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Cheap LCD TVs Buying Guide

The best cheap LCD TV, according to our research, is the Vizio M401i-A3 (starting at $498), a 40-inch "smart" TV with Wi-Fi connectivity, plenty of inputs for entertainment equipment, and a high-end look. Almost entirely positive performance reviews confirm its unsurpassed value for the money.

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One step down is the 39-inch Vizio E390i-A1, an entry-level TV that's priced accordingly (starting at $390) and still manages to squeeze in smart TV features. The Samsung UN40F5000 (starting at $455) is a good 40-inch TV that delivers excellent picture quality, according to experts, and will appeal to buyers who value performance over features. The Toshiba 39L1350U (starting at $369) is a hit with shoppers who like its low price and have no need for a smart TV, although experts have found fault with this TV's color accuracy. The Insignia NS-39D400NA14 (starting at $280) claims plenty of satisfied customers, but you don't have to spend a lot more for additional features and admirable picture quality.

What We Looked For in the Specs

39- or 40-Inch TV.

This is about the largest screen size consumers can expect to find for less than $500 without sacrificing performance (or without getting a spectacular deal). You might think the larger the TV, the better the experience, but there's more to it than that. The optimal size depends on the room in which the TV will live. If you sit too close to an HDTV, the image will appear distorted and grainy. Sit too far away, and you'll start to lose that immersive, widescreen feel. CNET recommends dividing the distance between the TV and seating area (in inches) by 1.5 to get a rough idea how big a TV to buy. A 39- or 40-inch TV should be viewed from a distance of 5 feet or so. For a larger space, you may want to spring for a larger, more expensive model.

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1080p High Definition.

HDTVs are available with resolutions of 720p or 1080p. The latter is referred to as "full HD" and has become much more common, even in cheap TVs. Most 40-inch TVs and larger, including all our top picks, support a maximum resolution of 1080p. If you're buying a smaller model, 720p may be acceptable. According to an expert from PC Mag, it's hard to see a difference in quality on a smaller TV such as the 32-inch Sony KDL-32R400A (starting at $271).

120 Hz Refresh Rate.

The typical refresh rate for cheap LCD TVs is 60 hertz, which is perfectly fine for most programming. Consumers who like sports or fast-paced films may see some motion blur, however, and should opt for a 120 Hz TV if possible. Be aware that many cheap TVs promoting 120 Hz refresh rates -- including most of the models we reviewed -- are actually 60 Hz TVs that use processing tricks to try to achieve the same effect. Terms such as Clear Motion Rate (Samsung) and TruMotion (LG) are telltale signs that a 60 Hz model is posing as a 120 Hz TV. In these cases we turned to reviews to find out if such features were effective.

LED Backlighting.

Almost all LCD screens these days are lit with LED lights instead of fluorescents. LED TVs are more energy-efficient and tend to display a brighter picture with better black levels. There are two types: Edge-lit models contain LEDs built into the edge of the screen, which allows for a very thin profile. Full-array LED TVs have lights across the entire back of the screen. This helps them display uniform brightness and deeper black levels. Either type may feature local dimming, which improves black levels by darkening specific areas of the screen.

HD Inputs.

In order to get an HD picture from an HDTV, you need high-definition inputs for a Blu-ray player, game console, and other sources of HD content. The highest-quality option is HDMI, which supports high-definition video and audio signals. Consumers who want to connect several devices to one TV should look for a model with at least three HDMI ports. That's one strike against the Samsung UN40F5000: It has only two. After you connect a cable box and Blu-ray player, you'll have none left for a game console or streaming device.

Another HD option is a component connection (for blue, green, and red cables). These days TV makers usually combine this with a composite port to take up less space on the back of the TV. Composite ports transmit video in standard definition (via a yellow cable, with red and white for audio) and aren't used as often these days. Most cheap LED TVs feature USB ports and a handful, including the LG 39LN5300 (starting at $349), support the MHL format. This lets you connect a mobile device such as a phone to your TV and stream content to the bigger screen. It hasn't really caught on, though, so don't worry about finding a TV that supports it.

Smart TV Features.

A few entry-level models now sport Wi-Fi connectivity and smart TV functionality, which provides access to online content on a big screen. If you already own a game console, Blu-ray player, or other device that can stream content to your TV over the Internet, you'll probably want to stick with a "dumb" TV. Models without smart TV features tend to cost quite a bit less. An external device such as a Roku or Google Chromecast can also smarten up a TV for less than $100. Keep in mind that you'll have to give up an input to connect the streaming device.

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Consumers who don't own such equipment may want a smart TV, like one of our top picks from Vizio. Most TV brands support the most popular streaming services -- Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, etc. -- but be sure the apps match up with your subscriptions. An expert at Reference Home Theater praises Vizio's selection of streaming content and notes that the M401i-A3 is easy to connect to a Wi-Fi network.

What We Ignored in the Specs

Contrast Ratio.

This refers to the difference between the brightest and darkest color values the screen can display at once. It's the spec TV manufacturers manipulate the most. They tout their TVs' dynamic contrast ratios, which often exceed 10,000,000:1. The more accurate indicator is static contrast ratio, but virtually no marketing materials use that number anymore, so be wary of claims about huge contrast ratios.

by Michael Sweet (Google+ Profile)

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