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Where to start home theater system?

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January 28, 2011 4:36:51 PM

(TLDNR at bottom)
Hey all,
As a soon-to-be college grad, currently working a full time paid co-op, I'm making more money than I ever have, and would like to invest a little bit in getting a home theater system. The problem is, I don't know where to start. Right now, my "setup" (a big of a stretch on the word), is 24" CRT TV, my laptop, and an s-video to RCA (or whatever red/yellow/white cords are) cable. I also have a 1 TB external HDD with a couple hundred movies on it.

Basically, I'm looking to ditch cable, and rely on streaming services and my collection of media files. Lifehacker published a nice article today on building an HTPC for under $500, and I've seen more than a few builds on Tom's for various level PCs for media, gaming, etc. I ordered a set of 4.1 surround speakers from Newegg for 31 bucks, and now I'm looking at getting a new TV. I'm making money now, but not too much, so definitely on a tight budget still, but I'm thinking of getting an LCD TV in the 27-32 inch range, and hopefully not spending more than 300 or so. I think that generally limits me to the used range, so I've started my search on Craigslist. I do have the advantage of being on the edge of a decently sized city (Columbus), so there's plenty out there. Has anyone had experience buying TVs off Craigslist, is this a good idea? What should I look out for? Apart from the obvious, of course make sure it works, not cracked, don't buy it from some dude in an alley at 4 am, etc. I'm trying to find a balance between something that works well now, but not spending too much as I'm sure I'll be upgrading in the not too distant future when my budget is more flexible.

My laptop has an HD out port on it, so I guess a nice and easy, inexpensive upgrade would then be to get an HDMI cable once I have an HD TV. If I decide to build an HTPC, I'll probably have to buy the components staggered out over time. If I do this, what general order should I get them in? If I know what I'm getting ahead of time, I would assume a power supply would be a good first thing to get, since that's probably the slowest to degrade over time, right? Same deal for a case I would guess too. The mobo, processor, memory, and video card all change much faster; is there a preferred order to buy those so as to maximize the time-to-obsolete? Or maybe to minimize cost-for-performance? I'm not planning on getting a blu-ray player at this time as I generally don't rent or buy too many movies so I can save on costs there, and it seems like I won't need an especially powerful video card for theater purposes, correct? Am I better off sinking more money into RAM or processor or what? Is faster RAM more important than higher memory RAM? Similar for the processor, is bus speed a significant factor compared with clock speed? I can probably get by with an i3 or equivalent, I don't think I need turbo boost (or whatever it's called on i5/i7), or whatever comparable AMD feature is called. Is there any real difference between Intel and AMD in terms of performance for this; to my knowledge AMD processors of comparable power are cheaper than Intels, can I save money here?

I'm also looking into getting a gaming system to go with the setup, either an Xbox 360 or PS3. Obviously, this is a highly personal choice, but does anyone have any recommendations? One advantage of PS3 is the ability to play blu-rays, which I said I don't normally get, but if I had a player built in to my game system I might be inclined to get some occasionally. On the flip side, I've heard 360 can be used as a media server, would this work for my needs? Could I just get than in lieu of an HTPC, with the understanding that it would be less flexible and customizable? What limitations, if any, does that place on a setup?

Sorry for writing a novel on this, I just want to make sure any money spent is money well spent. So any advice on things I should or shouldn't get, order I should get them and similar would be greatly appreciated. I also forgot to mention above, I have an extra OEM Windows 7 disc as well as a couple Ubuntu builds lying around, so the OS isn't an issue. Could I possibly save money by not getting a hard drive, and just running the system off Ubuntu live with a DVD drive, or would that slow the system down? Would that even save me any money anyway, storage is so cheap these days I'm sure I could get a relatively small hard disk for next to nothing.

Again, thanks for any help, it's really appreciated.

TL;DNR: I have a crappy TV, s-video to RCA cable, and a bunch of movies on an external HD. How do I improve my "home theater" on the cheap?

<edit>Just saw this barebones kit on another thread in this forum: http://www.jetway.com.tw/jw/Barebone_view.asp?productid=760&proname=JBC600C99352W-BW (Mini-top), but can't find the price or how to buy it. Is it just a list of components that you get separetly yourself?

