Whether you're looking for a very basic low-cost set or a feature-packed, razor-thin model with 3D, selecting the right HDTV isn't easy. There are plenty of questions to answer: What type of display should you get? Plasma, LCD, or LED? How big should the screen be? How about resolution, refresh rate, and other specs? What sort of extras do you need?
Understanding the basics will help you make your choice (and your video) crystal clear, so here's what you should consider when shopping for your next HDTV.
Plasma or LCD? And What About LED?
Plasma TVs were the only flat-panel models available when they were first introduced more than a decade ago. But given the remarkable rise in the popularity of LCD TVs in the past couple of years, many manufacturers have stopped making plasma sets, while the remaining players—LG, Panasonic, and Samsung—are shifting toward producing larger screen sizes and plasma-based 3D TVs.
The popularity of LCD TVs can be attributed to some of the technology's inherent advantages over plasma, including a wider range of screen sizes, a very bright picture, and better energy efficiency. And LED-backlit LCDs offer even greater energy efficiency and are often thinner than CCFL-based LCDs, especially edge-lit LED models. But LED-based sets can suffer from some picture uniformity issues like 'blooming', where lighter parts of the picture bleed into darker ones, reducing overall black levels.
Plasma's strengths include its very dark blacks, and overall picture consistency, which (unlike CCFL or LED) doesn't exhibit color shifts, loss of saturation, or reduced contrast when viewed at wider angles. With plasma you don't need to be front and center to have the best seat in the house. And a plasma's fast-pulsing pixels are inherently well-suited for minimizing detail loss in fast motion like action films or live sports. Also, plasma can give you good bang for your buck if you want a really big screen.
For a closer look at the difference between HDTV display types, read Plasma vs. LCD vs. LED: Which HDTV Type is Best?
Choose Your Resolution
Right now, 1080p resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels, progressively scanned) is the pinnacle for consumer home-theater material, and all other things being equal, you want the screen resolution of your HDTV to match this format in order to provide the most detailed picture possible.
Many factors affect the perception of picture detail, including distance, the quality of your eyesight, and the quality of the video material. At a viewing distance of 12 feet, it would be difficult to distinguish between a 720p and a 1080p display showing the same 1080p video (like a Blu-ray movie) if you have 20/20 vision. 1080p is most critical with bigger screen sizes, where larger numbers of smaller pixels create a more seamless image. It's less important for screens smaller than 40 inches, since you'd have to sit very close in order to notice the additional details. These days, though, 1080p sets are becoming the norm and no longer command premium prices. If you can afford 1080p, go for it.
You may have heard some mutterings about 4K or Ultra HD, which is being billed as the next big thing in HDTV resolution. An Ultra HD television is one that displays at least 8 million active pixels, with a minimum resolution of 3,840 by 2,160. Sony, Toshiba, and LG have announced Ultra HD televisions. In fact, the 84-inch LG 84LM9600 went on sale in late October for $20,000. With prices that high and virtually no content to watch at that resolution, it's safe to stick with a 1080p TV for the foreseeable future. Ultra HD isn't coming to your living room any time soon.
For more, read What is Ultra HD (4K)?
Refresh Rate and Contrast Ratio
One of the biggest problems with narrowing your choices to a single HDTV is the sheer number of specs. To make your job a little easier, two of the biggies, refresh rate and contrast ratio, are safe to ignore.
Refresh (or response) rate, the speed at which your TV's panel refreshes its image, is expressed in hertz (60Hz, 120Hz, 240Hz, 480Hz, or 600Hz). The theory is that the a faster refresh rate results in a smoother image. But in reality, there are several reasons this simply isn't true, and it's not worth paying more for a set with a faster response rate. In many cases, 60Hz will do just fine.
Contrast ratio is the difference between the darkest black and the brightest white a panel can display. In theory, the highest contrast ratio possible is desirable since dark blacks and bright whites contribute to a high-quality picture. There isn't a standardized way of measuring this spec, though, so Samsung's numbers aren't comparable with, say, Panasonic's or Sharp's numbers. And, as you might imagine, vendors are vying to come up with the highest ratios, so they can charge more. Always ignore contrast ratios from manufacturers, and read reviews instead. We test contrast ratio uniformly across all the HDTVs we test.
