HOWTO: Buying an HDTV

Category: Television

Whether you are buying your first HDTV or replacing an older one, there are state-of-the-art specifications that will make your investment more enjoyable today and protect it against early obsolescence. Here are some things to look for in your next HD television set...

Your HDTV Buying Decision

Let's start with the most important factor, the screen. The screen resolution should be 1080p, equivalent to 1920 by 1080 pixels. Virtually all HDTVs sold today that are 40 inches or larger support 1080p, while smaller screens may be limited to 720p (1280 x 720 pixels). A 720p device must rescale a 1080p image to make it fit the lower-rez screen, and that can result in sub-optimal viewing. More and more television content is being produced in 1080p, so spend the extra bucks and get it.

You may be seeing TVs advertised with UHD (ultra-high-definition) or 4K resolution. The "4" in "4K" is because UHD/4K sets have four times the resolution of 1080p high-definition sets. It's a new technology, so expect a set with 4K to cost significantly more. But there's a bigger problem. TV and cable broadcasting companies are not pumping out 4K content. Heck, they're not even broadcasting everything in HD.

Buying an HDTV

It will require a huge investment on their part to upgrade studio and network equipment to support 4K broadcasting. Netflix and Comcast have promised to start delivering some 4K programming in 2014, but I'd wait at least a year before buying a 4K set, to see how things develop.

Contrast ratio is the second most important factor after resolution. A low contrast ratio means washed-out images and blah colors. High contrast means more details and colors that "pop." Technically, the contrast ratio refers to the difference between the darkest and lightest images that an HDTV can display. Subjectively, it means "how black are the blacks." Compare sets side by side in the store.

Refresh rate affects how smooth your picture appears on the screen. Lower-end HDTV models will have a 60Hz refresh rate. Sets with a 120Hz refresh rate will provide a clearer image, important for sports and fast-paced action on screen. Higher end sets may offer a 240Hz refresh rate, but I wouldn't pay extra for it. Tests have shown that it's very difficult to tell the difference between 120 and 240 Hz pictures.

Sets with automatic brightness control adjusts the set's brightness in response to changes in room lighting. This can save a significant amount of power. Automatic volume leveling reduces the differences between volume levels in programming, so you can hear whispered dialogue without being blown away when the bomb goes off.

And size does matter when it comes to TV viewing. HDTV screen sizes vary from 19 inches to 70 inches, measured on the diagonal. Of course bigger means more expensive, and for the larger models, mounting can be an issue. You may wind up spending a couple hundred bucks for a wall mount that can support a 100+ pound TV. And if you're not 100% certain of your ability to install it safely, you'll need to pay for professional installation as well. The last thing you want is to see your expensive new TV crashing down on the floor, taking a chunk of the wall along.

Internet connectivity (aka "Smart TV") is becoming more common with HDTVs. It allows you to connect your HDTV to a router (wired or wirelessly) and retrieve content from Internet services such as Hulu or Netflix, or from video libraries stored on other devices in your home network. If you've ever thought about canceling your cable or satellite TV subscription, an Internet-connected HDTV might fill the void with the ability to download and watch your favorite shows and movies.

See my related articles Can Roku Replace Cable TV Service? and What is Google TV? to learn more about streaming internet content to your big-screen television, and how TV viewing is becoming more integrated with the Internet.

LCD, LED, or Plasma?

LCD was the standard in HD television sets for quite a few years, but it's starting to become obsolete. The reason is LED technology. LED TVs are pretty much the same as LCD TVs, but with an LED (light emitting diode) backlight instead of standard fluorescent backlighting. LEDs consume less power and produce better color response than LCD sets, and enable thinner HDTV sets. They produce a very bright picture, so they are best if you watch TV in a well-lit room. LED TVs are made in a wide range of sizes, from tiny up to 90 inches.

Plasma HDTVs look very similar to LCD and LED models, but use a very different technology to display the image. A plasma screen will generally have better viewing angles (how far can you move to the left or right side of the screen before the picture quality is affected), better contrast ratio (the difference between the lightest and darkest parts of the image) and performs very well in dark rooms or dim lighting. They are preferred by sports fan and movie watchers. Plasma TVs start at 42-inches and typically max out at 65 inches.

When choosing between these three TV technologies, here are a few points to ponder:

  • LCD sets are still made, and are cheaper than comparable LED models, but they are becoming harder to find. Advances in tech and economy of scale are bringing LED prices down, so I'd cross LCD off the list, unless you find a killer deal.
  • Plasma sets are about $300 cheaper than similar-size LED TVs, but don't go below 42 inches. Plasma TVs are manufactured only by Panasonic, Samsung, and LG, but Panasonic recently announced they would be leaving the plasma arena. Some pundits anticipate that by 2015, Plasma TV sets will start to be phased out.
  • LED sets use less power than plasma, and the technology advances in picture quality every year. Plasma still rules for sports fans, but it appears their days are numbered. That seems to leave LED as the winner going forward.

