Archive for November 25, 2009

Buzzword: Is it worth paying more for 240Hz?

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One of the big decisions you’ll have to make if you’re shopping for a new LCD TV over Black Friday (or any time soon) is whether to pay more for a TV with 240Hz technology or 120Hz. These technologies are often advertised as reducing the blur in fast motion that has been an inherent problem for LCD TVs with the standard 60Hz refresh rate. It won’t cost you too much more for 120Hz, which has become fairly common over the past two years, but 240Hz is still available mainly on larger and pricier sets. My colleague, Jim Willcox, blogged on this a few months ago, and I think the eve of Black Friday is the perfect time to remind you of his advice, while adding a few findings from our latest tests.

Is 240Hz worth it? That depends. Our tests have shown that LCD TVs that quadruple the frame rate to true 240Hz can reduce motion blur in fast action scenes to the point that it’s barely noticeable, comparable to the rock-solid images on plasma TVs, which don’t suffer from motion blur. LCD TVs that double the frame rate to 120Hz, and those that use a 120Hz frame rate along with a scanning backlight to simulate 240Hz, don’t do as well, but they’re typically better than 60Hz TVs. Notice I said “typically.” That’s because the implementation of these technologies really determines how effective they are. We’ve found some models that show very little reduction in blur despite faster refresh rates. For our TV Ratings and reviews (available to subscribers), we test TVs on a model-by-model basis to show you which sets do a good job at reducing blur.

But blur might not be a big deal for you, depending on what you watch and how discerning of a viewer you are. Blur would be most obvious in sports, action movies, video games, and text moving across the screen in a ticker. When things speed up, you might notice details smearing or becoming difficult to discern. Blur is less obvious in programs with little motion, such as news or talk shows.

One important point to note is that the anti-blur feature is often linked to motion smoothing. This actually relates to something called “film judder,” which occurs when film, shot at 24 frames per second, is displayed on a 60Hz TV. (Video is shot at 30 frames per second, so it’s easier to present at 60Hz.) For film-based content, the TV must perform an operation called 3:2 pulldown, and the uneven cadence can cause a jerky effect, called judder. When you eliminate the judder that is characteristic of film, it makes the film look like video. In my opinion, it’s an odd, unnatural look, and I don’t care for it. But that’s purely a matter of personal preference.

On some TVs, you can leave the 120Hz or 240Hz refresh rate turned on while turning off the motion smoothing, and get the best of both worlds. But other sets have the two features tied together, so you can’t use the higher refresh rate without motion smoothing. Incidentally, every manufacturer calls these features by different names, both in ads and in the TV menus that enable you to turn these features on and off. So you won’t necessarily see the words “anti-blur” or “motion smoothing.” Ask the salesperson or look in the product manual or on the Web site to see what terms your TV brand uses.

So are these motion-blur technologies worth the extra money? There’s no easy answer. Look at sets with 60Hz, 120Hz, and 240Hz in the store, or check out a friend’s 240Hz at home to see if the difference is noticeable to you and worth whatever premium you’ll have to pay. Hope that helps. Happy shopping. – Eileen McCooey

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Daily electronics deals

Today's electronics deals, courtesy of The Consumerist:

  • Crutchfield : $20 Off $100 Purchase w/ coupon 3A171
  • Shop4Tech : 18% Off Entire Purchase w/ Coupon BF18
  • Channel Advisor : Lojack for Laptops 1-Year Subscription for $4.99 + $6.99 Shipping
  • Amazon: Samsung Hybrid DX205 DVD Camcorder $179 Shipped
  • Cambridge SoundWorks: Extra 35% off Newton Series Speakers
  • Vanns: Vanns Door Buster Deals
  • Onecall: Samsung SL720 12.1MP 5x Digital Camera (Wide Angle Lens) $119 Free Shipping
  • Invisible Shield: 50% Off ZAGGskins – New High Resolution Graphics, Invisible Shield Protection
  • Beach Camera: Lexar 16GB 60x Platinum II SDHC Class 6 Card for $23 + free shipping
  • MacConnection: Apple MacBook 13.3-inch LED 2GB/250GB Unibody (Newest Base Model) $885 + free shipping
  • 7Digital.com: $4 album sale through 11/30
  • Audible: Free audiobook, no credit card required
  • Amazon: Xbox 360 Arcade Console + Guitar Hero World Tour Band Bundle $199 + free shipping

Related: TV buying tips and Ratings; Digital camera buying tips and Ratings; Blu-ray player buying tips and Ratings; MP3 player buying tips and Ratings; GPS buying tips and Ratings; Computer buying tips and Ratings.

Neither Consumer Reports nor The Consumerist receive anything in
exchange for featuring these deals; the posts are intended to be purely
informational. These deals are often fleeting, with prices changing or
products becoming unavailable as the day progresses.

These posts are not an endorsement of the featured products or
the Web sites that sell them—though some of the sites may be included,
and recommended, in our Ratings of retailers for computers and other major electronics (both available to subscribers). Price shouldn't be your only criterion. Be wary of lower-priced deals that seem too good to be true, and check return policies for restocking fees and other gotchas.

For general buying advice for many of the products on sale above, check out our free Buying Guides.

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Black Friday: Last-minute shopping tips

Even though electronics goods are often at their lowest prices of the year on Black Friday, there are still a few tips to help insure you get not only the best deal, but also some peace of mind once you bring the item home. Happy shopping!