<edit 2>Forgot a MAJOR question: should I get a TV tuner card? I'm confused on what exactly they do -- do I still need a "subscription" of some sort, IE cable or satelite service? Or do they just get local over-the-air channels? What do I look for to maximize performance, or whatever metric of usability is relevant for these things? And more more thanks for any help.
January 28, 2011 7:00:54 PM

First, welcome to the HTPC crowd.

The cheapest solution, of course, is to just use your laptop + HDMI cable after you get yourself a proper HDTV.

If you want a dedicated HTPC, you could either build yourself or get one of the net-tops that are available. One important note on net-tops though... wait a bit for the AMD fusion net-tops to become available and stay away from the atom ones. The Zotac ZBox is a popular net-top used for HTPC duties, but there are others. It's usually cheaper to buy a pre-built, but you get better quality and control over what components you have when you build yourself... though you may be even since you have a legit Windows license already ($100 saved!).

For your tuner card questions, a tuner card will pull OTA digital TV and most can tune clearQAM digital cable. There is no fee for OTA and the program guide is built into Windows 7 Home Premium and up. QAM cable requires cables service of course, but not many channels are clearQAM. I suggest you look into dual tuners. The best are the HVR-2250 (internal PCIe), HDHomerun (external ethernet), and A188 Duet (internal PCIe). The tuner you get will probably depend on your form factor. Using your laptop or a net-top would make the best use of the HDHomerun dual tuner since it streams over your network.
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January 31, 2011 1:49:42 AM

i'm thinking you want a home theater and have already set your mind on buying a bigger television.

you dont need a computer dedicated to movies.
most people who build a home theater computer do it because they dont have the internet and they arent gonna be staring at a website.
they simply want to store the movies on a hard drive.

if you are gonna be using a computer to watch movies.. you need to look for a graphics card that has video acceleration.
there are video players that will use the video card to accelerate movies because they stream the video data with directX .. which is a processing architecture that bypasses the operating system as much as possible.

i would start with this question..
why arent you using the laptop to watch movies?
is the screen resolution too low?
or is the screen size simply too small?
either one of those questions would require you to purchase a bigger television with more resolution.

if you have surround sound speakers.. you dont need anything there (except upgrades with audio detail)

you can probably get by with that laptop to watch movies for quite a long time if you are putting the disc inside the laptop drive and sending the video to a bigger television.

once you decide to stop using the laptop, that is when you start needing to purchase things piece by piece.
its then and only then when you start to look for high quality pieces of hardware.
those pieces of hardware are intended to be an upgrade for enthusiasts.
you asked for something to simply make it work.

a bigger screen can help.. but i think a smaller screen that has a good picture combined with some audiophile quality audio is a much better experience than a big screen with bad sound.
high resolution video and high resolution audio is better than a bigger television and more speakers.

the FIRST step is probably getting high resolution video.
its easier than setting up high resolution audio.
however, high resolution audio can serve you for movies and music.

you really need to determine what you are thirsty for.
do you want to please your eyes or your ears?
again, if you cant decide which one you want.. its easier to get high definition video.

getting some 'audiophile' speakers and finding out that you paid too much for them and they dont sound as good as something else that costs less.. its frustrating.

high resolution televisions, you need:
black levels that dont wash out more than they are supposed to
grey levels that actually exist on a gradient scale
color accuracy

this can be split into two pieces..
- a gradient scale that shows many many shades of black grey white
- a menu that allows you to adjust the color

a program that can really help:
http://www.hex2bit.com/products/product_mcw.asp
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February 3, 2011 2:12:13 PM

rwpritchett said:
First, welcome to the HTPC crowd.

The cheapest solution, of course, is to just use your laptop + HDMI cable after you get yourself a proper HDTV.

If you want a dedicated HTPC, you could either build yourself or get one of the net-tops that are available. One important note on net-tops though... wait a bit for the AMD fusion net-tops to become available and stay away from the atom ones. The Zotac ZBox is a popular net-top used for HTPC duties, but there are others. It's usually cheaper to buy a pre-built, but you get better quality and control over what components you have when you build yourself... though you may be even since you have a legit Windows license already ($100 saved!).


Thanks for your reply and that link, those systems look really sleek and the price doesn't seem too bad on Amazon. That's the only reseller I've checked; in my experience they generally have good prices, are there other retailers known for selling Zotac units cheaper than Amazon?