UPDATE: When I first published this article, I decided not to dwell on the purported energy saving features of LEDs versus plasma. Here's why... you will probably spend MORE in the long run with LED! Plasma sets have advanced when it comes to lowering power consumption. And the extra cost of the LED set (an average of $300 - $350) will probably FAR outweigh the pennies you save in electricity costs.

See this excellent calculator, which shows the expected electrical usage for LED and plasma TVs. Bottom line, you'll save MAYBE $10/year in electricity, but it'll take at least 30 years to break even! (In my case, the savings would only be $4/year.)

Connecting Your Gear

HDTVs come with a bewildering array of video connectors. The most important one is HDMI. Look for at least two or three HDMI connectors on any set you consider; more is better. Component video, VGA, S-video, and composite video have their uses, depending on what other equipment you need to connect to the HDTV. Check out the connectors on your cable TV box, VHS/DVD player, streaming media boxes, and gaming systems to make sure your new TV will accommodate them.

I could recommend one HDTV model or another, but that would only start a war in the comment section below. You really need to visit a store, check out the picture quality of competing models side by side, decide how much screen real estate you can afford, and which features are the most important. Even then, sometimes it boils down to what's on sale.

Sales people in electronics stores generally know their stuff, and can make good recommendations if you tell them your budget. I do recommend sticking with a recognized brand such as LG, Philips, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony or Toshiba. I would avoid off-brands such as Coby, Dynex or SunBrite.

Do you have something to say about choosing an HDTV? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "HOWTO: Buying an HDTV"

(See all 25 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Jon
17 Jan 2014

Nice guide Bob,

One bit that may help protect those of us who have had Giant TVs displaying blured images at 'friends' houses is the resolution vs distance calculation.

The most simple I've found is on -

http://www.finluxdirect.com/customer-service/tv-buying-guide/page/tvbuyingguide

(I have no association with Finlux and they do seem to be more than a little ***ODD***)

The other thing to be alert for are 'weird' screen ratios. I once had the misfortune to buy a HannsG/Hannspree 28" that had a native resolution of 1920x1200 although a standard resolution for computer monitors the idiots had hardware converted it to 1920x1080 which meant that a 'native resolution' was impossible as a monitor and everything displayed was blurred. Great as a TV but useless as a monitor.

BUT what about 3D - my technophobe step-son has bought a giant 3D jobbie (double meaning intended) and swears by it - Is 3D still in the same state as 4k? Does it exist in the real world? Is it the betamax of the 21st century.

All the best and thanks for the info.

Jon


Posted by:

James orpin
17 Jan 2014

Another informative article Bob. Lots of great points.

OH Matt !! Excellent choice on the Samsung 3D. Samsung electronics are a hot buy currently. DO BUY the 3D glasses and be prepared to "GASP!" watching the Olympics.


Posted by:

Pat
17 Jan 2014

You say "contrast ratio" is second importance. How is that listed on sales copy and what would be a high "contrast ratio"? Thanks


Posted by:

Lisa
17 Jan 2014

We replaced an older tv this summer with a 50" plasma tv because I was tired of having the sides of the picture cut off. But now my husband has a problem with the "full" size picture on the new tv because it widens images and makes faces and bodies look distorted. He prefers the "zoom" mode, which cuts off the picture at the top and bottom, or the 4:3 mode, which cuts off the sides. Our other choice is "Justify," which also stretches the image. Is there any way to see the whole picture without distortion?


Posted by:

Jean
17 Jan 2014

Thanks so much, Bob! I am a widow, who always relied on my husband to know about electronics. I don't have an HDTV and since my TV is the old style, sometime the scores of ball games or other onscreen printings do not show completely, which is frustrating. I'm not ready to purchase a new TV while my old one is still working fine, but I found your article to be most helpful in guiding my thinking when I look to purchase a new one.


Posted by:

Bill
17 Jan 2014

Great article Bob. Thanks for the info. It will make it easier for me in the near future when I go for my 65" model! However, could use your knowledge on one matter that I have noticed with the TV's. Sound!!! It seems that the many I have looked at have an issue with providing an audio out so you could use a soundbar or sound system. The tv's that I have observed have only one audio out. It is for headphones basically and in many cases of the ones I have tested...well they do not work. Have you noticed this issue or have an awesome solution??


Posted by:

Bill
17 Jan 2014

Some stations are still using analog channels and some 3D Tv's don't get them very clear. And stores only show you bluray content on TV's. My Walmart 3D Vizio shows everything Crystal clear. I checked a friends lg and not worth looking at analog...blurry. Bought another vizio 3d 47" for my son.


