HDTV Shopping Tips

November 8th, 2007 · 13 Comments · LCD Flat Panel, Microdisplay Rear Projection, Plasma

Peak television shopping season is November through January. Finding the set that best suits your needs from among the more than 300 available models can be a daunting task. The information below should help make it less so.

Screen Size

Use the HD Guru’sâ„¢ viewing distance chart to ascertain the optimum viewing distance (based on screen resolution) for a given screen size for 1080i/p and 720p:

If you choose an optimal screen size for your viewing distance based on a 720p display and end up choosing a 1080 set instead, expect only a slight perceived improvement in detail.

Check and Confirm Viewing Angle

All HDTVs look good when viewed straight on. Image quality will suffer on many sets when viewed off axis, either vertically or horizontally. Look for darker images, lower contrast (creating a murky picture with blacks becoming gray, and on some LCD displays, a purplish tint). What you’ll see at home therefore will depend upon your and your family’s final seating positions relative to the set’s placement. Use a protractor (available at any office supply store for around a dollar) to determine the most extreme off-axis angle (from “straight on” 90 degrees) at home. Use the protractor at the store to duplicate your home viewing angle. While plasmas tend to maintain their off-axis contrast, color balance and brightness, the off-axis performance of flat panel LCDs and rear projection sets generally, regardless of the technology, varies greatly, so pay careful attention to this when you shop!

When Comparing HDTVs, Be Aware of SAL

S=Signal Quality
A=Angle of View
L= Lighting Conditions

Signal quality” refers to the quality of the store’s demonstration material. National and regional chain stores often use poor quality signals fed through low quality distribution systems that can mask picture quality improvements as you go from mediocre 720p to high quality 1080p sets.

Be wary of distribution systems feeding sets with long runs of component video cables (three cables, often colored red, blue and green) that can seriously degrade resolution and sharpness.
Watch for DirecTV source material provided by the old, legacy DirecTV boxes that can only receive signals from the (MPEG-2) older satellites. These systems, often found in the “big box” chain stores produce lower image quality than what DirecTV’s newer (MPEG-4) system produces. Find a retailer using Verizon’s FIOS or other state of the art fiber optic-based system to see the best picture the set you’re considering can produce.

“Angle of View” may be an issue depending upon how and where the store mounts their flat panel sets. Some national and regional chains mount up to three sets, one above the other, with the top most being up to 10 feet above eye level. Guess which will appear to produce the best image? The one at eye level of course! Don’t be fooled by this trick. Step back about 25 feet or more and you can level the playing field somewhat in terms of brightness, contrast and black level, but you will still not be able to compare differences in detail.

In-store “Lighting Conditions” play a big role in what you see. A recent disturbing trend at the big box retailers is a huge boost in the ambient light levels within the TV department. Boosted light levels (typically 4 or more times higher than in most viewing rooms) can mask differences in contrast and black levels among sets and you will be attracted to the brightest, not necessarily the best performing set. Don’t be fooled by this cheap trick. Keep in mind that today’s flat panel sets (plasma or LCD) are far brighter than the old projector or large screen CRT you will be replacing, and all will have far more than adequate brightness unless your room has skylights or uncovered windows and do a great deal of daytime viewing.

Motion Resolution

There are major differences among sets in terms of how they handle motion. This is particularly important if you watch a great deal of action or sports programming. To evaluate motion performance shop on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and tune the sets you’re interested in to an HD football game. Note the yard markers when the camera pans the field and watch the players’ legs when they run. Notice how little or how much the lines and legs blur. Plasma sets will invariably perform best in this test. LCD performance will vary greatly. Only you can decide how much blur you’re willing to put up with.

Copyright ©2007 HD Gary Merson/HD Guru™. All rights reserved. The content and photos within may not be distributed electronically or copied mechanically without specific written permission.


13 Comments so far ↓

  • Matt @ Value TV Brackets

    Great advice. Don’t forget, if you’re having trouble with the angle of view on your HD TV you can always buy a full motion TV bracket which will allow you to change the angle of the TV to suit you, wherever you want to sit in the room!

  • Bob

    I have a viewing distance of 140″ in my bedroom and I have read the chart. The largest screen I can accomodate in the space is 40″. What is your recommendation for screen size and pixel count.

  • Ben

    Hey Guru,

    Great column. I am considering either a Samsung
    lcd, LN-T4061 or a Sony lcd, KDL-40C2500 for a bright room with Directv. The viewing distance is anywhere from 5 to 10 feet. Any thoughts?

    keep up the graet work

  • Mark


    I just read your 2008 predictions for the flat panel market. I have been sold on the decision to purchase the Samsung LN-T4665F model for over a year now. My question to you is, when do aproximately feel prices will have droppped the additional 20% you predicted. I would like to purchase my first flat panel television sometime in the near future. I am obviously playing the price waiting game. Do you feel I have a lot to gain from waiting for the flat panel technology to further mature over say the next two years?

    Thanks for your response and time,

  • 777twist

    Question, why is there such a difference between the optimum sizes for watching 1080i/p versus 720p?

    I’m in the market for a 40″ and my viewing distance is about 6 feet. That’s makes 1080i/p viewing fine (based on the chart) but not as good for 720p viewing….why?


  • Dennis

    Dear Guru,

    On a 1080P 62″ DLP is the picture quality better at 720P or 1080I. My new 1080P upconverter by Samsung plays new discs at 720P. My old 1080I upconverter plays at 1080I, and I think may be a better picture.

    Appreciate you,

  • Tyler @ Building Camelot

    Nice article – these are easy to forget when you get caught up in the moment and are drooling over a new TV.

  • Duddus

    big fan.

    panasonic – best plasma for a budget
    samsung – best LCD. period.

  • Big Fan

    according to you what would be the best HDTV on the market in plasma 52″ and LCD besides the XBR4 & Pioneer for a reasonable price?

  • JSpeedo

    Guru – what would you recommend for a two story open great room with the 2nd floor windows uncoverd – southern exposure – very bright when trying watch in afternoon to dusk. Washes out my current 36″ 10 yr old JVC crt. Most advice has been LCD. And how can I definitely tell if a screen is anti-glare other than trusting my own eyes – in the stores it is not very easy.

  • carl taylor

    Taking all this into mind, will a 720p broadcast look better on a 720p screen than a 1080i broadcast on a 720p screen? I,m thinking a 42 or 50inch screen.
    I’v read your articles regarding de-interlacing and resolution but still am scratching my head.

  • TechDoc

    I’ve been looking a lot at TVs lately (my father is interested in making the HD jump). I think these are all good tips when looking at televisions. He’s been interested in the DLPs because they fit all these criteria. They have great viewing angles, are good in all lighting conditions, and since they’re the fastest technology out there they have no motion blur.

  • Vibe

    check out the shopping tips provided by HDGuru here before heading out into the high-def jungle.

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