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What's the Best HDTV I Can Get for Under $500?

A reader asks: I just moved into a new house, have an empty living room, and want the best possible TV I can get to fill the gaping hole -- for under 500 bucks, that is. I know it's a tall order, but I'm broke and need to be sure whatever TV I get is going to impress my suspicious wife and last for the next, oh, 30 years -- until I've finally paid off my mortgage. So please, just tell me what to get!

Dear Reader:
Our sincere congratulations on your new home!. (And congrats to your neighbors, too, who surely will benefit from your propping up the ailing real estate market.) With apologies to the Dude, we're firm believers that nothing ties a room together like a swanky new TV, so we're more than happy to do the heavy lifting for you.

While you didn't give details about the size of your living room, desired screen size and other factors, it's almost irrelevant. Barring open box, refurbs or any miracle one-day sales (e.g., Switched's Deals of the Day), your options are limited to a 32-inch LCD HDTV at that price point. That's not a bad thing; a 32-inch screen is just fine for viewing from up to eight feet away, which we've found is standard for most people, anyway. The good news is that over the past year, prices have dropped, and quality and standard specs improved, to the point where 500 clams will get you a TV that even your wife won't want to kick out of the house.

Of all the lower-priced models on the market, we're especially fond of Panasonic's Viera TCL32G1, which we've found for around $460 online. Its native resolution is 720p, but -- uniquely for a 32-incher -- it handles video signals at 120 hertz (versus the normal 60 hertz), which means that fast-motion scenes are especially smooth and crisp. Truly, we flat out love the picture. It also has an IPS screen, which means that it has a wide viewing angle (of 178 vertical and horizontal degrees) without getting screwy colors or blocky blacks like many LCDs. (For that reason, designers and photographers often rely on IPS screens.) The G1 also features: a respectable 20,000:1 contrast ratio; three HDMI ports; a host of composite, component, S-video and digital outputs; and an SD card slot for viewing photo slideshows (if that's your thing). As with most any electronics purchase, we recommend you buy it only after you try it. Still, we're positive you'll fall in love with the G1 just as we have.

We would be remiss if we didn't mention that the G1 doesn't put out 1080p video, but, in truth, we think that's of negligible value for a screen this size, barring a few situations: if you're a close-sitting console gamer, if you're an absolute Blu-Ray fanatic, or if you plan to sit particularly close to your TV (against your mother's advice). If any of those qualities apply to you, then you might consider a Sony Bravia EX400; it's a similarly outfitted, and generally kickass, set that goes for around $495 online. With its 1080p native resolution, the EX400 handles video at 60 hertz, features four HDMI ports, and boasts a USB port for playback of photos, music and video. We can't promise that either of these sets will outlast your 30-year mortgage, of course. Still, we're sure you'll love either one -- at least for the several years we have left until the icebergs melt and your house is flooded, anyway. Welcome to the neighborhood!

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