Buying a New Television Set Is a Miserable, Dehumanizing Experience

Here's what I wanted to do: Get a nice, straightfoward, not-too-expensive HD television set to enjoy Blu-ray movies and video games. Absolutely no problem, right? We live in a digital age of high technology at affordable prices. Picture quality and features have never been better, and there are so many different brands to choose from, how can you go wrong?

Well, lots of ways, as I discovered after I plunged into the Cyber Monday fray to buy a discounted TV at a price-matching brick-and-mortar store. Here are the most important lessons I learned along the way.

First: Don't completely trust consumer reviews at Amazon or other Web retail sites. They are not experts on electronics. Buyers who write reviews largely fall in one of two camps: Either determined to love their expensive purchase or infuriated by some new-found faults in their expensive purchase. The former will rave about the product and recommend you buy it immediately to join them in material bliss; the latter wants to recruit you in their holy war against the manufacturer. Instead, find a website that seems reasonably competent at assessing the goods, like televisioninfo.com, cnet.com, or consumersearch.com, or find more knowledgeable owners at an AV forum like, well, avsforum.com. A couple of years ago, when I purchased our very first flat-panel screen, I let Amazon reviewers guide me to a 37-inch LG—4.5 stars! The first few months, it was lovely. Then thick, gray horizontal bars began appearing during dark scenes or when we dared to watch a black-and-white movie. Thus began months of struggle with the picture settings in a futile quest to get the damn screen to look reasonably good. LG was no help, so tweak, tweak, tweak... week after week... lowering the backlight ever downward... the brightness levels, too. As soon as I thought I had finally achieved picture equilibrium, the gray bands would reappear, leading me to another TV-buying revelation...

Second: Don't believe that the latest technology is the best technology just because it has a cool name. (Or that great specs mean a great TV.) Here's the thing: Edge-lit LED TVs mostly suck, in my opinion. Yes, they're very thin. Yes, everyone has been raving about them. And some sets will certainly be better than others. But that deluxe LG I bought renders pathetically weak dark images because it just can't handle screen-wide solid blacks—lighting the image from the sides results in flashlighting, banding, ghosting, and lots of other horrible things. I'm usually not too persnickety about such matters, but whenever I would walk past the display sets at Target (with ghostly brand names like "Westinghouse") as they broadcast their shimmering, deep blacks at a third of the price, consumer rage would boil within me, along with an urge to post a really mean review on Amazon. Instead, I exhaled and waited for a better, cheaper TV from a real name-brand to appear—and that turned out to be a 40" low-end Samsung with one significant technological advantage: full-array LED backlighting. Good-bye edge-lighting. Ahhhh, finally. But wait...

Third: The TV screen you're buying may not be the TV screen you think you're buying. After reading a professional review for a TV that earned glowing praise, you'd think if that's what you bought, then you too would be able to enjoy that exact same level of quality, right? Make no such assumption. According to articles at digitalversus.com and numerous AV forums, some big-name companies may outsource their screens to third-party manufacturers—sometimes crappy third-party manufacturers (usually Chinese, and no doubt assembled by poorly paid workers, just to add to the karmic quagmire). So although the genuine article may be superb, the set you end up with may have another panel altogether, one of lesser quality. Worse viewing angles, worse black levels, worse motion resolution—all that can be yours at the exact same price as the real item. But the manufacturers won't tell you this little fact. You must rely on your fellow consumers; go to those discussion threads at the AV forums. There, after much trial and error, owners will report the version numbers that signify "real" panels vs. the "not real" panels. (Just google "panel lottery" along with the TV model number.) But once you have that version number (if indeed those forum members are correct), your TV-buying journey only becomes more harrowing...

Fourth: Big-box store clerks generally don't want to hear about your pathetic struggle to find the exact thing you want. (In fact, they may loathe you even before you open your mouth.) So let's just say you discovered that the only store in town that actually stocks the TV model you want is, ah, Walmart. What can you do—order it online and keep shipping the rejects back until you get the right one? No, you suck it up and go to Walmart. And once you find a sales clerk (which will take approximately 30 minutes), you must then ask him/her, "Can you see if you have any of this model in stock? And, um, if you do, can you find one with the version number TS02? It's on the label. Yes. Why? Well, I want to get one particular kind of panel.... Why? Uh, let me explain..." Sadly, their eyes will roll skyward at even the most polite request, and you can only guess whether they really looked at those labels in the warehous after they quickly return and shake their heads.

So you repeat this process again and again at different stores, driving in endless circles around the county, until you either succeed or give up. Oh, if only Steve Jobs had had just a bit more time on our planet... dammit.