Ultimate HDTV Buying Guide

by Jason South


Shopping for a new TV is painful. The amount of information overload is staggering – and that doesn’t include the copious amounts of specification spin that salesmen are going to drop on you. We are here to help! We’ve built a comprehensive HDTV buying guide that will explain exactly what each specification means, and which ones are worth paying attention to. You’ll be confident and prepared enough to purchase a great TV at a fantastic price – all without dealing with the annoying salesmen. Hang on to your hats ladies and gentlemen; this is going to be an informative ride!

Here are a few basic TV shopping tips to get you started:

DOs

  • DO go to the store to look at the HDTV you plan to buy before making your purchase online.
  • DO make sure to look at and adjust all of the various picture settings when you go to look at new TVs.
  • DO check out different types of video (sports, movies, broadcast TV, etc.) from a variety of sources (DVD/Blu-ray and broadcast) when checking out new TVs.
  • DO check our online TV Deals page. It doesn’t take much time, and we can help you get the best deal possible on the TV you want. Set up a topic alert for HDTV, or the specific model you’re looking for and we’ll send you an email when a new deal is added.
  • DO check to see if your credit cards offer free extended warranties on your purchases. Cards like American Express usually offer an extra year of warranty coverage for free. So before you buy that expensive extended warranty, see what is out there for free!

DO NOTs

  • DO NOT base your decision on the picture quality of demonstration mode display settings that you see when you walk in the store. Every TV on display will be calibrated differently.
  • DO NOT trust the manufacturer’s specifications for determining contrast and color quality.
  • DO NOT let yourself get talked into buying outrageously priced HDMI cables, no matter what the salesman tells you. Unless your cable is extremely long (over 25 feet), you will get exactly the same signal quality from $2 cables found online as you will from the $40, $80, or $200 cable you will find in the store.
  • DO NOT forget cash back! Cash back from sites like FatWallet can save you from 1% + on your HDTV purchase. It doesn’t cost you a thing, and it’s money in your pocket rather than the store’s!

Choosing HDTV technology:

At some point during your quest to purchase a new HDTV, you need to determine which technology is right for you. The three main technologies in the flat-panel HDTV market are LCD, LED, and Plasma.

  • LCD HDTVs are typically the least expensive to purchase, offer the widest variety of screen sizes, and are moderately energy efficient; however, they also offer the lowest overall picture quality. LCD is a good choice if you’re looking for a display smaller than 42 inches, you’re on a tight budget, or you plan to use your TV in a brightly lit room.
  • LED HDTVs (often referred to as LCD-LED) use LCD technology with LED lighting instead of the CCFL lighting used in standard LCDs. LED lighting usually improves picture quality and makes these the most energy efficient displays on the market, but also makes them the most expensive to purchase. LED TVs can be either edge lit, or back lit. Edge lit LEDs are extremely thin and lightweight. The tradeoff is a reduction in brightness vs. backlit LEDs, and susceptibility to an effect called blooming. Blooming occurs when light from brighter pixels bleeds over into nearby darker pixels, reducing contrast and diminishing picture quality. Backlit LED panels are only slightly thicker and heavier, and tend to deliver a better overall picture quality. If you can afford it, backlit LED is the way to go. It’s a good choice if you’re looking for a very thin and lightweight display, you’re concerned about conserving energy, and you don’t mind paying a little more up-front for high picture quality.
  • Plasma HDTVs offer very high picture quality at a moderate price, but are much heavier and much less energy efficient than LCDs or LEDs. Plasmas tend to produce the highest picture quality in dark rooms and at the widest variety of viewing angles, but reflective glass screens can create glare in brighter rooms. Plasma is a good choice if you’re looking for high picture quality without too much up-front cost, and your room isn’t terribly bright.

Specifications and factors that influence TV picture quality:

Contrast ratio:

Contrast is the difference between the darkest black and the brightest white that a display can produce, and it is possibly the most important factor that influences the overall picture quality. Poor contrast will make images appear either washed out, or very dark with very little detail distinguishing between similar colors. The trouble is, there are no industry standards for measuring contrast or for determining specifications for contrast. As a result, it is extremely difficult or impossible to compare contrast ratios between different manufacturers. The specifications may be useful in comparing displays from the same manufacturer, but you will certainly need to go look at different brands of displays in order to get a feel for what type of experience you can expect when you get your TV set up at home. The bottom line here is that contrast ratios are very important and you can’t trust the specifications, so you need to go see it for yourself before you buy.

Color:

Color, also known as saturation, is probably the second most important factor in determining picture quality. Too much saturation will make images appear cartoonish and unrealistic, while too little saturation will make the picture seem weak and dull. You are not very likely to accurately judge the color quality of your new TV by looking at the specifications. Again, you will need to go to the store and see it for yourself. Don’t simply base your judgment on what you see when you walk in. The sales floor will most likely be much brighter, with more artificial light and less natural light than you will have in your home. Take a moment to adjust the settings on the TV.

