What's a budget-class HDTV? With prices sinking almost as fast as the Dow, sometimes it's hard to tell.
Sharp spares the consumer any confusion with its LC-52SB55U, part of an entry-level LCD series positioned below the company's slick Aquos line.
The first giveaway, after the plastic-fantastic bezel, is the screen size-to-price ratio: It's a 52-incher, originally $2,200, now closer to $1,700 but spotted for $1,200 during the Black Friday frenzy. When it was introduced late this summer, the average 52-inch set cost closer to $3,500.
The second giveaway, a combination of old and new technology: It has high-definition's fullest resolution (1080p) but LCD's older, and maligned, 60-hertz refresh format. These sets update a screen's pixels 60 times a second, but movies and most DVDs are filmed at 24-hertz, or 24 frames per second.
Twenty-four does not fit into 60 evenly, so a movie, or fast-motion sequence like broadcast sporting events, might appear jerky or blurred on a 60-hertz screen. But even with the new 120-hertz LCDs - 24 does, in fact, fit nicely into 120 - some screens still can't get the picture straight. So maybe there's more to it than the refresh rate.
Yet the LC-52SB55U showed no signs of motion blur on Sunday afternoon football, a Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix DVD or anything else I watched.
I also couldn't detect any color banding - bands that appear on the screen when the HDTV can't shift from one color to another adequately - found on some LCDs, including Sharp's.
For the money, the LC-52SB55U produced an extremely good picture. It did not pop like some HDTVs, though, because it couldn't display the deepest blacks. (The deeper the black level, the richer the colors and more dimensional the picture.) And typical of LCD sets, the picture became washed out on off-angle viewing.
The LC-52SB55U, like some higher-priced sets, has four HDMI connections and extensive custom picture settings. In movie mode, the set's backlight adjusts according to the light in your room, producing a high-quality picture no matter what the conditions.
The LC-52SB55U isn't the same deal it was when it arrived in August, but it still stands out among budget-class HDTVs.
If you buy an HDTV this holiday season, don't overspend or buy an unnecessarily extravagant set.
* Do your homework before getting to the store. Read reviews (cnet.com is a good start), user comments (avsforum.com, amazon.com) and research pricing on the Internet. Prices are negotiable - give the salesperson a price from a reputable online dealer and see if he can match it or come close.
* Do not compare sets on the showroom floor. The HDTV settings come jacked-up from the factory - brightness, contrast and sharpness maxed-out - to catch your eye.
* Don't fall for sweet sales pitches. If the salesperson starts talking about contrast ratios, stick your fingers in your ears and say, "Blah-blah-blah-blah." He'll say a higher contrast ratio means a better picture, but there's no uniform method of measuring contrast ratio. Manufacturers manipulate the numbers to make them sound better.
* If several people watch TV in your home at the same time, check to see how the picture looks from off to the side. If it's washed out, you're looking at an LCD or a DLP set. You'll want a plasma instead.
* Buy the right size set for your home. All sets look smaller in the showroom. If you'll sit about 6 feet from a 1080p set, buy a 42-inch screen. If you'll sit 7 or 8 feet away, buy a 50-incher.
Adjust that set!
In the home, souped-up factory settings look unnatural, like bad plastic surgery.
The easiest way to calibrate a television is with the HDTV Calibration Wizard, a $30 disc (amazon.com).
But here are few basic adjustments:
* Avoid modes like Vivid, Sports, Games. Choose Movie/Cinema or Standard for a more natural picture.
* Turn sharpness way down, almost off.
* If your LCD has a backlight setting, turn it down halfway. Then experiment.
* If there are assorted color temperatures, try "warm." If the color balance appears off, try "normal."
* If you have a plasma, lower contrast halfway.
sharp 52-inch lcd
Hot: Screen size, picture quality for the price.
Not: With so much plastic, looks like a budget set.