VCRs are crap. Aside from the horrific quality compared to digital, they don't know when shows stop or start. They can't record more than one show at a time, and you can't skip from one show to the next - or back and forth between a recorded show and a live show. You also can't quickly navigate to a specific point in a show with a VCR - you have to wait for the tape. Tapes also decline in quality with use, and hard drives provide the same quality until they die. There really isn't any comparison. My DVR records over 100 hours of HD content, or it can hold about 900 hours of SD content, and I never have to touch it. Also - with DirecTV I can schedule shows to record from the internet (TiVo and others allow this too) - forget to set your VCR? Have fun driving home.
On to HDTVs...
Contrast ratio tells you the same thing the salesman will tell you - a bunch of bullshit that amounts to almost no valid information.
Measurement of contrast ratios differs between manufacturers - so it is not possible to tell the difference between manufacturers. It's essentially useless. You MIGHT be able to see how a specific model has improved over time - but you can bet each manufacturer "improves" its measurement of contrast as the years go by - probably as much as or more than they actually improve the technology intended to actually change the contrast. Quite frankly, if you don't plan to have your HDTV professionally calibrated - then the contrast ratio listed on the spec sheet is utterly useless.
At any rate - it's actually a lot simpler than that. If you want the best blacks (and therefore the best detectable contrast), you get plasma and that's that. Of course, most people will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between plasma and LCD anyway, but the nature of plasma (works like a CRT) means it can reproduce blacks much more accurately than any LCD or rear-projection can.
I would recommend you go look at the TVs in the stores - just one major caveat there - the out-of-box settings for TVs are calibrated to make the TV "pop" in the store - which means the white levels and colors are pretty much jacked up as high as they'll possibly go in order to compete visually with the other TVs they are shown next to. Once properly calibrated, any HDTV worth its salt is going to look pretty damn good.
The fact is, HD is HD to a certain degree. The most important criteria that I had were MOSTLY the same as I had for non-HD:
#1 - Price vs. display size - to me, bigger is better. I base my needs on visual acuity
- you can get 1080p - but can you see it? On a 42" TV - based on visual acuity - you start losing the ability to see the extra definition 1080 offers after only 5.5 feet back. Nobody sits that close to a 42". Luckily - you can see detail in 720 back to almost 15 feet.
#2 - Connections - I have since added an AVR to handle video switching - but before that, I looked for enough HDMI connections on the TV to handle my devices (console, DirecTV DVR, and DVD player).
#3 - Longevity - is this thing going to die over time - what kind of warranty does it have? Is it by a well-known manufacturer? Are the parts that wear out cheap or easy to replace?
#4 - HD quality/technology. I wanted 1080p because - contrary to what another user posted - there is a TON of 1080p material out there. Blu-Ray (I have HD-DVDs) - and now both satellite services Dish and DirecTV are offering on-demand movies in 1080p. Now more than when I purchased - TVs can usually "upconvert" material to their native resolution for you. Some do it better than others. Having a quality scaler chip or a TV known to upscale well can be well worth it - given the amount of SD material still out there.