Tax rebate in HD

Sean P. Flynn

That 1970s-era television – 20 inches in diameter with wood trim and shiny knobs – has been petering out for years, but it still hasn't moved from the spot in the living room where it has been sitting for three decades.

Consumers waiting for the perfect moment to replace their dated TVs are expecting the federal government's tax rebate check to arrive in the next few months, and many have decided the time has finally come to purchase that new, sleek, high-definition TV.

A recently released study by the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that one in five Americans would use at least a portion of their federal tax rebate for household electronics products such as computers and televisions. 

The choices for consumers can be daunting, however, with flat panels, resolution levels, HDMI outlets, and prices ranging from hundreds of dollars to thousands.

“For a lot of people this may be the first set in 10 years,” said Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association. “Last time they drove to a retailer and drove home.”

Now, with so many more options, consumers should “feel free to take the $600 and shop around. Look for the best buy. Look for the online deal. There are a lot of variations,” Pollock said.

How much do they cost?

Cost increases with the size and the number of features, and can change if the manufacturer is a name brand. On, for example, the store's Insignia brand offers HDTVs that are 10 inches bigger than name-brand sets of the same price. The number of HDMI ports, which connect gaming systems, computers and DVD players to the television, and the sharpness of the resolution also can increase price.

A $1,200 tax rebate would buy a name-brand, flat-screen HDTV of about 40 inches in diameter from almost any retailer. Individuals who get half that much back from the government would be able to purchase a 22-inch LCD screen TV. LCD and plasma are two different technologies, using fluorescent light and phosphorus, respectively, to display images. Plasma is considered best for fast-moving pictures, color definition and the largest screens, but experts say LCD technology has improved in recent years and the sets last longer.

“With LCD you get a little more bang for your buck – more features and larger size for less cost,” said Mick Wheeler, owner of SilverStream Media, a home-theater company based in Northwest Florida.

Rear-projection sets start at about $1,500 for a 50-inch HDTV, but similarly sized flat-panel sets can cost twice that much. If size and weight do not matter much to the consumer, 36-inch cathode ray tube HDTVs – traditional boxy TV sets – are available for about $500, far cheaper than the flat-screen alternatives.

What size TV do you really need?

A rule of thumb for determining what TV size you need, according to Bob Perry, senior vice president of Panasonic display, is a 3-to-1 ratio. In other words, for every 3 feet between the viewer and his TV, the screen should be 1 foot in diameter: If watching TV from 9 feet away, a 36-inch (or 3-foot) television would be the best choice.

Other factors to consider include how much room and light are available in the TV room and how the TV would be used.

Where should you buy new TVs?

Wheeler tells customers to begin their shopping at a brick-and-mortar store, so they can see exactly what is available and determine what fits their needs. After they have selected models they like, he said they should go home and do their own research online, where prices are usually cheaper.

At most Web sites, a consumer does not have to pay sales tax, which can save a lot of money, he said.  But with online purchases, he added, consumers may lose some options, such as installation and local warranty service.

“There are pros and cons either way,” Wheeler said. “If you're interested in bottom line: Internet. If you're interested with someone taking care of you: brick-and-mortar.”

What extras should you consider?

Vinny Olmstead of, a Web site based in Vero Beach, Fla., that allows consumers to compare prices on services such as cable TV and telephone, said consumers should take into account extraneous costs before purchasing an HDTV.

Getting an HDTV converter box from cable or satellite TV providers generally costs $10 per month per TV and is necessary to receive high-definition content, Olmstead said.

Mounting flat-panel TVs and setting up digital entertainment systems also can be confusing, and professional assistance can cost hundreds of dollars more.


BY THE NUMBERS  According to the A.C. Nielsen Co.

99 Percentage of households that possess at least one television

250 Number of hours (in billions) of TV watched annually by Americans

66 Percentage of Americans that regularly watch television while eating dinner

2.24Number of television sets in the average U.S. household