Let's say you've had your HDTV for a few years now. Let's say you can't stop reading new TV reviews. Let's say you find excuses to stop at Best Buy to stare at the wall.
OK, you want a new TV. No problem. But do you need a new TV? Are the current models really that much better than what you have?
Let's take a look.
Whether current HDTVs look better than yours is, as you'd expect, largely related to how old your TV is. There's no set answer, but I can give you some tips and tricks to track down how much better (if at all) new TVs are. As a general rule, if you bought a decent TV in the last few years, the new models will only look a little better. More than five years, and it gets harder to say.
Your best bet is to compare, if possible, the contrast ratio of your current TV with a new model. This is not to say you should compare what the company claims. As I detailed in my contrast ratio (or how every TV manufacturer lies to you) article, all contrast ratio specs are 100 percent fabrications. So you may need to do a bit of digging. Some Web sites, like CNET, measure the black level of TVs. This is a good start, as generally a lower black level is the first step toward a better contrast ratio. Some other sites, like my other digital home Sound and Vision Magazine, and my former digital home, Home Theater, list measured contrast ratio for each review. Search for your TV, see how it performed, then search for the new model (presuming it's been reviewed already) and compare.
If you're going this route, I'd recommend sticking with one site for your numbers, as there's going to be enough measurer-to-measurer variation between reviewers to make cross-Web-site measurement comparisons dicey (sorry, so it goes). Even so, a difference of 20 to 30 percent in measured contrast ratio isn't likely to be noticeable, even side by side. A lot more than that? The TV probably looks a little better.
Overall light output, at least as LCD and LED LCDs are concerned, have been well beyond what most people need for years. Plasma light outputs, at least in the standard modes, have actually fallen in recent years, because of Energy Star and other green requirements (more on this in a moment).
But, as I said, name-brand TVs have looked pretty good for a bunch of years now. The rest of this list shows where the bigger differences are.
If you've got a pre-3D HDTV, this is probably the most noticeable difference between yours and a new model. I say "probably" because... do you really want it? I'm biased, I don't really care about 3D. If you want to upgrade to 3D, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is you'll also need a new Blu-ray player. Almost all of those are 3D-capable now, too, and are around $100, so that's easy.
The next is whether you want active or passive. Active 3D TVs use battery-powered shutter glasses. These are fairly expensive (though they're getting cheaper), and often rather heavy (though they're getting lighter). The benefit, though, is full 1080p resolution per eye.
The other method, used by some Toshiba, Vizio, and some LG models, is passive. These use cheap polarized glasses like you'd find in most movie theaters. They're light, pretty much eliminate crosstalk artifacts, and let more light pass through to your eye (so the image is brighter than with an active 3DTV). The downside is that because of the way it works, each eye only sees half the TV's total resolution. As in, you're only seeing 1,920x540 pixels per eye. If you sit close to the TV, or the TV is really big, you're going to see interlace lines, and jagged edges on diagonals.
There are other pros and cons with each technology, enough to fill an entire article. Conveniently, I did just that: Active 3D vs. passive 3D: What's better?
Another big feature new in the last few years is built-in Internet streaming features, like Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, and others. Some models even have built-in browsers so you can check e-mail and surf the Web. While these are all neat, I can't say that they're a good reason, in themselves, to upgrade. The Apple TV is a fantastic piece of kit, only $100, and streams Netflix and allows you to buy/rent TV shows and movies from iTunes. A lot of people like the Roku boxes for similar reasons.
Adding one of these to your system will give you the same general streaming features as those built into modern TVs. Perhaps not a Web browser, though. If you don't already use your phone or a tablet to surf the Web and check e-mail while you're watching TV, then a built-in Web browser is certainly cool.
Tired of that tiny 42? Try a new 80. Recently, we've seen a trend of dramatically increasing sizes and rapidly decreasing prices. Not only are screen sizes above 60 inches possible, but they've become fairly common and affordable. Sharp, for one, has 70- and even 80-inch models costing not much more than 60-inch LCDs from other brands. An enormous TV is awesome, though personally I think you shouldn't buy a jumbo LCD TV. Buy a projector instead. Check out my TV vs. projection article for more on that.
One last reason one might want to upgrade, is the better energy efficiency of newer televisions. While true, for the most part, this is somewhat misleading. Yes, modern televisions generally use less power than their predecessors, but upgrading with the idea of saving the environment is overly simplistic.
If you're going to use your old TV to replace an aging CRT in your bedroom or basement, then go for it. If you're just trying to "save money" on your electric bill, that's not going to happen. You'll never recoup the costs of a new TV in the money it saves you in electricity each month. Even the difference between the most power hungry plasma and most energy efficient LED LCD isn't enough to ever get the money back from the difference in price between them.
If you're just looking to get something new, or bigger, or just plain shinier, go for it. We've all been there. If you're torn, I'll sum up with this: unless you want 3D or new features, and your TV is only a few years old, stick with what you have. The new models probably aren't going to look that much better. If you've got an old plasma, or early LCD, then the new models probably will look a lot better. Need help decided between the different technologies? Check out LED LCD vs. plasma vs. LCD.
Have you upgraded recently? What did you upgrade from and to?
Got a question for Geoff? Send him an e-mail! If it's witty, amusing, and/or a good question, you may just see it in a post just like this one. No, he won't tell you which TV to buy. Yes, he'll probably truncate and/or clean up your e-mail. You can also send him a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.