HOWTO: Buying an HDTV
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.
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 17 Jan 2014
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- HOWTO: Buying an HDTV (Posted: 17 Jan 2014)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved