Now is the best time yet to buy an HDTV.

Prices are affordable to mere mortals, and fierce competition among manufacturers — as well as a little prodding from Congress — has resulted in a wide selection of displays that deliver high-definition enjoyment in a variety of styles to suit any taste.

Let's start with the basics: With high-definition televisions, image quality is what separates the average from the amazing.

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With the lifespan of some of today's televisions measured in decades, choosing the right HDTV becomes even more important, as you may very well be staring at it for a long time.

Fortunately, understanding your needs and what to look for in an HDTV will simplify your decision.

In this story, we include essential information about the HDTVs we've recently reviewed. You'll find complete reviews — and many more of them — on the PC Magazine Web site, along with tips to help you make the right buying decision and links to tons more HDTV information.

Once you've bought your HDTV, check out "Technical TLC for the Best HDTV" at the end of this piece. If your TV isn't calibrated properly, you won't get the best viewing experience possible. We'll help you fix that.

From Analog to Digital TV

Although high-definition television was originally demonstrated as an analog technology, nowadays all high-definition television is digital — and the best-looking digital TV is HD.

The digital television (DTV) standard developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) lists numerous standard and high-definition video formats that all HDTVs must be able to process and display properly.

Here in the U.S., Congress has passed a law marking Feb. 17, 2009 as the cutoff date for analog broadcast television — although we doubt many will notice its demise.

Most people in the U.S. receive their TV programming via cable or satellite service, and these providers (satellite in particular) are well on their way toward all-digital distribution.

That said, broadcast (or terrestrial) DTV does offer several important advantages over the analog system it will replace, including higher quality and improved efficiency, and it will remain free of charge.

DTV doesn't necessarily mean HDTV. A digital broadcaster may use the same bandwidth that a single analog channel occupied to provide multiple channels of standard-definition programming. Or a broadcaster might use that same bandwidth to deliver a single high-quality HD channel complete with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio.

We don't know anyone who still uses an antenna to receive analog TV, but there are many people using antennae to access terrestrial DTV: At last count, there were more than 1,500 DTV stations broadcasting locally in cities across the country.

AntennaWeb.org is a useful resource for determining which DTV channels are broadcast in your area.

Your Favorite Shows Now in High-Def

In addition to the growing geographical coverage of terrestrial DTV, cable and satellite providers continue to expand their offerings of HD programming.

Digital video recorders (DVRs), such as the TiVo Series3, and other set-top boxes from companies such as Motorola and Scientific Atlanta, let cable subscribers time-shift HD programs, and the satellite television providers are several generations into their offerings of HD DVR hardware.

PCs factor in as well. Computers have long been capable of HD resolutions, and home-theater PCs continue to evolve from their hobbyist beginnings into powerful multimedia platforms that aim for easy integration into your HD family room.

Game consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3 are half-wasted hardware if they aren't connected to an HD display.

Perhaps the most important new sources of HD content to arrive on the scene this year have been the Toshiba-backed HD DVD and Sony-backed Blu-ray Disc formats.

Though both formats share many technical similarities, they remain incompatible, and they're much more expensive than the standard-definition DVD systems they're designed to replace.

These high-definition disc formats represent the highest-quality HD video sources available to consumers. They provide up to six times the resolution of DVD video and up to three times the data per second of cable or satellite HD programs — numbers critical for maintaining high image quality with complex video content.

Even with significant early-adoption hurdles, HD DVD and Blu-ray stand poised to become the new standard for consumer video.

Buying an HDTV

With so many HDTVs to choose from, selecting the best one for you may seem like a daunting task, but we have some suggestions that will narrow the contenders to a manageable few.

Ultimately, screen size and your budget will determine the right display technology for you. After that, you can focus on what constitutes a "good" picture and decide if the model you are considering appeals to your sense of style.

See our shopping checklist below for help with your decisions.

For HDTVs with screen sizes up to 36 inches, cathode-ray tubes are the best bang for your buck. The image quality of every new display technology is compared with that of CRTs, and until very recently the classic tube remained unmatched.

The downsides of CRT-based HDTVs are size and weight.

