If you’re in the market for a new HDTV this year, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that 2013 has seen the release of some of the greatest TVs ever made. Price, size, performance, all can be had at levels never before seen.
The bad news is, brands are dropping like flies, there are fewer models to choose from, and even fewer technologies.
So check out the chart, and come on in for the ultimate 2013 HDTV Buyers Guide.
How to read the chart
Start at the top, and work your way down. Once you figure out your budget and rough screen size (this viewing distance chart will help), figure out your technology, resolution, features, and so on.
Below, you’ll find each step explained further.
LCDs (there are no mainstream CCFL LCDs this year, only LED-lit) range from 19 to 90-inches. Plasmas are available from 42 to 65-inches. New this year is OLED (finally). You can have any screen size, as long as it’s 55-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. All (OK, both) OLEDs are 1080p.
Consider your budget, room size, seating positions, and if you need to, the size of the cabinet in which you’re placing the TV. All of these things will determine what the best size TV is for you.
When it comes to resolution, our exclusive HD Guru viewing distance chart tells you how close you’ll need to sit to see the 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 set’s full resolution.
In other words, if you’re sitting far away, or are getting a small TV (smaller than 50-inches), you probably don’t need 1080p, and if you want, you can save some money with a 720p TV.
Plasma or LCD… or OLED?
Ah yes, the age-old question. Well, LCD is your only choice if size constraints limit you to a 40-inch screen size or below. Above 40-inches, HD Guru and most other experts agree that plasma beats LCD (all “LED” TVs are really LCDs) in overall picture quality.
The reasons for this are multi-fold. Plasma offers uniform picture quality as you move off-axis, meaning everyone in the room essentially sees the same picture. LCDs do not. Off axis, all LCDs exhibit changes in color, black level and brightness. Some models are better than others.
Some plasmas have screen coatings that cause a darkening of the image at extreme off-axis viewing angles.
Plasmas also offer better overall black levels, with blacks always appearing darker, which leads to 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.
There’s a lot to it, of course. Geoff write the in-depth LED LCD vs. plasma over at CNET, which is worth checking out if you’re still torn on the tech.
However, if you really want the best picture quality, OLED beats plasma and LCD like it has a grudge. Essentially perfect black levels, coupled with incredible light output, means a nearly infinite contrast ratio. They’re the best looking TVs you can get right now.
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 VT60, ZT60 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.
For even more info, check out What is Refresh Rate?
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.
Vizio only sells passive 3D. All of LGs 3D LEDs are passive 3D, but its plasma’s are active 3D. Toshiba sells both active and passive 3DLCD and LED models.
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 VT60 and ZT60 series plasmas, and certain LG models. 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, check out What is THX Certification.
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
There are several new Ultra HD “4K” TVs out this year. We’ll be covering them in a separate article.
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“.
(The article above is our 2013 updated version of “How to Pick the Right HDTV” originally published Dec. 2011)
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