Resolution

Display Resolution: Although resolution is the most frequently cited HDTV specification, it is not the most important factor in determining picture quality. While resolution may not be quite as important as contrast and color, it still is a major factor in producing a quality image. Modern flat panel TVs come primarily in two resolutions, 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) and 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels). Both resolutions produce a spectacular image and are a huge leap up from standard definition (480i or up to 480 lines of resolution); however, further improvements become more and more difficult to detect once you have made that initial jump. How much, if any, difference you will notice between 1080p and 720p depends on your visual acuity and environmental factors like viewing distance and lighting conditions. See the screen size and distance chart below for more information about when you may notice the improvement from 720p to 1080p.

New 2160p (4k) TVs: The new kid on the block is the “4k Ultra High Definition TV.” What does this fancy term mean? It means that 4K has around four times more resolution than a 1080p TV (1,920 x 1,080 vs 3840 x 2160). In practical terms it means that it produces a clearer, more detailed picture.

But that doesn’t tell the entire story. If you notice in our seating distance to resolution chart listed below, you have to have a HUGE TV for the average person to notice the difference in the picture. Sitting just 5 feet away from your TV, you will need a 55″ TV to START noticing the improved detail. To get the full benefit of your new 4k TV you will need a whopping 80″ TV, and that is if you sit just 5′ away. While this technology is the future, right now it’s just not worth it.

Source Resolution: Not all video sources are created equal, and the actual picture quality you experience on your new HDTV will be limited by the quality of the source signal. Currently only Blu-ray players, modern video game consoles, and some video-on-demand sources are able to take full advantage of 1080p. Several TV networks including NBC and its affiliates (i.e. Universal, SciFi, and USA), CBS-owned networks, and Discovery Channel networks broadcast in a resolution know as 1080i. 1080i displays in exactly the same number of pixels as 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels), but displays the image in an interlaced format (the ‘i’ in 1080i is for interlaced) that updates alternating lines in the image instead of a progressive scan format (the ‘p’ in 1080p is for progressive) that refreshes the entire image at the same time. Interlaced video is not quite as sharp as progressive scan when the image is moving, but most TVs include smoothing features that make the difference a non-factor. Some other networks including ABC, Fox, ESPN, and Disney broadcast only in 720p.

Home theater guru and tech blogger Carlton Bale has provided this handy chart to help choose a screen size based on picture resolution and viewing distance.

Motion Blur:

Motion blur occurs because of the way LCDs and LEDs display images, by lighting the entire image for the full frame. When the image changes drastically between frames, as you may see during fast moving action sequences in movies and sports, the picture can appear smudged and blurry because the pixels from the previous frame are still lit. Plasma TVs display images in an entirely different way, by rapidly flashing the active pixels instead of lighting the entire picture for the full frame, and are therefore not subject to motion blur. Some viewers are unable to detect motion blur, or aren’t bothered by it at all. Others will find it very noticeable and extremely annoying. How you perceive motion blur largely depends on your vision and the type of video content you are viewing. The only way to really know how motion blur will affect your viewing experience is to go see it for yourself in person.

Response Time:

LCD and LED technologies have produced two ways to combat motion blur. The first is to speed up response times to reduce the delay between when new frames are displayed and when the lighting from previous frames are turned off. When it comes to response times, lower times are better; however, response time specifications are easily manipulated by manufacturers, and are therefore not useful in predicting display quality.

Refresh Rate:

One of the more frequently cited HDTV specifications you will see is refresh rate. Increasing refresh rates is the second way that that LCD and LED technology can attempt to combat motion blur. Typical refresh rates you may see advertised are 60Hz, 120Hz, and 240Hz. Refresh rate is a measure of the frequency at which the display changes the frame displayed on the screen. 60Hz has been the standard going all the way back to the beginnings of standard definition television, and displays 60 interlaced or 30 progressive frames per second.

Displays with refresh rates higher than 60Hz use exactly the same video source with the same 30 frames per second (actually 24 frames per second for film), which is important because it demonstrates that it doesn’t improve the actual quality of the source video. What increased refresh rates can do is reduce the effects of motion blur and another video phenomenon known as judder. Judder is a jittery or jerky appearance that results from video being displayed at a frame rate different from its original source, particularly when 24fps films are converted to 30fps for display on 60Hz televisions.

Increased frame rates work by changing video frames more rapidly, either repeating the previous frame a number of times or interlacing video between frames. Because the afterimage is left on the screen for less time after the frame has changed, motion can appear to be smoother. With interlaced video, the TV processes successive frames, calculates the difference between them, and artificially creates an intermediate frame. This interlaced frame is then displayed between frames of the original source video. Many viewers complain that the smoothing effect created by interlacing looks artificial, while others may not notice it at all, or perhaps even find it appealing.

