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How to Buy an HDTV

  • Category: Buying Guides
Date:12/4/2013 11:39:00 AM

By Wendy Donnell

Whether you're looking for a very basic low-cost set or a feature-packed, razor-thin 4K HDTV, selecting the right television isn't easy. There are plenty of questions to answer: What type of display should you get: Plasma or LED? How big should the screen be? What 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?
Plasma TVs were the only flat-panel models available when they were first introduced more than a decade ago. But given evolution of LCD TVs in the past couple of years, many manufacturers have stopped making plasma sets, with only LG and Samsung staying in the plasma market after this year.

"LCD" and LED HDTVs have been separate for a while, despite both using LCD panels. LCD panels themselves aren't lit, so they need to be illuminated. LED HDTVs simply backlight the LCDs with LEDs, while "LCD" HDTVs use CCFL for backlighting. CCFL-backlit designs have fallen by the wayside now, and even budget and midrange HDTVs use LED backlighting. They're lighter and more energy efficient than CCFL-backlit HDTVs, so at this point there's no reason to settle for an LCD that doesn't use LEDs.

There are further differences in the various designs. LED HDTVs can be either edge-lit or back-lit (though "backlighting" as a general term can refer to any method to illuminate an LCD panel). Edge-lit HDTVs light up their screens with arrays of LEDs along the edges of the panels, letting the HDTVs be very thin and light. Back-lit HDTVs use a large array of LEDs directly behind the panel, making the screen a little thicker but allowing it to more evenly illuminate the panel and, for high-end screens, adjust individual LEDs to enhance black levels in scenes. Very good edge-lighting systems can produce excellent pictures, though, and HDTV manufacturers are making back-lighting LED arrays smaller and thinner, so the distinction means less than it used to; regardless of the technology, an LED HDTV's thinness and brightness will be roughly proportional to its price range.

Plasma HDTVs can often produce the best black levels and most accurate colors. Unfortunately, there aren't many plasma screens anymore, and the ones that are worth considering are expensive. Samsung's Editor's Choice PNF8500 and Panasonic's VT60 and ZT60 (possibly Panasonic's last plasma HDTVs) series offer some of the deepest blacks and nicest pictures we've seen, but you'll have to spend at least $2,500 for them when you can get an excellent high-end LED HDTV for much less, and they eat up three times as much electricity as LED screens. If picture quality is your biggest priority and you have the money, go for a high-end plasma. Otherwise, LED-backlit LCD is the only budget-friendly choice.

For a closer look at the difference between HDTV display types, read Plasma vs. LCD: Which HDTV Type is Best?

Choose Your Resolution
Right now, 1080p resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels, progressively scanned) is the only serious choice. Like LED and CCFL backlighting, the choice between 1080p and 720p has become irrelevant thanks to affordable 1080p screens. Even budget and midrange HDTVs are available in 1080p, and you shouldn't settle for the significantly lower resolution of 720p.

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. You can expect to spend $4,000 to $6,000 on a 4K HDTV from a prominent brand, and even the ultra-low-end $1,500 Seiki SE50UY04 is pretty expensive compared to good 1080p screens. Considering there's little content in native 4K, 1080p upscaling isn't good enough to justify the higher resolution, and there isn't a standard broadcast method or physical media to transmit 4K content, you should keep waiting. For nearly all consumers, 1080p is the way to go.

For more, read What is 4K (Ultra HD)?

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 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 for manufacturers to measure this spec, though, so Samsung's numbers aren't directly 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. Ignore any claims of contrast ratios in the millions or infinity; the best screens we've reviewed have shown contrast ratios of 30,000-50,000:1 in our uniform lab tests.

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. Most HDTVs have three or four HDMI ports, but some might only have two. It's the best way to send 1080p video from your devices to your screen with one cable, and will be the way you connect your main sources of entertainment to your HDTV. 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
3D is well-established at this point, though as a feature it still commands a premium. 3D HDTVs can use active 3D, which use battery-powered shutter glasses, or passive 3D, which use polarized filters. Passive used to be the most economical choice by far, but now that even most active 3D HDTVs come with a few pairs of glasses and new pairs are available for $20 instead of $50 to $100, the difference is mainly academic. Active 3D tends to look slightly better but is slightly less convenient, because the glasses need power to function and that means keeping them charged or replacing their batteries regularly. Of course, if you don't plan to watch 3D movies, you can skip 3D entirely and avoid the premium placed on those screens.

Besides 3D, expect any mid-range or high-end HDTV (and many budget HDTVs) to offer Web apps and built-in Wi-Fi. These features let you connect your HDTV to the Internet and access online services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube. Many also integrate social network services like Facebook and Twitter, and many manufacturers offer entire downloadable app ecosystems with other programs and games you can use on your HDTV. These apps are also available in most Blu-ray players, all major video game systems, and even on inexpensive media streaming hubs, so they're not vital. However, their presence indicates some effort was put into designing the screen, and can give you a hint about whether your inexpensive HDTV will be a great deal or a disappointment.

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.