If sticker shock has kept you from getting that big-screen high-definition TV, take a second look at the price tag.

Now is a good time to buy. Prices of flat-panel plasma sets have fallen more than 50 percent in the past year, and those of equally svelte LCDs have dropped 80 percent.

Why not wait for more discounting? Because prices aren't going to fall as fast in 2006, says analyst Richard Doherty, of the Envisioneering Group research firm. He adds that the Federal Communications Commission's mandate requiring all TVs to include digital tuners by March 2007 may bump up the prices of some lower-end models. (You'll need to add a digital tuner, which costs about $200, if one isn't already in the unit.)

Bottom line: You're now looking at two to four grand for a big-screen, flat-panel set.

Which type of flat screen is best? LCDs offer higher contrast and are easier to view in bright light. Plasma delivers richer color and deeper blacks.

One spec often advertised is 1080p resolution, meaning a display of 1920 by 1080 pixels. A 1080p set produces a smoother, sharper picture than lower-priced 720p/1080i TVs do. But Doherty says you won't notice the difference if you sit eight to 10 feet from the screen.

Currently, 1080p content is extremely scarce, but it will become the industry standard by the end of the decade. Displaying 1080p content on a 1080p screen will produce the best high-definition image available, and it should look superior regardless of your distance from the screen. Buying a 1080p set today isn't a waste of money, but you'll pay an early adopter premium (about $800 now).

Three new HDTV models caught our eye. The Dell W3706MC is a sleek, 37-inch LCD set. It delivers excellent contrast and brightness in a package that's only 4.5 inches deep. Reasonably priced at $2,300, the Dell includes a stand, a pair of detachable stereo speakers (many big-screen TVs have integrated speakers) and analog/digital tuners for broadcast reception.

If big, beautiful and flat is your thing — and you're willing to pay dearly for it — the 50-inch plasma Panasonic TH-50PX50U is picture perfect. You won't find a prettier image, with vibrant colors and rich blacks. The TH-50PX50U costs about $4,000, but it includes integrated speakers and analog/digital tuners.

Or try the plasma-screen Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK. It's available at online retailers for $3,000 and offers a similarly gorgeous picture, but you'll need to add a tuner and speakers.