Also, I noticed some units are more complete, while the barebones units don't include OS, harddrive, or RAM. I as stated have the OS taken care of, and RAM is practically given away these days, so I'm thinking my cheapest option, should I choose to go this route, would be to do a barebones system, pick up some RAM and a storage unit for the OS. Since I have my external HD already, would it be possible to use an old SD card or flash drive to install Windows on and boot from that and not have an internal disk at all? I have extra flash media but I don't think I have any HDDs available right now.

rwpritchett said:
For your tuner card questions, a tuner card will pull OTA digital TV and most can tune clearQAM digital cable. There is no fee for OTA and the program guide is built into Windows 7 Home Premium and up. QAM cable requires cables service of course, but not many channels are clearQAM. I suggest you look into dual tuners. The best are the HVR-2250 (internal PCIe), HDHomerun (external ethernet), and A188 Duet (internal PCIe). The tuner you get will probably depend on your form factor. Using your laptop or a net-top would make the best use of the HDHomerun dual tuner since it streams over your network.


I have a digital TV antenna that I got from Meritline.com, would buying a tuner card give me any advantage over this? I suppose it would be more convenient to switch from watching a movie on my laptop/HTPC to OTA cable since they would be coming from the same source instead of two separate ones, is there any other difference? Either way, I think I'll wait on that one since that's an easy upgrade to make later.

anwaypasible said:
i'm thinking you want a home theater and have already set your mind on buying a bigger television.

you dont need a computer dedicated to movies.
most people who build a home theater computer do it because they dont have the internet and they arent gonna be staring at a website.
they simply want to store the movies on a hard drive.

if you are gonna be using a computer to watch movies.. you need to look for a graphics card that has video acceleration.
there are video players that will use the video card to accelerate movies because they stream the video data with directX .. which is a processing architecture that bypasses the operating system as much as possible.

i would start with this question..
why arent you using the laptop to watch movies?
is the screen resolution too low?
or is the screen size simply too small?
either one of those questions would require you to purchase a bigger television with more resolution.


"you dont need a computer dedicated to movies." -- I suppose not, and that's one thing I'm struggling with now, separating my want to have the latest and greatest/my love for high end (and generally unnecessary) computer components, and my actual needs which are lower and fit much better with my budget. However, I would like to have a dedicated movie playing device of some kind, so I can have my laptop available for general computing needs, can move it around with having to unplug/replug everytime, etc.

"why arent you using the laptop to watch movies?" -- Screen size as you suggested, and similarly, it's hard to watch with more than 1 or 2 people due to size and viewing angle.

anwaypasible said:
a bigger screen can help.. but i think a smaller screen that has a good picture combined with some audiophile quality audio is a much better experience than a big screen with bad sound.
high resolution video and high resolution audio is better than a bigger television and more speakers.

the FIRST step is probably getting high resolution video.
its easier than setting up high resolution audio.
however, high resolution audio can serve you for movies and music.

...

high resolution televisions, you need:
black levels that dont wash out more than they are supposed to
grey levels that actually exist on a gradient scale
color accuracy


I agree with the smaller screen size/better picture statement. What size range would you recommend? Again I know it's a personal decision, but any recommendation helps. It seems like ~32 inches is a pretty common size, and I think that seems big enough to be enjoyed, but not too big to be out of place in my small apartment. At that size, do you think it's necessary to get a 1080p screen, or could I get by with a 720p without noticing much difference, if I can get one cheaper?


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February 3, 2011 2:56:47 PM

If you are exploring the pre-built route, don't even consider the Zboxes available on Amazon. Those are the atom based ones and are not a good buy. The good Zboxes have not been released yet. They will be based on the AMD E-350 Fusion platform and have a model #AD03. Be patient. BTW, none of the Zboxes come with an OS. Each model comes in two flavors: #1 complete barebones that only need an OS, and #2 barebones needing HDD/SSD, RAM, and OS.

Your antenna is only part of the equation. You will need to plug the coaxial cable from the antenna into a device that will allow you to watch TV. You could plug it directly into an HDTV with a built in ATSC tuner, plug it into a digital ATSC converter for your current TV, or you can connect it to a TV tuner on a HTPC. Even with a Zbox, you would need a tuner and it will only be able to use a USB tuner, or an ethernet tuner. I suggest you wait until the new redisign of the HDHomerun Dual is released (very soon) and go for that. Not only will it work with any HTPC you may get in the future, since it connects to your home network even your current laptop will be able to watch/record TV.

