How to Pick the Right HDTV
Holiday HDTV sales have heated up. According to marketing research firm NPD, “nearly 6 percent of all Black Friday shoppers walked out with a new TV, a 36 percent increase from 2010.” Why? TV prices are at their lowest level ever as set makers try to salvage nine months of poor sales by providing dealer incentives and a final sales push.
Our flow chart makes it easy to pick the model that’s right for you.
Start at the top by choosing your budget and screen size then move down to the various TV types (LED, LCD, Plasma, DLP) and features offered by the various technologies. We cover in depth: size, TV types, refresh rates, 3D, Internet Streaming, THX and more below.
Job one is to pick the right screen size for your needs. HD LCDs (LED or CCFL) now range from 19 to 80-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 22-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 60 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 model which uses lasers). All rear projectors are currently made by Mitsubishi.
Which 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 or budget constraints limit you to a 42-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.
Plasma offers overall better black levels, with blacks always appearing deeper (especially when viewed off-axis). This is because plasma has the ability to shut light off at a pixel level. LCDs are a backlit technology, so the best they can do — and not all 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 Backlit LCD TV?
A relatively recent advance in LCD technology uses LEDs (light emitting diodes) to illuminate the picture in place of the more commonly used thin fluorescent tubes called CCFLs. Though some TV manufacturers choose to call their LED backlit sets “LED TVs” they are still LCD TVs. However, LED backlighting has a number of advantages, one of which is lower power consumption compared to both traditional backlit LCDs and plasma. For a given screen size, plasma consumes somewhat more power than CCFL backlit LCDs. Price wise, large screen plasma (50″ and over) are significantly less expensive than LED LCDs. The cost differential is higher than the savings in electricity one can expect, even after 10 or more years of use.
The CCFL lamps within LCDs 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 here for more information.
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.
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, some less than an inch deep. Back lit sets 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 both LED formats tends to fall off somewhat more rapidly than the same panel using traditional CCFLs. Overall, LED backlit sets 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 929 series, LG’s 9800 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 possible1080 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 (see related story). In addition, test material reveals unwanted artifacts present in all types of 120, 240 Hz LCD HDTV.
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 the LEDs.
1080p plasma sets produce artifact free, full 1080-line motion resolution without the artifacts produced by 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 VT30 series and Samsung’s D550, D6500, D7000, D8000 series models plasmas 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 require 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 on a passive 3D set they provide one half resolution per eye (1920×540) using a Blu-ray 3D disc. With SBS cable content, the 3D resolution drops to 960×540 with passive TVs and glasses. Vizio only sells passive 3D. All of LGs 3D LEDs
are passive 3D, but its plasmasare active 3D. Toshiba sells both active and passive 3DLCD and LED models.
All Mitsubishi rear projection TVs offer 3D using active glasses technology.
Many 2011 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 Defintion 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 LG plasmas and one LED model. Panasonic offers it on its VT30 and GT30 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.
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 2011 updated version of “Choosing the HDTV That’s Right For You” we originally published Nov. 2009)
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