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It’s the time of year again, where the temperature drops and the sales heat up. This is TV buying season, and prices have never been lower. Sizes have increased, and there are more features than ever.
But sorting through the dozens of different models can be tedious at best, and mind-numbing at worst. But don’t worry, we’ve done all that for you.
The chart above and the text below will help you narrow down what you need, so you get the perfect TV.
For the chart, start at the top. Decide what your budget is, and what screen size you want. Then move down to the various TV types (CCFL LCD, LED LCD, Plasma, DLP), then further to features.
Below we explain size, type, refresh rates, 3D, Internet Streaming, THX and more.
Job one is to pick the right screen size. LCDs (either LED or CCFL) now range from 19 to 90-inches. Plasmas are available from 42 to 65-inches. LCD screens 32-inches and smaller generally feature 720p resolution, though a number of sets as small as 19-inches offering 1080p. There are 42, 43, 50 and 51-inch 720p plasma sets as well, or 1080p in all plasma sizes. Rear Projection TVs are not flat, with a depth of around 15-inches. They’re offered in screen sizes from 73 to 92-inches and provide the biggest TV for the least amount of money. Street prices start at under $1000. All use a single replaceable lamp light source (except one series that uses lasers). All rear projectors are currently made by Mitsubishi.
What size is right for you? Consider your budget, room size, seating positions and finally if it’s an issue for you, the size of the cabinet in which you’re placing the TV. Our exclusive HD Guru viewing distance chart tells you how close you need to sit to see full resolution with a given 720p or 1080p display. Sit further away and of course you’ll still get a great picture, but human vision limitations will prevent you from seeing the sets full resolution.
LCD or Plasma?
LCD is your only choice if size constraints limit you to a 40-inch screen size or below. While you have a choice of plasma or LCD at 42-inches and above, HD Guru and most other experts agree that plasma beats LCD (including those labeled “LED”) in overall picture quality.
Why? Plasma offers uniform picture quality as you move off-axis, meaning everyone in the room essentially sees the same picture. LCD does not. Off axis, all LCD displays exhibit changes in color, black level and brightness, though some models have better off-axis performance than others.
Plasmas offer overall better black levels, with blacks always appearing deeper, and better contrast ratios. This is because plasmas have the ability to shut light off at a pixel level. LCDs are a backlit technology, so the best they can do — and few LCDs can do it at all— is dim large blocks of pixels using a feature called “LED local dimming. It’s not nearly as precise or effective as actually turning off individual pixels. Areas adjacent to high brightness images often produce a halo artifact.
CCFL or LED LCD TV?
A relatively recent advance in LCD technology uses LEDs (light emitting diodes) to illuminate the picture instead of the thin fluorescent tubes called CCFLs. Though some TV manufacturers choose to call their LED backlit sets “LED TVs” but they are still LCD TVs. However, LED backlighting has a number of advantages, one of which is lower power consumption compared to both CCFL backlit LCDs and plasma. LED LCDs can also be thinner than their CCFL counterparts. Another LED advantage is the capability of very bright images, which makes them preferable to both CCFL backlit LCDs and plasma if you do a lot of daytime viewing in very bright windowed rooms lacking shades or curtains. For most typical room lighting conditions, plasma HDTVs produce sufficient image brightness for outstanding picture quality.
For a given screen size, plasma consumes somewhat more power than CCFL backlit LCDs. Keep in mind, though, this is unlikely to actually save you money. Price wise, large screen plasma (50″ and over) are significantly less expensive than LED LCDs. That cost differential is greater than the savings in electricity one can expect, even after 10 or more years of use. Also, just because LED LCDs are more efficient doesn’t mean plasmas are inefficient. All current TV models consume very little energy compared to TVs of just a few years ago. All TVs are also required to have an Energy Guide label.
The CCFL lamps contain mercury, a toxic metal, while LED LCDs and plasmas are mercury free, something to keep in mind when disposing of an old LCD TV. Check out our recycling article for more information.
Edge Versus Backlit LED
Manufacturers use “white” LEDs to either edge-light or back-light their LCD sets. Edge lighting makes very thin profile TVs possible, many less than an inch deep. Back-lit TV usually offer the aforementioned advantage of local dimming, which can produce extremely dark black levels.
Edge-lit LEDs may have white and black uniformity issues at the picture perimeter while off-axis brightness of either LED format tends to fall off somewhat more rapidly than the same panel using traditional CCFLs. Overall, LED backlit models with local dimming produce the best LCD pictures. These are also the most expensive LED TVs. Sets with local-dimming LED backlights can only be found on Sony’s HX950 series, LG’s 9600 series, and Elite by Sharp models.
60Hz/120Hz/240Hz and 96Hz
Standard LCDs incorporate a 60 Hz refresh rate. This produces motion resolution of around 320 lines (per picture height) out of a possible 1080 lines. 120 Hz refresh ups the motion resolution to around 600 lines, while 240 Hz kicks it up to 900 lines or higher.
