How should 3D shape your TV buying decision? Not strongly, in our opinion. Here are few things to keep in mind.
Manufacturers construct their product lines to get you to pay more for "step-up" features. 3D is just that, along with Internet capability, an LED backlight, and fancy improvements to picture quality. They're generally all tied together, too, which is why nearly all high-end TVs, and many midrange ones, now feature 3D compatibility. At CNET we tend to focus on midrange and flagship models, and among the 27 TVs we've reviewed as of mid-November 2011, 16 have been 3D compatible.
If you "boycott" 3D by restricting your search to 2D-only televisions, you're missing out on the TVs with the best 2D picture quality. In our experience, the best-performing 2D TVs happen to have the 3D feature as well. If you're willing to pay extra for an improvement in 2D picture quality, chances are you'll be getting 3D whether you like it or not. That said, just because you buy a 3D TV--even just to get the best 2D picture quality--doesn't mean you need to ever use the 3D feature.
If the only reason you're considering stepping up to the 3D feature is to avoid buyer's remorse in the next couple of years, in anticipation of 3D content becoming widespread, you should stick with a 2D TV. For reasons discussed in the content section, we don't see 3D as a "must-have" for most TV buyers either now or in the next couple of years.
In the single product generation since their widespread launch in 2010, active 3D TVs have gotten better and active glasses have gotten cheaper, more comfortable, and more convenient. We also expect passive 3D TVs to get better in future generations. As a new technology, at least this time around, 3D in the home has plenty of room to improve, so if 3D picture quality is your main concern, tomorrow's TV will be better. A 3D technology that combines the best of both active and passive would be a good start. We also expect 3D content to improve as filmmakers and animators refine their techniques.
The obstacles preventing glasses-free 3D TVs from catching on include restricted viewing angles, limited numbers of viewers, lower resolution and the necessity to use head-tracking to optimize the image. The state of the art Toshiba 55LZ2, for example, is coming to market in Europe for a price expected to crest the equivalent of $10,000--and we have no idea how it performs or what compromises it demands. As a point of comparison Toshiba's own passive 55TL515 sells for around $1,400. In short, we don't expect glasses-free 3D TVs to hit mainstream prices anytime soon.
Our best advice, which applies to the 3D feature more than to any 2D step-up feature, is still to see for yourself. Watch at least a couple of 3D movies in the theater to decide whether you like or can even see the effect. Even better, audition 3D TV at a friend's house or a good retail store. If you've narrowed it down to two similar models you can afford, one with 3D and one without, it's definitely worth seeing 3D TV in action before making your decision. TVs last a long time, and 3D TV technology can only improve.