Whether it's a cooking show or a sports game, everything looks better on a sharper, bigger screen. If you've considered upgrading to a flat-panel TV, now is the perfect time to do so. But just like any other popular consumer technology, the choices are endless and daunting. The good news is that the buying process doesn't have to be too painful. The bad news is you'll have to pry open your pocketbook to get your ultimate dream model.

Plasma or LCD?

Your two main choices remain plasma and LCD (liquid crystal display). The debate over whether plasma or LCD is better has raged for years, and in my experience it still comes down to personal preference. The key, as always, is to shop around.

Generally, the pro-plasma people promise better blacks and larger dimensions. That pure black is necessary for a real "pop" to the colors and to minimize "streaking" with movement. Plasma has always offered that widescreen 16:9 display, akin to the shape of a movie screen, and they tend to provide a better viewing angle, which means you can see the screen at various places around your living room without losing any quality. But plasmas don't typically do as well in brightly lit conditions, and those "burn in" stories simply won't go away (when a static image is left for long periods on a plasma it COULD faintly remain on the screen, though I've never seen it happen).

LCD lovers prefer its overall color presentation and feel they last longer than their plasma cousins. Plus, plasmas start at 42 inches, which means if you just want something small or cheap, then LCD is the way to go. Plasmas don't start in the affordable range, and anything really inexpensive will look it. Certainly LCD is a tried and tested technology that has been around for a while (e.g. computer monitors), and that can mean finding quality bargains. LCDs also run cooler than plasma, thus eliminating the need for a potential fan, and they can be found in the 16:9 format.

Consider the Price

The cost for your new TV toy will vary greatly between sizes and manufacturers. But for anything over 35 inches in plasma or LCD, expect to pay about $1,200 to $2,000 for a decent model. Over 60 inches and the prices go up rather dramatically.

It's often best to stick with a recognizable brand, and comparison shopping for price alone is much easier these days thanks to the Internet. Even so, I'd still suggest at least checking them out in person somewhere before buying online.

Trust your eyes

Go to a few different electronics stores and stare at TVs—really! Although the light conditions in the store obviously won't match your house, it's a good measure of what tickles your eye fancy. Compare the models and sizes, and get a sense for what looks realistic, clear and watchable.

Map out your home entertainment space

A good rule of thumb is to have the couch-to-TV ratio at about 4:1. In other words, if your TV screen is about 27 inches wide, position your couch about 8 to 9 feet away.

Go with the best resolution you can afford

You'll encounter plenty of these types of number-letter combinations: 1080p, 1080i, 720p, etc. Without getting bogged down in the details, the bottom line is 1080p is the epitome of high-definition TV—in other words, the most lines or pixels available.

However, there is an almost imperceptible difference between 1080p and 1080i. You will likely notice a different with 720p since the visual quality diminishes with the number.

Count the inputs

I know this sounds minor, but you'll want to hook up all your existing home theater devices to your new TV, so look for extra component jacks for things like speakers, DVD players and video game systems.

And a big input to check for: HDMI. Running an HDMI cable between your TV and your HD cable box will give you the best picture quality your TV can handle.

Ask to see the remote control

If you're like me, the last thing your household needs is another remote control. But the point is to make sure it's easy to use and really does give you control. You can always go for a universal remote control down the line.

So, brave the techno mumbo-jumbo! Seek out your amazing new TV. Once you've bought it and set up the high-definition features, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.