Where Will Your New TV Go?
Choosing the right HDTV will greatly depend on the room in which you're planning to watch it. Finding the right display size for your viewing environment is simple—go as big as you can fit in the space (budget permitting, of course).
This chart will help you figure out which screen size will work best. It outlines the minimum ideal distance for viewing HD material on various screen sizes. Sit any closer to the screen and you'll start to notice the pixel structure of the display. Also, keep in mind that standard-definition video on an HDTV will look disappointing at the distances listed on the chart, so consider moving your seat back.
Room lighting is also important. You want a TV with a screen that produces the best-looking picture under typical conditions. If you usually watch TV in a dimly lit room, plasma is your best bet because it can seamlessly reduce the overall intensity of the picture when displaying bright scenes so you can take in more subtle details. LCD TVs can create brighter pictures, so they work well in brighter rooms.
In a well-lit area, screen color can also strongly influence the impression of picture quality—images on darker screens (LCD or plasma) can appear to have more contrast and greater saturation. Most LCD sets have very dark-colored screens, but some models incorporate a glossy screen finish that acts like a pair of sunglasses, making video black appear even darker (boosting picture contrast). Just be aware that these shiny screen surfaces can also increase distracting reflections. If you want to use an LCD TV in a darkened environment, consider choosing a model that can automatically dim its picture in response to reduced room light levels—or one that you can easily adjust manually—to reduce eye strain.
Make the Right Connections
Your ideal HDTV should provide enough video connections not only for now, but for the foreseeable future. The most important input is the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), which supports most forms of digital video and audio (from upscaling DVD and Blu-ray players, game consoles, set-top boxes, cameras, camcorders, phones, tablets, and PCs) using a single cable. Smaller HDTVs should provide a minimum of two HDMI ports and larger ones at least four. If you plan to hook up older analog video devices to your HDTV, make sure your new set provides enough of these connectors too, as many manufacturers are reducing the number of analog inputs on newer sets.
3D, Web Apps, and Other Extras
Television manufacturers continue to push 3D HDTVs, despite decidedly underwhelming consumer reception. When it comes to buying a new TV, the basic question to consider is whether you want to invest in 3D. Besides a serious dearth of 3D content, the big problem with 3D is that it can get expensive when you figure in the price of a 3D-ready Blu-ray player and active shutter glasses that cost $50-$150 a pair for the whole family. LG, Toshiba, and Vizio have introduced 3D panels that use less-expensive passive glasses that offer surprisingly good 3D picture quality, but that doesn't change the fact that there's little to watch.
Besides 3D, the other big trend is Web-connected sets. Pretty much all HDTVs released in the past year integrate an Ethernet port so you can connect the set to a home network to gain Web access. (Many are even Wi-Fi-enabled so you can connect wirelessly.) Besides the typical Web weather, news, and stock ticker widgets, television manufacturers are piling on the Web apps. If you want it, you can find an HDTV with video streaming from Netflix, Vudu, Amazon On Demand, Blockbuster, or Hulu Plus; music streaming from Pandora, Slacker, or Rhapsody; and social networking in the form of Twitter or Facebook. And many sets include a wide array of these services. Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Vizio, and others offer videoconferencing via Skype, and to blur the lines between the Web and your HDTV even further, LG integrates Google TV, which includes a full Chrome browser and access to the Google Play app store, in its Cinema 3D LED TV. Many of today's HDTVs also include a USB port so you can play music and display photos or video stored on flash drives and hard drives.
Which Set to Get?
The first thing to remember when you're ready to shop: Always compare prices before you buy. Rarely does an HDTV sell for its full list price, so some savvy online shopping can save you a bundle. And always read reviews first: For our top-rated models, check out The 10 Best HDTVs. For more shopping advice, read Buying an HDTV: Frequently Asked Questions, and for all the latest reviews, visit our HDTV Product Guide.