When it comes to selecting a new HDTV, it’s fair to say there’s no shortage of options. Whether you’re standing in front of a giant wall of TVs at your local brick-and-mortar retailer or staring at a screen full of options on Amazon or Crutchfield, you might quickly feel overwhelmed as you try to figure out which one is the “right” one. Let me first say that there’s no such thing as the right TV; there’s only the right TV for you, and even that list could include several choices. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with a bit of basic knowledge before you begin the search process so that you’ve got some understanding of the different technologies and features that are available to you. With that in mind, here are 10 questions to think about before you shop.
1) How big a screen do you want?
We begin with this question because the answer could narrow your options. For instance, if you want a screen size over 65 inches, then you’re pretty much limited to TVs that use LCD technology (or you need to switch to a front projector, but that’s a whole different article). Rear-projection TVs – which once offered the best value at the larger screen sizes of 70 inches and above — officially died in late 2012 when Mitsubishi announced that it was exiting the RPTV business. You might still find a few for sale, but no new models are being produced. Mass-market plasma TVs currently max out at a screen size of 65 inches. Larger plasma models are available in the custom and pro A/V realms, but they are extremely expensive.
Most uber-large-screen LCD TVs use an LED lighting system (instead of a CCFL backlight) and may be referred to as an LED TV. Sharp is currently the king of this category, offering multiple 1080p LCDs in the 70- to 90-inch range. Vizio is adding more 70- to 80-inch 1080p models to its line. Samsung, Sony, LG, and Toshiba all offer screen sizes up to 84 inches, but their 84-inchers are UltraHD TVs (with four times the resolution of 1080p) that carry a very high price tag.
At the other end of the size spectrum, the same caveat holds true: If you want a TV sized 40 inches or below, then LCD is again your only option. Plasma TVs are not offered in sizes below 42 inches.
2) What is your viewing environment like? When do you normally watch TV?
Is your viewing environment dim or bright? Do you watch TV primarily during the day or at night? The where and when of your viewing environment may ultimately dictate whether you choose a plasma or LCD TV. You can learn more about each of these TV technologies and its strengths/limitations in the article entitled “Plasma vs. LCD vs. OLED: Which Is Right for You,” but here’s the short version: Plasma TVs generally have better black levels than LCD but are not as bright, so they are better suited for people who primarily watch video content (especially movies) at night in a moderate to dark room. LCD TVs can be very bright and thus are a good fit for daytime viewing in a bright room. In my case, I have an LCD TV in my brightly sunlit living room, which is where we generally watch TV during the day. I have a plasma TV in my family room, the room to which I often retire in the evenings to watch movies and TV with lights turned off or low.
If your room has a lot of direct sunlight or other bright light sources, you might want to look specifically for an LCD TV that has a matte screen. All plasmas and many of today’s more expensive LCDs have glossy screens, which can offer some performance benefits but may show a lot of distracting room reflections in a very bright environment.
3) Are you willing to pay more to get the best performance?
Let’s be honest: A lot of TVs on the market these days can produce a nice-looking image with Blu-ray and HDTV content. If “good enough” is good enough for you, then choices abound. If, on the other hand, you want the cream of the crop in terms of black level, contrast, black detail, screen uniformity, color accuracy, and motion resolution, then you need to be prepared to pay more. This is especially true in the LCD realm, where high-performance options like full-array LED backlighting, local dimming, and a 240Hz refresh rate are reserved for the higher-priced models. Many of today’s LCD TVs use an edge LED lighting system, which allows for a thin, light cabinet design but often causes screen-uniformity problems in which some parts of the screen are clearly brighter than others. A full-array LED backlight should provide better screen uniformity than an edge LED design. Local dimming allows these LED-based LCDs to produce deeper blacks and better overall contrast that rivals plasma; it can also improve screen uniformity. A 240Hz or 120Hz refresh rate helps reduce or eliminate the motion blur that can be visible on a traditional 60Hz LCD TV. On the plasma TV side, you can often get very good black levels, screen uniformity, and motion resolution in lower-priced models, but you still have to pay more to get the best – the best black levels, the best color accuracy, and the best screen filter to improve brightness and cut down on room reflections.
4) Do you have/want true HD sources?
Your new HDTV will upconvert standard-definition sources like DVD and SDTV to its native resolution (these days, that’s probably 1080p). However, upconverted sources are not the same thing as true HD sources. Learn more about this in our feature “Five Tips to Make Sure You’re Actually Watching HD on Your HDTV“. To enjoy high-def movies, you need a Blu-ray player and Blu-ray discs, or you need a streaming media player that supports HD output and includes a service like VUDU that offers HD movies. Cable/satellite subscribers will likely need to upgrade to an HD-capable box and order the HD channel package, which may cost an additional monthly fee. Once you upgrade your programming package and have an HD box installed, make sure you’re actually watching the HD versions of the channels. Chances are, the grid will include both an NBC and an NBC HD, for instance, and you want to tune in to the correct one.
There is another option for receiving HDTV signals: Any display that’s officially labeled as a TV (as opposed to a monitor) will include an HD (ATSC) tuner in it. Buy an HDTV antenna that connects to the TV’s RF input, and you can tune in free over-the-air HD channels like ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW, and PBS, but you won’t have access to premium HD channels like ESPN, TNT, HBO, etc.
5) How many sources will you connect to the TV?