This is where liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) become the next best choice. They're available in sizes from sub-13-inch minnows to 65-inch behemoths, but LCD TVs 40 inches and smaller represent the best value. Their bright pictures and anti-reflective screens are ideal for rooms where ambient light is difficult to control.

For screens larger than 40 inches, plasma display panels (PDPs) are a better value. A common size for smaller plasma TVs is 42 inches, and the intense competition among manufacturers has resulted in lower prices, better picture quality, and increased longevity.

High-def video makes any HDTV look its best, but 42-inch HD plasmas are among our favorite displays for watching DVD movies. Some 50-inch PDPs cost half what they did a year or two ago, but the largest models still command premium prices.

Inch for inch, rear-projection televisions offer the best value in big-screen HDTVs. Common RPTV screen sizes start at 42 inches and top out at over 70 inches.

They can't match the viewing-angle performance of plasma displays, but with proper placement and seating position, an RPTV's image quality can exceed that of any flat-panel display.

Finally, make sure that the HDTV you are considering provides the right video inputs, and enough of them to produce the best picture quality with a variety of sources.

The two most common video inputs associated with high-definition video are component and HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Inter­face).

Component video is a common connection available on many progressive-scan DVD players and video-game consoles. Unless the source device offers a digital video output such as HDMI or DVI, a component-video connection is the way to go.

Nowadays, most HDTVs provide at least two component-video inputs. Manufacturers are starting to equip their sets with two or more digital-video inputs as well.

Use a TV's digital-video input with sources that provide a digital-video output, because the image quality will be much better if there are fewer ­analog-to-digital conversions along the signal path.

All You Need to Know About Resolution

One often-confusing aspect of HDTV technology is resolution.

The primary source of confusion relates to the capabilities of a particular high-definition display and the resolution of the source material — the video.

To carry the HDTV label or be described as an "HD monitor," a display must provide at least 720 lines of vertical resolution and have a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio — that is, the picture is a rectangle 16 units wide by 9 units high.

For high-definition video, the two most common formats are 720p and 1080i. The resolution of 720p video is 1,280 by 720 pixels, and this format is delivered as 60 progressively scanned (p) frames per second.

The resolution of 1080i video is 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, and it is delivered as 60 interlaced fields (i) per second (equivalent to 30 frames per second).

The important point to remember is that regardless of an HDTV's physical or "native" resolution (how many discrete pixels the screen provides), it will display a picture when fed a 720p or 1080i video signal.

Ideal HDTV image quality is achieved when the resolution of the source material perfectly matches the resolution of the display device, but in the real world this rarely happens.

Many high-definition LCD and plasma displays provide a native resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels — slightly greater than 720p resolution, but only about half of the pixels needed to resolve all of the details of 1080i video.

Video-processing hardware incorporated into all HDTVs stretches or "decimates" (downsamples) the video as needed to make it fit the screen.

Most HDTVs in stores today are also progressive-scan displays that automatically convert (deinterlace) interlaced video such as 480i (the standard television format) or 1080i into the display's progressive format.

Of course, how well a particular HDTV performs this important conversion has a direct impact on overall image quality.

High-definition displays that provide native 1080p resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels, at 60 frames per second) are now available in sizes starting at 37 inches for LCD TVs and 50 inches for RPTVs.

Pioneer and Panasonic have also introduced 1080p PDPs, at 50 inches and 65 inches respectively.

A display with 1080p resolution is a good match for 1080i video sources, but the larger screens benefit most from 1080p resolution, as the higher refresh rate help create a smoother picture you can view at closer distances.

The rule of thumb is that 1080p resolution is a must for screens larger than 50 inches. With smaller TVs, you would need to sit fairly close to appreciate the improvements the extra pixels would offer.

Your Bottom Line

Truth is, there's almost too much information out there about high-definition television.

It's not unlike the information glut that accom­panied the early days of consumer PCs — too many options, with no winner, only the option that's best for you.

This story, along with our online reviews and resources, should clear up much of the HDTV picture, or at least set you on the path to making the right decision for your family room and your wallet.