The new HDHomerun Dual:
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February 3, 2011 3:16:54 PM

if you ask me about size i will only have a few basic (perhaps overly complex questions)

1. how far away are your eyeballs from the screen?
2. do you prefer the outer edges of the screen to be in your peripheral vision or inbetween your front focal point and peripheral vision?
3. do you like to focus on the center of the screen and 'gaze' at the edges or do you like to lean back a little bit more (perhaps unfocus a little bit more) and watch the screen as a whole?

for what its worth.. if you want to save a little bit of money with a 720p television, i would really try to find one that does 720p / 1080i

i have a high definition cable box and it doesnt tell me if i am watching a progressive or interlaced source.. but it goes all the way up to 1080i
and i think if you are gonna be watching HDTV from regular television broadcasts .. theres no telling if they are using 720p or 1080i

i keep my HD receiver on 1080i and i can see a difference from one scene to the next as well as one commercial to the next.
its weird and annoying like that.
if it was on my computer, i would probably look for a program that tells me what source i am looking at.

i mean.. i have an old CRT that has a 4:3 aspect ratio.
so whenever the content ISNT high definition, the screen will stay in widescreen because i am on an HDTV channel.. but the horizontal lines will go in and the picture will look square again.

seriously though..
you dont know if somebody has taken a weird resolution video or picture and 'scaled' it so that it would fit onto 720p or 1080i
there are quite a few times when i am watching something in HD and think to myself.. they obviously scaled a lower resolution pic/video because the details are way gone.

720P = 921,600 pixels
1080i = 2,052,000 pixels

thats 1,130,400 more pixels with 1080 resolution.

i really really hope you can tell a difference!!!

and look.. the truth about interlaced comes clear.
either the interlaced lines are moving at 48hz if the source is 24 frames per second.
or the interlaced lines are moving at 120hz if the source is 60 frames per second.
either the frames per second are at 60hz and being combined to form 30 frames per second.
or the frames per second are 30 frames per second and are being 'super imposed' to reveal 24 frames per second.

i dont see interlacing with my 1080i set.
when its in HD mode, things are clearer.
but again, there are times when i can tell the picture is better than standard definition, but it certainly isnt top-notch high definition.

since my screen is a CRT.. i know i am looking at some serious amount of pixels wen it looks like the aperture grill goes away.

really.. how am i supposed to know that i have actually seen 1080i on my screen?
there is nothing that tells me yes or no.
for all i know, i might be looking at 720p and drooling at the raw amounts of detail.
sometimes i have seen a persons face that is so detailed.. it looks like they are behind a piece of glass and sitting in my television tube.
could be 720p

i know that when i watch the local news on different channels.. there are different resolutions for each camera. (or the focus wasnt perfect)

you do know how 'scaling' works dont you?
take a single pixel and increase its size to three pixels in the shape of a triangle.. congratulations! you have just increased the size of the picture three times.
the detail is exactly the same, but its bigger and fills the screen better.

perhaps i wont be the only one talking about what resolution i am looking at.
discovery channel in high definition does look better than standard definition.. but not by much at all.
makes me think it is 720p (or some 'euro' version that is even slightly lower)
other times i watch the local news and the details triple (quadrouple?) and it makes me think they have a good camera.
i still dont know if its 1080i that i'm looking at.

maybe you can try out one of the new high definition webcams.
i'm sure you could see the difference between 720 and 1080 as long as the camera actually records at 1080 and doesnt turn one pixel into a three pixel triangle.

i wouldnt use youtube videos.. because you never ever know what resolution they were using to get '1080' in the resolution selector.
i have used 1600x1200 and it shows up as 1080
me thinks anything in the middle between 720 and 1080 could go either way and ruin the results.

anyways.. yuck, what are the answers to my three questions?
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February 3, 2011 3:32:27 PM

Very quick responses, thank you both.

rwpritchett said:
If you are exploring the pre-built route, don't even consider the Zboxes available on Amazon. Those are the atom based ones and are not a good buy. The good Zboxes have not been released yet. They will be based on the AMD E-350 Fusion platform and have a model #AD03. Be patient. BTW, none of the Zboxes come with an OS. Each model comes in two flavors: #1 complete barebones that only need an OS, and #2 barebones needing HDD/SSD, RAM, and OS.


