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Cheap 3D TVs Buying Guide

The top manufacturers are familiar names in consumer electronics. Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony, Vizio, and Toshiba all make 3D TVs.

Two in particular caught our attention in our search for bargains. The Vizio M-Series M501D-A2R (starting at $800) is our top choice because of its low price, features, and impressive 2D and 3D performance. The Panasonic TC-P50ST60 (starting at $1,000) has a plasma screen and combines amazing 2D picture quality with a $1,000 price point, making it a compelling buy despite lackluster 3D performance. The Sony KDL-47W802A (starting at $989) is a popular TV that has all kinds of input options and handles 2D and 3D video with aplomb. The LG 47LA7400 (starting at $1,029) sometimes approaches the upper edge of our budget price range, so try to get it at a discount. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this TV is the wand-style, voice-command remote, which reviewers have found a joy to use. The Samsung UN46FH6030F (starting at $700) is the cheapest TV we researched and displays a solid picture in 2D and 3D. However, this TV doesn't include any 3D glasses and lacks the smart TV features that are now nearly ubiquitous even on cheap 3D TVs. Samsung may be sacrificing a bit too much to keep the price low. You don't have to spend a lot more to get a good-quality, Internet-connected 3D TV with 3D glasses included, and reviewers seem to think it's worth the extra cost to do so.

The best cheap 3D TVs are expensive compared with their 2D-only counterparts. This is always the case with the latest gadgetry: (Relatively) early adopters pay more for fancy technology. The 3D TV market is no exception, although prices have dropped considerably in the past year. A very small 3D TV will run you at least $500, and most 3D TVs larger than 47 inches on the diagonal still cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 or more -- often much more. In each line of inexpensive 3D TVs we identified, we chose the model closest to 47 inches. The starting prices noted in this buying guide correspond to those screen sizes. Naturally, the larger the display, the more expensive the set will be. If you were to opt for an upscale model costing several thousand dollars, you'd get a TV with a very large screen (55 inches and counting) and the best video processing technology available.

Perhaps the most critical factor demanding buyers' attention is the distinction between active and passive 3D TV. Active 3D TV relies on battery-powered glasses to create the 3D effect, whereas passive 3D technology calls for the same kind of glasses you get at a theater when watching a 3D movie. The consensus among reviewers is that passive 3D has surpassed active 3D as the preferred technology. Passive 3D creates a convincing enough effect, and passive 3D glasses are typically cheaper and more comfortable than active 3D glasses. TVs with passive technology usually include at least a couple of pairs of glasses. With an active 3D TV, you might have to buy the glasses separately for about $20 a pop (as is the case with the Samsung UN46FH6030F). None of this is to say active 3D isn't good; it's just not quite as simple and cheap as passive 3D.

The best cheap 3D TVs include many features formerly found only in more expensive models, such as smart TV capability with built-in Wi-Fi, so that users can stream content from apps such as Netflix. Budget shoppers can count on full 1080p high-definition display, 16:9 resolution, all kinds of controls and options for tweaking the color settings, and several HDMI ports, which are the best quality ports for home theater systems.

Generally speaking, the 3D effect produced by inexpensive 3D TVs is decent if not spectacular, and 3D technology continues to improve. Still, you should be aware of certain deficiencies inherent in the existing technology. We found reports from experts and consumers about "crosstalk" on the screen, an anomaly that can afflict even the best 3D TVs. Crosstalk occurs when a 3D image designed to appear in front of one eye mistakenly appears in the other eye, either because the screen doesn't refresh fast enough or the 3D glasses aren't working properly.

All 3D TVs display 2D content and budget models almost always present 2D images of a quality that outshines their 3D capabilities. Because 2D content still dominates, this is not a matter to brush off. You can use a 3D TV to watch anything you'd watch with a normal hi-definition TV and many experts assert that 3D TVs are among the highest quality 2D sets out there, with amazing color and sharp, detailed pictures -- compelling reasons to buy a 3D TV even if you don't plan to use the 3D feature that often.

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