Shopping Checklist

1. Measure

It doesn't matter how gorgeous the 100-inch set is if you have wall space for only a 42-inch TV. If you sit more than 8 feet away from the TV, consider a screen size of at least 50 inches. At 9 feet or more, a 65-inch (or larger) screen is just about perfect.

2. Budget

Decide how much money you want to spend. Not that it's any of our business, but we've all fallen prey to in-store fiscal dementia.

3. Compare quality

Visit stores that have every HDTV displaying the same content, preferably HD video. This makes subjective comparisons easier.

4. Scrutinize

Evaluate image quality under subdued lighting. The eye is most sensitive once it adjusts to a dimly lit environment.

5. Take a spin

Try out the remote and compare displays using the "movie" or "theater" picture presets. These picture modes are usually more accurate than the default settings.

6. Bring the family

You're going to be living with the set for a long time, so make sure everyone's on board.

Technical TLC for the Best HDTV

Every television deserves proper calibration.

You just bought your spanking-new HDTV. You take it home, eagerly open the box, and plug it in.

Surprise! The picture isn't quite what you saw in the store.

Unfortunately, the default picture settings of all televisions are configured to make a display stand out on a crowded store shelf; they have little to do with accurate and faithful image reproduction.

Settling for a picture that isn't quite right or is even missing parts of the image is a waste of your new investment. For these reasons, every TV deserves proper calibration.

Display calibration is the process of adjusting a TV's picture — for brightness (black level) and contrast/picture (white level) color balance, and more — to make it "right."

Professional video production adheres to very specific color and detail standards, and it only makes sense to configure a display device to play by the same rules.

Many new televisions incorporate picture mode presets with names such as "movie," "natural," or "theater" that can provide a more realistic and pleasing image, especially when viewed in a dimly lit environment.

But I've yet to see a preset on any TV come close to matching the ideal standard.

Also keep in mind that room lighting conditions will affect your perception of color and detail, and that a good display will provide at least one memory preset for storing custom adjustments.

You can calibrate a display in several ways. The absolute best results come from a professionally trained calibrator who will show up with thousands of dollars' worth of gear to optimize your TV's picture.

Professional calibrators can access arcane settings not normally available to the average person, and they can optimize image quality for a variety of devices and video inputs.

The cost of hiring a professional depends on the type of HDTV you have and how many inputs and source devices you want calibrated. Expect to spend a minimum of $300.

You can find a list of trained calibrators in your area on the Imaging Science Foundation Web site, imagingscience.com.

Practically all do-it-yourself calibration methods use a DVD player to display test patterns. Products such as the SpyderTV add a hardware color analyzer, but other tools such as the Monster/ISF HDTV Calibration Wizard DVD ($29.95) and the THX Optimizer (included with many DVD movies) use the Mark I eyeball to get the most important settings adjusted properly.

The picture settings obtained by using a DVD player as a source device are not usually applicable to other devices connected to other inputs. The ability to extend settings to all your media devices is one of the main advantages a trained calibrator offers over DIY methods.

The Future on Display

A new flat-panel technology has emerged to challenge plasma and LCD.

The technology was codeveloped by Canon and Toshiba. The acronym, SED, stands for surface-conduction electron-emitter display. And the technology borrows from CRT and LCD while avoiding the pitfalls of both.

Like a CRT, an SED uses an electron source to stimulate a thin layer of material. But a CRT paints its picture line by line using a single magnetically guided electron beam; in an SED, an array of electron emitters draws each individual pixel.

This level of pixel control lets SED's developers claim pixel-response times of below 1 milli­second, which will result in superb clarity when displaying video containing fast movement and colors enhanced by infinitesimal black levels.

SED's contrast ratios reach into the astounding realm of 50,000:1 or better (the ratio approaches infinity:1 as black measurements approach zero, or no light), meaning that black on an SED will appear inky dark instead of the dim glow you'll see on other TVs.

I had the opportunity to view a prototype 37-inch SED panel in action and was impressed by the display's dark-gray detail as well as its superclear fast-motion video.

Returning to reality, the main issues affecting SED's success are time and price.

The current time line from Canon/Toshiba calls for the debut of 55-inch 1080p SED TVs in late 2007.

Pricing isn't available yet, but like all new technologies, SED will initially command premium prices.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.