Be patient... I hate that phrase lol. But I suppose I can wait, it will be three weeks before I get the paycheck I can use to buy any form of HTPC, as next weeks extra is devoted to the TV. When you say "soon" how soon are we talking, generally speaking? Couple weeks? Couple months? More? I'm definitely fine with waiting a bit for a better, longer lasting solution, but I would like to get on this issue as soon as I reasonably can.

Also, that tuner you suggested looks and sounds great, I'll be sure to grab one once released.

anwaypasible said:
if you ask me about size i will only have a few basic (perhaps overly complex questions)

1. how far away are your eyeballs from the screen?
2. do you prefer the outer edges of the screen to be in your peripheral vision or inbetween your front focal point and peripheral vision?
3. do you like to focus on the center of the screen and 'gaze' at the edges or do you like to lean back a little bit more (perhaps unfocus a little bit more) and watch the screen as a whole?


1. Right now I'll be quite close, within about 4 feet or so when sitting, and about 7 or 8 feet when laying in bed. I have a temporary job (intership basically) and I'm just living in an efficiency apartment, so I'm really limited on space and setup. However I'll be out of here in a couple months and in a more normal spot, so I'm tailoring it more to that. Unfortunately that means I don't know specifically how far away I'll be, I suppose 8 to 10 feet. ~ish. Normal TV watching distance I guess?

2. I never thought about that, but I guess in between focal and peripheral? That seems like it would be less of a strain, and I would be able to see the whole picture better. Am I right in that thought?

3. I think I tend to watch the screen as a whole, not focus in the center. But, it kind of depends on the content too.

As for everything about resolution, sources, upscaling, etc, I understand all that. What I meant by noticing a difference between 720/1080 is that at a certain point, pixel density just can't add anything else. If the screen were say only 17 inches, I don't think anyone could tell if it was 720 or 1080 because the screen simply isn't big enough to warrent needing the additional million pixels. At what screen size range does this difference become apparent I wonder?
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February 3, 2011 4:27:53 PM

eh.. none of them.
because if the screen is small you can put it up to your face.. and if its really really small you can put in on your eye like a contact lens.

see.. i am seeing about 3 and a half foot away from my television.
its a 32 inch 4:3 tube
and that amounts to about a 29 inch widescreen television.
i gotta be honest.. 29 inches @ 3-4ft away is just slightly reaching out into my peripheral vision (unless i am really zoned out with a headache or something)

i tell you what.. if you want to answer number 2 correctly.. i suggest you find a way to measure the screen size.
either with some paper or cardboard.
i was gonna get a 40 inch to extend into my peripheral vision @ 3-4ft away.
that is close to my peripheral vision maximum with these glasses (and my brain probably wont like another 2 inches anyways)

its incredible how easily the need for a huge screen quickly adds up.
i think its simple.. if you are 4ft away, you need twice the size for 8ft away.

seeing that you are on a computer now, it shouldnt be unsafe to think you are gonna have the screen propped up and looking at it like a computer monitor from 3-4 ft away.

i want 40 inches for my games.. makes the gun about life size and i will be able to see further away.

based on your number 2 and 3 answers.. 40 inches is too big for you.
and i dont know how often you are gonna be laying on the bed.
but i am seeing only a bunch of 32 or 37 inch televisions.

IF you actually lay in bed and watch television to learn or follow along a weekly show or watch movies.. i would totally recommend a 37 inch. (or even a 40-42 if you wanna break the 'whole screen at a time' focus)

otherwise 32 inches should be a fantastic compromise of pleasure at 3-4ft and pleasure on the bed.

the size of the pixel determines just as much as resolution.
if you have a 'fixed' pixel size.. you will certainly run out of room and wont be able to squeeze anymore out of the screen unless you shrink the size of each pixel.

i think normal television watching distance has changed for me because there is more to see on the screen than simply seeing the shape of somebodys head.
especially when you now have the ability to look 20ft into the room for other 'things' in the background.

