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First, do your research, then consider various costs

Getting carpel-tunnel from twisting the dial on your old black-and-white TV set? Rabbit-ear antenna attracting only five snowy channels? Find yourself chanting "I want my HDTV"?

Well, with Columbus Day sales coming next Monday, look for those bargains on flat-screen televisions. Did old Christopher say, "Sail on" or "Sale on!"

The best part of tossing the cathode-ray tube, besides limiting your blizzards to winter, is all the space you'll discover in your new digital family room with a cool flat-screen TV. You won't even be able to call it the "idiot box" anymore. Get remote ready. Here's how:

1. Calculate what you can afford. This isn't your $50 drug-store television. Flat screens are costly. Even pursuing sales, figure on spending in the four-figure range, especially when you realize there may be extra expenses not seen on that price tag.

2. Look around your viewing area at home, and consider where you'll watch the TV. The bigger the screen, the more room you'll need -- for viewing distance.

3. Allow at least 5 feet for a 36-inch screen or smaller, 7-to-9-feet distance for larger screens.

4. Shop where your retailer will beat or match a lower cost from its competitor. You may even find a promise of a refund if costs fall within a month, or if you see your set selling for less somewhere else.

5. Keep a file of those prices.

6. If you go to a store, allot some time for actually watching television in the showroom.

7. Estimate how much distance you'll need to comfortably view the screen you like.

8. Bring a tape measure along with you to the store to make sure your estimates won't be far off.

9. Choose between a plasma or LCD by watching some showroom TV and see what looks better to you personally. Do you prefer the more intense black on the plasma? Or the overall LCD brightness?

10. Comfortable shopping for a big item like this on the Internet? Use shopping "bots" -- from the word "robots." A number of shopping Web sites are one-stops where you can check costs on TVs at many retailers.

11. Sort listings by price. Don't forget about tax and shipping costs.

12. Check reader reviews of products and retailers.

13. Consider sites like Shopzilla.com, Shopping.com, mySimon.com, PriceGrabber.com, DealTime.com, Buy.com and BizRate.com.

14. Setting price alerts, indicate your ideal price. The "bot" e-mails you when it finds a store selling at your price. Retailers such as Crutchfield.com will send alerts, too.

15. Inquire about return policies.

16. Negotiate in the store and on-line. You may save some cash.

17. When you can't get a price down on a set, maybe you can cut a deal on something like delivery costs or installation.

18. Think about whether you want an extended warranty. Consumer experts have made a real turn-around on them. When flat screens were relatively new on the market, they advised getting them. Now, they generally believe warranties aren't worth it. Besides, your credit card may offer a free warranty extension.

19. Feel strong enough to carry a bulky set into your home? You can save delivery costs -- some boxes even have handles. Otherwise, your back's worth more than a few bucks.

20. Don't be afraid to pay the installation costs. There have been leading engineers who couldn't do it themselves. In one Buffalo-area home, it took an expert more than eight hours to attach the flat screen to the wall. And he didn't even break for lunch.

>Tips and warnings

* Realize it will take awhile to learn just exactly what your new flat screen TV will do. The operating instructions on one set, with a total price of more than $2,300, was about 65 pages. Before your installer leaves, make sure you know basic operation.

As the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" character Cheryl David complains: "I don't even know how to turn the TV on anymore!"

Be willing to call the store back and ask for advice. Or else you may think the truly advanced technology was the old just plug-it-in set, and settle back and reread "Fahrenheit 451."

* Know that close to one-half of 24 million households with HDTVs don't really watch high-definition programs, according to one study, because they didn't get the necessary hardware from their satellite, phone or cable companies.

* Skip the fine print on those "zero-percent" finance deals and you may be sorry.

>Resources

Buy.com
Shopping.com
Crutchfield.com
BizRate.com
Shopzilla.com
PriceGrabber.com
DealTime.com
Consumer Reports
Wall Street Journal
Washington Post

e-mail: lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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