(July 22, 2010) The best selling HDTV screen size in America is 32″. Almost every TV maker offers models in this class, which creates stiff competition that drives prices down to record low levels.

A  number of name brand entry models can be found for under $400, though you can also spend over $900 for a 1.1″ thin LED LCD loaded with many extra features. Which one is right for you?

The Basics

All 32″ flat screen TVs today are LCDs lit using either CCFL fluorescent lamps or LEDs (which is why such sets are often incorrectly referred to as “LED TVs”)

An advantage in larger screen sets using LED lighting can include the ability to extinguish appropriate screen sectors to produce deeper black (the feature is referred to as “local dimming”). Unfortunately, we know of no LED models in the 32″ class that have this feature. Only 40″ and larger sets do. (Ditto for 3D capability).

LEDs are more energy efficient than CCFL lamps, but in the 32″ size the power consumption differential is minimal (about 45 watts for LED versus around 75 watts for CCFL). Thus the purchase price premium is more likely far greater than the lifetime energy savings.

720p vs. 1080p

At 32″ screen size you have to be about four feet from the TV to fully appreciate the increased resolution of 1080p over 720p. Most people typically sit nine feet from their TVs. This statistic is referred to as the “Lechner Distance” named after the engineer who did the research.  If you sit that far away, save your money and opt for a 720p model.

60 Hz vs. 120 Hz

All LCD TVs (whether LED or CCFL) blur fast moving screen objects (i.e. a runners’ legs or a speeding car). 120 Hz HDTVs reduce the motion blur. However, if you are sitting at the Lechner Distance, you will probably not find the blur of the slower sets objectionable.

120 Hz is only available on 1080p LCD (and LED) models.  If you sit near the four foot optimal viewing distance and view  content with a lot of motion, such as sports or adventure movies you should opt for a 120 Hz sets.  Be aware:  all current LCD/LED models operating in the 120Hz mode,  make film based sources appear to resemble  video (sometimes referred to as the soap opera effect), which is a phenomena some viewers find objectionable.

Internet Connectivity

A number of higher end models include Internet widgets and provide other content such as weather forecasts, sports scores, Amazon (movies) on Demand, Flickr and Net Flix. The  list will vary among brands. If this is important to you, consider purchasing a Blu-ray player with similar Internet services. You will get the functionality without the additional cost tacked on to the TV. An example is the [amazonify]B0038KN114::text::::Panasonic DMP-BD65[/amazonify]. It is available from Amazon for $124.68 with free shipping.

HDMI Inputs

HDMI is the best way to connect an HDTV to a high definition source component. Most 32″ models have at least two HDMI inputs, while others have three to four. You will need one for your cable or satellite box/DVR and another for a Blu-ray  player. You may need a third for a connecting a camcorder or a media box such as a VUDU player. Decide your needs before making a purchase decision.

If you are planning to also get a surround sound audio system, you may need only one HDMI input if the receiver or home theater in a box (HTIB) you select includes multiple HDMI inputs.

What Else To Look For

Once you’ve decided on the features you want in a 32″ HDTV, the two most important performance criteria are viewing angle and black level. The former is easy to test. Simply begin moving to the right or left of the screen center and see how quickly the image becomes darker and the blacks get lighter resulting in a darker image with lower contrast.  Some sets (such as the Panasonic LCDs) are known for their wide viewing angle while others quickly get a flat, dull look as one moves off center. If you always view alone and only on-axis you can skip to the next item. However, if you will have friends or family over regularly, check the off-axis performance before buying the set.

Black level is the Achilles heel of small screen LCD HDTVs. A number of models we’ve looked at have very blue or purplish blacks. Other have more neutral blacks but they’re gray, not inky.

Unfortunately evaluating in the brighter than home, store retail environment  is difficult. To determine the color and depth of black, cup your hand on the screen to block out room ambient light and wait for a fade to black or a   dark scene during observing the store’s demo content. Also inspect  the depth and shade of black when viewing off-axis. Some 32″screens get quite blue as you move to off center.

Final Suggestions

Do your homework online to make a list of 32″ HDTVs that have the features you desire within your price range. Amazon carries many 32″ models and you can get there using our link. Just click Amazon’s ad on the left column.

With your model list in hand, get to over to your local TV retailer, test viewing angles and black levels then choose your ideal 32″ HDTV.

Edited by Michael Fremer

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