there is no sense in purchasing all of that money on a big screen television that is too small to see the extreme details from usual viewing distance.
i would purchase some LCD glasses if the resolution was higher.. then wear those in bed.
or maybe put the television on the ceiling so that its closer and i can see more details that way.

i once had a 20 inch television at my feet in my bedroom.. the only reason i didnt complain about its size is because there was usually never ever anything on worth watching when i was laying down.
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February 3, 2011 6:16:30 PM

Ok then I think I'm gonna go for a 37 inch one based on that. Unless there's a large price difference between that and 32, depends what I can find online. Is getting one used (craigslist or similar) a bad idea? Are there many "hidden" problems with LCD TVs, IE we turn it on to test it out, pictures good looks great etc, then two months later bam she's dead? Or would it be more obvious, you get distortion or other warning signs it's not a good buy?

Also, both rwpritchett and anwaypasible both of you were quite helpful in different ways in this thread, I don't know which answer to pick as the best, especially cause I asked about 40 questions. ??
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February 3, 2011 6:29:04 PM

mynameismolotov said:
Is getting one used (craigslist or similar) a bad idea? Are there many "hidden" problems with LCD TVs, IE we turn it on to test it out, pictures good looks great etc, then two months later bam she's dead?
My only advice comes from my own experience. Samung LCD's manufactured between 2004 and 2008 had weak capacitors installed on the logic board. If you google "HDTV LCD Capacitors" you'll see a lot of hits (not just Samsung, unfortunately).

Anyways, my 40" Samsung had the bad capacitors. They went bad (bulging) and I had to pay $250 to get it repaired... though if you know how to solder you can fix it for about $35. So my advice is to stay away from used Samsungs of 2004-2008 vintage, and further investigate any other common problems with other makes/models before making your purchase.
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February 3, 2011 7:30:17 PM

Both rwpritchett and anywaypasible have given you great advice (kudos to both of you), but I really have to recommend that you wait until you are set up and stable in your new location. I really can't recommend purchasing almost a $1000 in equipment only to find out, in your new location, that a 42" 1080p HDTV or even a projector would really work better than a 32" 720p HDTV.

I know you hate the idea, but be patient. Get what works for you ONLY when you know what kind of viewing space you're going to have. You can build your HTPC now and spend a little extra on a converter cable that you can use for now with your current TV. When you're settled, then you can get the big screen TV.

-Wolf sends
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February 3, 2011 8:49:58 PM

i would lead off from what rwpritchett has said.
dont buy used because you never know if somebody has replaced a piece on the circuit board with the wrong piece.
sure.. it might work right now, and you might not see anything wrong with it.
but because the piece used for repair wasnt the ideal choice, you might see the television broken with the same problem or even more damage this time.

think about it.. why would ANYBODY want to sell a good HDTV ?
yes, i understand that people might be wanting to 'upgrade' to a bigger size .. or maybe higher resolution .. or maybe better features .. or maybe they want the money from the old television to use on the new television.

i really dont want to tell you to gamble.. but i know what its like to not have the money for a toy and still have a thirst for it.

there are only a few solid reasons why somebody would be selling their HDTV
1. lots of televisions were 720p only (now they want 1080p)
2. most televisions were 60hz refresh rate (now they want 120hz or 240hz)
3. they want a bigger size because they made the mistake of purchasing too small the first time.
4. they want a lower response time (back then they had all selections, but 8ms was quite common and cheap)
5. its possible that they want the new internet features of the television.
6. its possible they want a higher contrast ratio

therefore a 720p 60hz with an excessive response time and poor contrast ratio.. who is willing to settle for that?
those televisions are better melted and recycled than they are at providing pleasure.
and i really do mean what i say.
i have an old 19 inch CRT computer monitor .. and its lowest level of black should be considered gray.
it hurts to think about watching movies on the computer monitor with such poor black levels.
kinda like eating a sandwich with only bread and meat.. no lettuce or mayo or mustard (or whatever else you like)

a high response time is also something that will make you feel like you wasted your money even though you bought used for a bargain.
you simply wont have good motion if the screen is stubborn and refuses to change.
its like having a car that refuses to go fast enough to keep up with traffic.

IF you want to buy used to save some money.. i would suggest looking at square trade to see if they can sell you a warranty for your purchase.
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