Shop the ads before Black Friday
By now, most of the major retailers have released their Black Friday specials, so check one of the comprehensive Black Friday-focused websites, such as bfads.net, blackfriday.info, theblackfriday.com, and gottadeal.com, to see if you’re getting the best deal. Some sites allow you to filter your searches by product categories, such as TVs.

Shop online
Also, before you brave the crowds at the stores, check to see if the retailer is offering the same—or even better—deals on its Web site. Amazon has a number of Black Friday-week TV deals, and Walmart’s online sale, for example, includes many of the same TVs it’s advertising as Black Friday deals in its stores (plus shipping for 97 cents on many models). Also, some retailers will have online exclusives you couldn’t get walking into one of its retail locations.

Shop close to home
If you find the best deals are in stores, you don’t necessarily need to drive all over town to get them. Our research shows that in many cases, the prices for highly promoted sets from major brands such as Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony vary by only a few dollars from chain to chain. So you can safely shop at the closest retailer without feeling that you’re missing out on a bargain.

Check the return policies
You may be familiar with your local chain’s return and exchange policies, but make sure that they aren’t different on a Black Friday special. Sometimes Black Friday sales are “final sales,” meaning the item can’t be returned. Other items may have a shortened return or exchange policy, or one where you can only get a store credit rather than a refund. Also make sure there isn’t a restocking fee on a returned item.

Check the warranty
If you’re loyal to a certain brand, you may feel you’re aware of its standard product warranty. But even major brands offer special “derivative” models during promotional periods like Black Friday, and they may alter the terms of their standard warranties for these sets. For example, the term may be much shorter, or the repair provisions could be different—such as no in-home service for larger sets, or you have to pay shipping if the TV needs to be sent to a service center—if a problem arises. If so, make sure you’re comfortable with the terms, and find out in advance what will happen if you need the set repaired. You may find that it will be your responsibility.

See if you can get a price match guarantee
Often stores say they’re suspending price-match guarantees during the Black Friday weekend, but you should ask for one anyway. After all, these are supposed to be “the lowest prices of the year!”

Check specially priced “bundles”
Often retailers—and sometimes, manufacturers—will combine two or more items into a specially priced package they say will save you money. But you should check the individual prices of these items at both the store and its competitors to see if you’re really getting a great deal. Our research during the past week uncovered some real savings, but also bundles that barely saved any money at all. Also, make sure you really need everything that’s included in the bundle. For example, we found several deals that combined an HDTV with a low-cost sound system that included a standard DVD player. With prices for Blu-ray players—and Blu-ray HTIBs— falling rapidly, this may not be as great a deal as it first seemed.

Buy the TV you really want
Items designated as doorbusters draw us in because of their low prices, but they may not be the best set for your needs. Remember you’ll likely be living with this TV for a number of years. Doorbuster items, especially derivative models created specially for the event, usually have lower specs and lack features found on a manufacturer’s standard lines. While this may be fine for a second or third set, you may want better performance or more features for your main TV. Because so many shoppers are looking for the cheapest TVs, which provide little margin for the retailer, the sales staff may be more willing to cut deals on better models, where they have more pricing wiggle room. And you may find that you’ll actually get a better deal by buying a slightly more expensive set that ultimately proves more satisfying for you and your family.

But avoid the old bait and switch
That said, if you’re really only buying on price, stick to your guns and don’t get pushed toward a more expensive model. Retailers will sometimes advertise a great deal on a certain TV, but then denigrate it once you’re in the store to buy it, hoping they can push you to a more profitable model. Also, don’t get pushed into buying pricey accessories, such as costly HDMI cables, that will negate any savings. I helped a friend buy a TV this weekend, and it took three specific requests to get the salesman to show her moderately priced cables, which were hidden away, out of sight. Even better, buy the cables ahead of time from a Web site such as monoprice.com or bluejeanscable.com and avoid the temptation entirely.

We hope you have a fun, satisfying shopping experience this holiday weekend. The “comments” section of our blog is a little harder to find these days—go to the very end of the entire blog to post a comment—but we’d love to hear from those with any great shopping stories to share. —James K. Willcox

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New report and Ratings for pocket camcorders

Pocket camcorders, or flip-style cams, are sure to be popular this holiday buying season. The best models may only offer decent, not stellar, image quality and performance when compared with the average standard-definition full-sized camcorder. But they’re inexpensive, easy to use, and very portable and lightweight.

To help you figure out which one is right for you, check out our new pocket camcorder report and Ratings (available to subscribers). On the overview page, we provide a list of what type of features you can expect to find on these models. For example, most have small LCDs and no optical zoom lenses. We also provide a list of Rated models, including several recommended pocket cams. —Terry Sullivan

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Black Friday deals start tonight

The diligent folks over at Gottadeal.com’s Black Friday site have alerted us that while most stores open at 5:00 a.m. on Friday morning, several retailers open up their online shops earlier to kick-start the holiday buying.

According to Gottadeal, Newegg.com fires the first salvo at 6:00 p.m. this evening, followed by some non-doorbuster deals from Sears at 9:00 p.m., both Eastern Standard Time. These will be followed by online specials from several other major stores, including Best Buy, Kmart, and RadioShack, at midnight. Target and Walmart will weigh in some time after that.

You can check out Gottadeal’s Black Friday site for other updates—and check in with our blog over the long weekend as we report on what we believe are great deals. —James K. Willcox.

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