Welcome to Engadget's back to school guide! The end of summer vacation isn't nearly as much fun as the weeks that come before, but a chance to update your tech tools likely helps to ease the pain. Today, we're settling down in front of a few of our favorite HDTVs, but you can head to the back to school hub to see the rest of the product guides as they're added throughout the month. Be sure to keep checking back -- at the end of the series we'll be giving away a ton of the gear featured in our guides -- and hit up the hub page right here!
Students today can catch high-quality video on a variety of screens -- computers, phones and tablets are probably always within reach -- but nothing can truly replace a TV's role as the center of entertainment. Whether it's a quick Madden or Call of Duty session, inviting a friend over to catch a flick or just zoning out after class, having the proper setup makes all the difference, and there are plenty of options at every price point. Of course, walking into any big-box electronics store to peer down aisles of seemingly identical flat screens could drive anyone mad before they ever step on campus, so we've narrowed down the list for you, and even suggested a few other items to plug into those HDTVs. Expanding feature sets and universal pricing have raised average prices a bit over last year, but we can find something to fit whether your budget ranges from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars.
On the cheap
Other media streamers, like the Roku and Western Digital families, as well as Vizio's upcoming Co-Star Google TV box, are excellent options in the same price range, so why did we pick this one? Although it received only a minor hardware refresh after two years that brought support for 1080p video, a steady flow of software improvements is what makes Apple's hockey puck the must-have HDTV accessory for anyone that's already bought into the company's ecosystem. An expanding suite of channels, iCloud-powered Digital Copy enhancements, AirPlay streaming from iOS devices and the latest version of Mac OS make the add-on an easy recommendation. Its sub-$100 price tag seals the deal.
Key specs: A5 CPU, 512MB RAM, 1080p, 8GB storage, 802.11n.
Price: $99 on Amazon
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You can't throw a rock in an electronics store without hitting a Blu-ray player, but the BDP-S590 snags our attention by ticking all of the feature checkboxes. It packs WiFi and Blu-ray 3D support, as well as a strong list of internet video sources including Amazon, Hulu Plus, Flixster, Sony's own Crackle and Video / Music Unlimited choices, YouTube and of course, Netflix. The only omission of note? MLB.tv.
Price: $119 on Amazon
If you're looking for a cheap, small HDTV option, let Panasonic's TC-L24X5 turn your head. While it lacks the shock-and-awe value of the company's plasmas, it does have an edge-lit IPS LED LCD panel that should provide wide viewing angles wherever it's placed. It's also priced well under $300 -- even without a sale.
Price: $237 on Amazon
Sony's STR-DN1030 7.2-channel receiver may not look different from the rest of the crowd, but by coming out of the box with WiFi and Bluetooth built-in, it is ready to fit in with the connected TV lifestyle we've come to expect. It can stream media from portable devices both Apple and otherwise with ease and supports Sony's Media Remote apps on Android and iOS. More traditional sources can plug into the seven HD inputs, of course, but we find wires to be so ... restrictive.
Key specs: 7.2-channel audio, Dolby True HD, Pro Logic IIz, DTS-HD codec support, 1,015 watts (145w x seven).
Price: From $498 on Amazon
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Refreshing the 32LK450 we recommended last year, this year's edition loses some of the ins and outs from that model as well as some of the configuration settings, but maintains the 1080p resolution and slim frame. What keeps it on the list? An even lower price this time around and a reputation for quality even with the "panel roulette" component swaps that are common in this price range.
Price: $320 on Amazon
The sole 1080p model in Panasonic's 2012 lineup without 3D features, the TC-P50U50 is all-killer, no-filler -- bringing the company's well-refined display technology and little else to the table. While it also ditches any connected TV features, it should still look great on your wall without breaking the bank -- for another $100 off, the X5 model is also available, although its lower res makes it suitable only if you'll be sitting farther back.
Price: $699 on Amazon
Money's no object
Updated for 2012, the TC-P55GT50 carries the best value tag if you still want an HDTV that has everything. A step down from the absolute top-of-the-line VT50 model, it keeps the "Infinite Black Panel" technology, THX certification and much more at a significantly lower price, although it has gone up slightly from last year. What's a few hundred dollars extra on your student loan anyway, right?
Key specs: 55-inch, 1080p, 3D, four HDMI inputs, three USB inputs, DLNA, WiFi, THX-certified, 24,576 shades of gradation.
Price: $1,599 on Amazon
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Samsung has the widest lineup of any HDTV manufacturer, but the UN55ES6580 is our first pick, with a matte finish that should help if glare is a consideration. It's a little pricier than Panasonic's plasma, but comes with four pairs of 3D glasses and Samsung's Smart TV apps.
Price: $1,715 on Amazon
Sharp's mantra for its LCDs has been "bigger is better," and we can't disagree. This LC60LE640U can't match its Elite cousins for picture quality, but at around $1,500, it spreads the viewing area significantly more than its 50- or 55-inch competition without requiring a bigger cash outlay. It drops 3D from the high-end feature list, but keeps WiFi for all your Netflix streaming needs.
Price: $1,442 on Amazon