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.