Posted by:

Louis Toscano
17 Jan 2014

I am still watching a picture tube and waiting for it to finally die. Still, considering that the flat screen will still go in the same place, the flat screen will not give me any size advantage. It will probably be the same size as the picture tube.


Posted by:

Phil
17 Jan 2014

Good report Bob. I'm waiting and saving my dollars for an OLED. If I live long enough.
Have a look:

http://blog.sony.com/press/sony-adds-lightweight-slim-models-to-trimaster-el-professional-oled-line/

Seriously, our Sony 55" SXRD still has the best, sharpest picture of any that my friends or family have purchased. BUT....Sony dropped the technology after the failures of the LCD systems became epidemic. We've had ours for over 7 years and we're beginning to look over the current models. We try to hold down the electric bill so we'll go LED I'm sure. Just a matter of finding the one with the most natural color and best gray scale. No matter what model one buys....getting the best quality picture requires careful adjustments. Too many people just go with the factory default settings and THAT is a real mistake.


Posted by:

Judy Means
17 Jan 2014

Great article & just the facts I needed. I'm in the market right now for another TV. This one will be a smart one. I wasn't sure about the who, what, where, & when's in this "new to me" TV market. Now I feel a bit more qualified to go in search.

Thanks.


Posted by:

Stan
18 Jan 2014

We have three LCD sets, having purchased them serially, and usually as refurbs. The first one was new, a 28" Hannspree, that I got for my home office for $280. It's 1080p, 60 hz refresh rate. The second we bought as a MicroCenter return, a 40" Olevia, with a 120 Mhz refresh rate. It cost $240. The third was a Sceptre 32" 60 Mhz refresh rate, from Woot for $200.
The thing about the 120 Mhz refresh rate is everything looks glassy, like it's on videotape. Weird.
I have a mediapc, a blu ray dvd player, an old Panasonic DVR, and a VHS tape player that all hook into a Yamaha stereo receiver, which has HDMI and component inputs, and I only need one HDMI output ($3 cables from Newegg) to connect it to the Hannspree. Oh yes, and cable is FIOS, run through a HDHomerun Prime.


Posted by:

Robert Hall
18 Jan 2014

How about a follow up on screen size ans viewing distance? My current LED, and first flat screen, is only 32" and viewed at 8'. I wish I had thought this through and had gotten 36-39".


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
18 Jan 2014

In looking for an upgrade and new TV, for my Hubby ... I went online at Walmart. Okay, I know ... Walmart??? Yes, Walmart. I had been looking all over online, for prices and found the one, that I knew he would like and feel comfortable with working the remote control.

We already had a 52" Sharp Aquos, for about 3 to 4 years and were exceedly pleased with it's performance and basically, no problems. No, this TV was not a Smart TV, which was just fine with the two of us. So, with that in mind, I started looking around for a "new" LCD HDTV 60". I finally, found a Sharp Aquos LCD HDTV 60", that was NOT a Smart TV ... Just what we both wanted, for $828, plus shipping. I couldn't find this particular model, anywhere else and I was so pleased. In looking at the "newer" Smart TV, in this size range ... I was saving between $400 to $700!!! Now, that is a bargain to me!

The shipping cost was a very reasonable $44.97 and the taxes were the same, had I purchased this in a retail store, for my area. So, for a goodly amount under $1000, I now have a Sharp Aquos LCD HDTV 60", sitting in my Hubby's Man Cave!!! It's a perfect TV size, for this room, the ratio to room size, is just right, so that everyone can see the TV clearly. He LOVES it and is so proud, that I wanted to do this for him.

I have put the older Sharp Aquos LCD HDTV 52", in my Living Room and it fits perfectly, just the "right size" room, for the size of the TV. The original 39" LCD TV in the Living Room, is now in our large Master Bedroom and replaced a 32" HDTV. The larger size TV screen is just right, for our Master Bedroom.

I am so pleased, that I went this route to purchase a new TV for my dear Hubby. The freight company, Pilot Air Freight that shipped this TV, was wonderful. They called us, to make sure what time we would be available, to have the TV delivered to our home. Then, the men actually, put the package inside our home, in the room it was going to be in. I was duly impressed. Of course, Hubby's Man Cave is the first room, off the carport, so the delivery was easy ... But, my point is ... They physically took the BIG package inside the house!!! I would certainly do this method of purchasing, all over again!!!

I have been a supporter of Online Purchasing for years now and still, support the concept. Purchasing Online saves me money, so many times over ... My time is just as valuable, as anyone else's and the savings in gas, is wonderful. As the old Yellow Pages ad use to say ... "Let your fingers, do the walking."


Posted by:

Delores
18 Jan 2014

Thanks for the info. I wonder why you suggest not to buy off brands - I have been doing that all my life having the philosophy that they try harder and are often actually manufactured by one of the big companies., A 77 year old widow who will be purchasing a new TV soon. Thanks.