HDMI is the primary (and oftentimes the only) high-definition connection found on new Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, streaming media players, and other set-top boxes. Make sure the HDTV you buy has enough HDMI inputs to accommodate all of the HD sources you want to connect to it, and make sure you purchase enough HDMI cables. If you’re running all your sources through an A/V receiver, then you only really need one HDMI input on the TV. Don’t forget about “legacy” sources that you might want to connect, such as a DVD player, gaming console, or VCR that does not have HDMI outputs. As TVs grow increasingly thinner, TV connection panels grow increasingly leaner; many new TVs have only one analog video input (usually a shared component/composite video input, no S-video). Do you want to connect a computer? You can pick up a DVI-to-HDMI adapter to connect your computer to the TV’s HDMI input; however, many TVs also include a dedicated PC input in the form of a standard 15-pin VGA/RGB connector.
6) Do you want a 3D-capable TV?
3D capability is a feature found on many new HDTVs. At first, this feature was only offered on the most expensive TVs in a company’s line, but now 3D capability has trickled down to lower price points. There are currently two types of 3DTV: active and passive. Both require that you wear 3D glasses: Active 3D requires the use of battery-powered glasses that are more expensive than the basic passive glasses. Some people (myself included) feel that active 3D produces a sharper, cleaner 3D image because it sends a full-resolution signal to each eye, but passive 3D can serve up a brighter 3D image and can be more comfortable over a longer viewing period. Many TV manufacturers include a few pairs of 3D glasses with the TV purchase; this is an especially important feature to consider if you select an active 3DTV, as the active 3D glasses are more expensive. As for 3D sources, you’ll need a 3D-capable Blu-ray player and Blu-ray 3D discs, and you’ll need to check with your cable/satellite provider to see what (if any) 3D channels they offer. Some smart (networkable) TVs include 3D video-on-demand services.
7) Do you want a smart TV?
8) If so, how smart do you want it to be?
Speaking of smart TVs, all of the major TV manufacturers now offer a Web platform on many of their mid- to higher-priced models. These Web platforms generally include on-demand media services like Netflix, VUDU,Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora, YouTube, and Picasa. Social networking services like Facebook and Twitter are available on many TVs, as are games, news/sports apps, and more. Many smart TVs also offer DLNA media streaming, which allows you to stream your personal videos, music, and photos from a DLNA-compliant media server or computer to the TV. You can often control these smart TVs using a free control app on your smartphone or tablet, and many of these apps allow you to flick Web content and media files from the mobile device to your TV.
The smarter you want the TV to be, the more you should expect to pay for it. Top-shelf TVs may include integrated cameras that allow for facial recognition and video chatting via Skype, as well as the ability to control the TV via motion/gesture commands. Some smart TVs respond to voice commands. A few premium TVs now incorporate NFC (near field communication) that lets you play back files from a mobile device by simply placing the device close to the TV’s NFC sensor. Conversely, some TV manufacturers (like Panasonic) offer a stripped-down Web platform, with just core services like Netflix and VUDU, on lower-priced TVs.
9) How accurate do you want your TV to look?
Most HDTVs are not set up to look their best out of the box. They are set up to catch your eye under the harsh lighting of the retail floor or, in the case of plasma, they are set to a very dim standard mode to earn EnergyStar certification. These settings seldom translate well to a normal living room, be it bright or dark. Simply switching the TV’s picture mode from one called Dynamic or Daytime to one labeled THX, Cinema, or Movie can make a huge difference, but some people may want to go even further in the video-setup process…and we certainly encourage that. After all, you’ve just spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars on a TV. Don’t you want it to look its best? Add a $30 (or less) video calibration disc like Disney’s WOW or Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics to your shopping cart and learn how to make adjustments to basic picture controls like contrast, brightness, color, tint, and sharpness. THX sells an iOS app called THX Tune-Up that will walk you through video and audio setup procedures.
If you want to enjoy the most accurate image that your TV is capable of, then you should have your TV professionally calibrated by an ISF- or THX-certified calibrator. This trained calibrator will use professional equipment to measure and adjust your TV’s color temperature, gamma, and other settings to meet recommended industry standards (at least, as close as your specific TV can get to those standards). Contact the Imaging Science Foundation or THX to find a certified calibrator in your area. If you purchase your HDTV through a specialty retailer, the store may have a certified video calibrator on staff. Ask about this.
10) Should you shop at a specialty store instead of a big-box chain or e-tailer?
Have you narrowed down your list of potential TVs to just a few, or do you still have a lot of unanswered questions? How confident are you that you can set up your system correctly? Are you shopping for a casual budget TV, or is this a major investment? You’re more likely to get accurate answers, better guidance, and real setup assistance (including the aforementioned calibrations) from the staff at a specialty store. In general, you can spend more quality hands-on demo time with a TV in a specialty store; the staff may be more open to letting you change the room’s lighting and even try out your own demo discs to check out video quality, which is an especially wise thing to do if you’re shopping in the higher-end realm. The downside is that you’ll likely have to pay a bit more for the product, and there’s always a chance that you’ll encounter a salesperson who is too commission-focused and trying too hard to upsell. If that happens, just leave and find a better specialty store that has salespeople with whom you feel comfortable. Remember, though, that courtesy goes both ways: Don’t spend an hour getting advice from a trained specialty-store salesperson, only to leave and go buy the same product for less online.