picture has a clarity that the plasma didn't quite touch, both in dark scenes and its colours were truer to life. Overall, we feel it's the best buy for the money, though it will take a bit of gumshoeing to buy it for under $US900.

Winner: Toshiba

Other Considerations
There are a few larger points to take one. First and foremost, any of these sets will be more amazing than your standard-def set, and none of them, except perhaps the Insignia, are a total waste of money. Another important point, one that David stresses, is that we were able to make the picture on each one worlds better than it was out of the box—if you calibrate your TV, you will get more out of it, no matter who you buy it from. Finally, Gary notes that the lower-tiered brands can have worse warranty and customer support terms, so while the Toshiba might run the highest price initially, its overall cost of ownership may possibly be lower. If you haven't bought an HDTV yet, we hope this little test-bed has served you in making this very important step.

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