Posted by:

Frederick
18 Jan 2014

I don't understand why plasma is being phased out? I think it is the best format for viewing, especially sports. The only other one I would consider would be the UHD, but as you said no one is broadcasting anything in UHD yet. Do I have to start buying standby plasmas now or can I wait until they start broadcasting in UHD?


Posted by:

Doug
18 Jan 2014

You forgot to mention the power consumption differences between the different types of TV's. LED is by far the cheapest to run Plasma uses as much power as the old CRTs.

EDITOR'S NOTE: UPDATE: When I first published this article, I decided not to dwell on the purported energy saving features of LEDs versus plasma. Here's why... you will probably spend MORE in the long run with LED! Plasma sets have advanced when it comes to lowering power consumption. And the extra cost of the LED set (an average of $300 - $350) will probably FAR outweigh the pennies you save in electricity costs.

See this excellent calculator, which shows the expected electrical usage for LED and plasma TVs. Bottom line, you'll save MAYBE $10/year in electricity, but it'll take at least 30 years to break even! (In my case, the savings would only be $4/year.)

http://www.rtings.com/info/lcd-vs-led-vs-plasma/power-consumption-and-electricity-cost


Posted by:

Richard Ollins
19 Jan 2014

What about projection TV? Excellent specs and lowest cost in terms of $ per inch.


Posted by:

gary
19 Jan 2014

I heard on a radio tech program (Kim Komando) that it could be possible for smart tv's to get viruses or possibly (?)keep track of what you watch. Big Brother.


Posted by:

salim
19 Jan 2014

sometime ago i saw that the highest tv ever rated by the most competent tv reviewer in the industry (i think he represents cnet) was for a panasonic model..


Posted by:

RandiO
20 Jan 2014

I must make at least a few comments here, Mr. Rankin:
[I should preface my comments with the facts that I am a die-hard Plasma fan, I love audio, I also hate 3D TVs and detest complexities of proper surround sound]
1) You state "LCD was the standard in HD television sets for quite a few years, but it's starting to become obsolete": This may be confusing starting point of your initial paragraphs, as all non-Plasma TVs still rely on the LCD technology with the only difference being that the backlighting have changed from florescent lighting to LED lighting. So, this is another confusing point for the uninitiated consumer.
2) It should also be mentioned that there are different varieties and technologies that are used for LED backlighting of LCD TVs.
3) Another very reputable brand that you forgot to mention is Vizio LCD TVs that get very good reports and Costco has always made them available for sale, even when they were a small start-up out of SoCal.
4) Vizio and Philips are the first 2 companies that make LCD (yes, with LED Backlighting) TV models that are "Cinema View" format of 21:9 (rather than the current standard 16:9).
5) If I may make a prediction, the OLED technology TVs (coupled with 4K resolution) will probably reach "economy of scales" within the next 3 years and the OLED TV prices will be way below the current Samsung/LG models being advertised for $9k/$15k (respectively) [ 6) You mention 60Hz/120Hz/240Hz refresh rates for LCD TVs, yet you forgot to state that the inherent refresh rates for Plasma TVs are above 600Hz (no motion blur for fast moving sports and action movies).
7) The most forgotten variable during a TV purchase is NOT the size ("Bigger=Better") nor is the 2nd most important factor the contrast ratio. The MOST important part after Video quality is Audio. By stepping down one (or two) size level and w/these savings, purchasing proper stand-alone Speakers+Receiver (for SOUND quality) is a wiser investment. It is impossible to get the proper audio/sound characteristics (as intended) from metal/buzzy sounding small speakers that are in the rear of most all TVs. Just like you should not listen to a live symphony orchestra sitting with your back to the stage...
8) Caveat Emptor. Since the availability of non-CRT TVs, the manufacturers, the stores and even ConsumerReports fell for the hysteria and pushed LCD TVs with excuses of "power consumption" and "image retention" practically killing ALL of the advantages of Plasma TV. Finally about 3 years ago, ConsumerReports had a change of heart and now recommend plasma TVs, instead. And they are usually cheaper in price, hence the reason for Panasonic folding their Plasma manufacturing in April 2014(can't make a profit).
9) For years, the electronic stores (especially BestBuys) would intentionally set their LCD TV for super high intensity to fool consumers how great an LCD TV was (since they make more profit on LCDs). Just like 'bigger is NOT better'; color (gamut) accuracy and (dark) black levels (of Plasma TVs) cannot be achieved by LCDs.
10) Specifications and accuracy wise, the Panasonic ZT series of Plasma TVs cannot be technically achieved by another other manufacturer/brand nor model currently available (excluding very pricey OLEDs).
I must apologize for disagreeing with you on so many levels but I strongly feel these above points are important for us 'consumers'.


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