600Hz Subfield:

You may see plasma TVs advertised as having 600Hz subfield motion or 600Hz subfield drive. Plasma manufacturers invented this specification in response to the increase to 120Hz and 240Hz refresh rates in LCD and LED displays. The trouble is, plasma and LCD/LED display images in entirely different ways.

LCD and LED use backlighting, their pixels remain lit at variable brightness levels throughout the entire frame. Pixels in plasmas do not have variable brightness levels. Plasma displays produce contrast by turning the pixels on and off extremely rapidly. If the pixel is off for the entire frame, it appears black. If the pixel is on for the entire frame, it appears very bright. When the pixel is flashed so that it is on for half the time and off for the other half, it appears dim. That is where the 600Hz comes in. Each plasma frame is divided into 10 fields, so each pixel can flash up to 10 times per frame. Multiply the 60Hz frame rate by 10 fields per frame, and you get the 600Hz subfield rate.

Although they may appear to be similar or related, the subfield rate and the refresh rate are actually completely different specifications that can’t be compared in any meaningful way. Even if the two could be compared, it still wouldn’t be meaningful since the purpose of increased refresh rates is to combat motion blur, which plasma doesn’t even have to begin with.

Extra features:

Smart TV:

Many new HDTVs come internet ready with a variety of convenient capabilities; however, you shouldn’t place a great deal of importance on these features when making your purchasing decision, and you shouldn’t be willing to pay too much extra to get them. According to tech blogger Carlton Bale, “The streaming services built into the TV shouldn’t be a major consideration. You’ll likely keep the TV much longer than the manufacturer will keep the software updated. Additionally, companies like Panasonic and LG are now including ads in their menu/apps pages. It’s better to put the extra $50-$100 towards an external streamer like Apple TV, or a Roku that you can upgrade every couple of years than on integrated services that may become obsolete.”

3D TV:

If you want to take your viewing experience into the third dimension, you will need to choose between TVs that use either active shutter or passive 3D TV technology. Active shutter systems work by flickering extremely rapidly in time with the video, delivering different video streams to each eye in order to create the effect of depth. Passive 3D uses polarized glasses to direct the correct image to each eye. Passive 3D glasses are relatively lightweight and inexpensive, making them a good economic option for large families. The drawbacks to passive 3D are that the 3D effect isn’t as pronounced as it is with active 3D, and passive 3D is subject to crosstalk when the viewer turns their head or does not sit in the center of the screen. Although active 3D has a clear advantage in quality, the glasses are quite a bit more expensive, often $50-$100 or more per pair. They are heavier, bulkier, and require batteries in order to operate.

Inputs / Outputs:

HDMI
These inputs are also known as High-Definition Media Interface. HDMI is the most common and current standard for digital connectors. It combines many of the older analogue connectors (S-Video, VGA, Composite Video, Audio out, etc.) into a single connector. It’s faster and smaller than previous connectors. Lower-end televisions will only have one or two HDMI connectors, so if you have multiple media devices you should aim for at least three or more HDMI ports. This will give you room for your cable/satellite box, Xbox/PS3, Blu-ray player, and media boxes like Roku, and Apple TV.

S-Video inputs
S-Video inputs are an older generation input for devices like your old DVD player, game consoles, and VCRs. While you may never use one of these, it’s always handy to have one. Especially if you have a stock pile of old VHS tapes you still like to watch.

RGB
Red, green, blue inputs, like S-Video inputs, are an older connector, which is used by older devices like the Playstation 2, and Wii to get audio/video to your TV. While this format is slowly going the way of the Dodo bird, it’s good to have one for those “just in case” moments.

Analog Stereo / Composite Video
These outputs are for connecting your older home theater system up to TV. If you like your older home theater surround sound set up, and don’t feel like replacing it, we suggest you purchase a TV with these inputs. A modern home theater set up uses HDMI, so if you were thinking about upgrading your home theater system, you will want more HDMI inputs over Analog Stereo Audio Inputs.

RF Coaxial
RF inputs are used to hook up your OTA (over the air) antenna. If you don’t have a Dish or Cable service, you will want one of these.

VGA Monitor
VGA inputs are useful for hooking up your older desktop or laptop to your TV as a photo album, or home theater system. Most modern computers use HDMI inputs to connect to your TV, so while this input is useful for older devices, it’s not really needed if you are up to date on your computer equipment.

That wraps up our HDTV buying guide, and we hope you are now fully confident in picking out your perfect HDTV. Did we miss something? Feel free to share your knowledge in the comments section below!

 

Additional Resources Coupons & Cash Back
When to Buy What: January Cheat Sheet
Super Savings on Big Game HDTV Deals
Spend the Right Amount on Electronics
Cut the Cord: How to Reduce Your Monthly Entertainment Bills
In-Store Warranties vs Alternatives
The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
Best Buy Resources
Dell Coupons
Paul’s TV Coupons
Sears Coupons
Newegg Coupons
Walmart Coupons

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