Once the refresh rate is increased to 120Hz or higher, a number of image artifacts appear. In addition, test materials reveal unwanted artifacts present in all types of 120, 240 Hz LCD HDTVs.
For the best LCD picture motion resolution, either traditional or LED backlit, choose one with 120Hz refresh or higher. Note there are LED LCDs that claim 480Hz refresh, however, they really just use a 240 Hz circuit and sequentially fire their LEDs.
1080p plasma sets produce artifact free, full 1080-line motion resolution without the issues created with 120 Hz LCD and LED TVs. The standard plasma refreshes at 60 Hz (made up of 10, 600 Hz sub-fields) in 2D mode. Panasonic’s VT50 series and certain Samsung plasma models offer a 96Hz refresh rate that produces images free of the judder (seen as jerky pans) found in all 60Hz panels (plasma and LCD) without any of the artifacts associated with 120/240Hz LED/LCDs.
The 3D feature allows viewers to watch 3D content currently available via Blu-ray, DirecTV, select cable companies as live or VOD, and streaming from the Internet. You can find it on mid- and higher-end models in many product lines.
There are two distinct types of 3D HDTVs: active and passive. Active 3D requires battery-operated glasses. These sync to the 3D on-screen image to produce a Full HD 1080p image per eye when using Full HD source (currently limited to Blu-ray discs). Cable and satellite 3D broadcasts use a format called side-by-side (SBS) that reduces image resolution to 960 x 1080 with active 3D. Samsung, Sony and Panasonic sell Active 3D TVs exclusively.
Passive 3D uses a special filter adhered to the front panel of LCD and LED TVs (all plasmas are active 3D designs). The filter is a thin plastic film called a “Film Patterned Retarder.” Some TVs. like Vizio’s 65-inch 3D model, use a glass patterned retarder. All patterned retarded HDTVs use passive (battery-less) circular polarized glasses for 3D viewing. These glasses are similar and compatible with most of the glasses provided in 3D movie theaters.
While passive 3D glasses provide full resolution inside movie theaters, at home passive 3D TVs provide half resolution per eye (1920×540) while using a Blu-ray 3D disc. With 3D cable content, the 3D resolution drops to 960×540 per eye. This can result in noticeable artifacts on screen. However, there is less crosstalk artifacts with passive 3D, and less chance to see “flicker.” There is no perfect way to do 3D in the home, each method has strengths and weaknesses. Check out Geoff’s article Active 3D vs. passive 3D: What’s better? for more info.
All Mitsubishi rear projection TVs offer 3D using active glasses technology.
Many 2012 models come with an Ethernet port for connection to your LAN and the Internet. A number of models can also connect via Wi-Fi, with an add-on dongle or built-in. Netflix, CinemaNow, Vudu, Amazon and others offer movies and TV shows via the Internet. Each TV maker has its own list of services, and this list may vary from model to model or series to series within a TV maker’s line-up. Other services offered are music, cloud storage, viewing of your photos, games, applications, weather, stock prices, sports scores and more. Vizio, Sony, LG and Samsung also offer a Web browser on select models.
Image quality of streaming video varies greatly depending on the program provider and your Internet connection speed. High Definition is offered, however its quality can be anywhere from soft to near broadcast sharpness. No on-line streaming HD currently looks as good as a Blu-ray disc.
If you’re looking accurate image reproduction, consider THX Certified models that provide near-ideal out-of-the-box color temperature and color point accuracy when set to the THX picture option. THX is available on select Panasonic models like its VT50 series plasmas. User calibration controls, included with many major-brand top of the line HDTVs allow (with proper test equipment and signals) near perfection image fine tuning.
To learn more about THX Certification use this link.
Other Special Features
A number of TVs have user calibration controls for setting the accuracy of gray (called white balance) and color points. These adjustments require special instruments and training to achieve good results. Unless you have the right equipment, these controls should be left alone. Misadjusted, the picture quality will suffer.
ISF ccc incorporates these adjustments with a lock-out to prevent changing once adjusted by a trained calibrator.
Ultra HD 4K
New this year are 84-inch Ultra HDTVs. These feature a 3,640 x 2,160 resolution. There is no readily available UHD content, and depending how far you sit from the TV, the increased resolution is superfluous. LG, Sony, and a few other manufacturers are starting to sell Ultra HDTVs. All are passive 3D, and edge-lit LED LCDs.
Buying your HDTV
This year’s holiday supply is especially good for the entry and higher end models. The mid- to high-end models have the highest dealer incentives, resulting in discounts of 25% to over 40% off. For tips on buying a set at a brick and mortar store, check out our feature “Getting the Best HDTV Price”.(link).
(The article above is our 2012 updated version of “How to Pick the Right HDTV” originally published Dec. 2011)
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