How To Select an HDTV

Selecting the right high definition television is not an easy task. We try to take some of the difficulty out of it by showing you how to find the right match for an HDTV.

As the television broadcasting technology changes from analog to digital the number of choices to make when selecting from the new breed of digital televisions increases dramatically. It is no longer just a matter of going down to your local television store and selecting the TV that looks the best. For the first time, there are a lot of other factors to understand and consider.

Native Screen Resolution

First, let’s briefly cover screen resolution. Digital does not necessarily mean high definition. High definition television, or HDTV, includes all televisions with a screen resolution of at least 720p, which it will display 720 horizontal lines of pixels. A pixel is a color dot on a screen. “Native resolution” is the highest resolution, or number of pixels, a television is capable of displaying. A native resolution of 1280 x 720 means that the unit is capable of reproducing 1280 dots in a horizontal line by 720 lines of dots vertically. The highest resolution currently available is 1080p (1920 x 1080) and 1080i (1920 x 1080). Generally speaking, the higher the resolution, the better the picture looks.

For HDTV screens less than 45 inches (measured diagonally), you probably will not be able to tell the difference between a 720p and 1080p picture, so it may not be worthwhile to pay the premium price for the higher resolution. Only so many pixels can be packed into in a screen before the higher resolution advantage is lost. Personally, I would not consider a 1080 resolution for anything smaller than a 45 inch screen, especially when it would be very difficult to see the difference. If you are not looking for a large screen TV, save your money and opt for the 720p display.

Progressive versus Interlaced Displays

The ‘p’ and ‘i’ designations sometimes confuse people. The ‘p’ stands for progressive, which means that each line is displayed on the screen in a progressive order (line 1, line 2, line 3, etc.). The ‘i’ means interlaced, which means that the odd lines are displayed in one pass and the even numbered lines in the next pass. Analog televisions use interlaced technology. Progressive displays are not necessarily better. Most people could not tell the difference between a 1080i picture and a 1080p picture because the resolutions are the same. The 1080p advantage comes into play with fast motion, which appears to display smoother and with less distortion. If you watch a lot of action movies or football and want a large screen HDTV, 1080p might be your best choice.

The Size of the Screen Should be Determined by the Viewing Distance

It is usually a huge mistake to buy the largest screen you can find. Standard resolution television transmissions almost all look horrible on an HDTV when you get close enough, but as you back of to a proper viewing range, the images are dramatically improved. The fact is that when translating a 480 resolution standard television transmission into either 720 pixels or 1080 pixels, a certain degree of distortion is generated as the television tries to calculate the correct colors for each pixel that is missing. If you place a very large screen HDTV in a small room, you will probably be disappointed in the quality, unless you are always viewing high resolution video, such as Blu-ray movies or high definition cable or satellite.

There are lots of good charts on the Internet for calculating the ideal viewing distances for HDTV screens. The basic rule is that you should not site closer than 1.5 times the diagonal measurement of the screen. The maximum distance for best viewing quality is about 3 times the diagonal measurement. To calculate this manually just start with the screen size measured diagonally. If you are looking at a television with a 40 inch screen, the minimum viewing distance would be 60 inches (40 x 1.5 = 60 inches or 5 feet) and the maximum should be 120 inches (40 x 3 = 120 inches or 10 feet).

Whenever you are looking for an HDTV, make sure that you know the viewing distance from where people will be sitting to where the HDTV will be placed. When in a showroom, always view the screens from within that range.

LCD, Plasma or Rear Screen Projection

Rear projection screens have the lowest up-front cost, but frequently have the highest costs over the life of the television. That’s because the projection bulbs are very expensive ($300 to $500) and have to be replaced about every 4 or 5 years. Also, the viewing angle on rear projection screens tends to be poor. In other words, you have to be sitting directly in front of the screen to see the best picture.

Plasma displays are very popular and offer great colors. A plasma display looks best when viewed in a very dark room and viewing angle is excellent. The biggest downside to plasma is power consumption. A plasma display consumes almost twice the energy as a similar-sized LCD display.

LCD, or liquid crystal displays, utilize the same technology found in flat screen computer displays. Until recently, LCDs were limited in screen size. In other words, if you wanted a television with a screen larger than 40 inches, you had to buy a plasma display. LCDs are moving up in size and that is less of a factor today. Other than reduced power consumption, LCDs are also known for producing better image quality in a partially or well-lit room. If you like watching television in a totally dark room, a plasma screen will probably work best. For other lighting scenarios, take a close look at LCDs.

Colors, Brightness, Contrast Ratio, Refresh Rate

You should be able to get real nice colors from most of the HDTVs on the market today. Two factors that affect the visual quality of a television more than anything else are brightness and contrast ratio.

Both brightness and contrast factors can be misleading when in a showroom. First, almost all electronics stores turn up the brightness in their showrooms. That same level of brightness may look horrible in your home.

Second, contrast ratios are frequently touted by sales people and are used with a bit of marketing hype. The contrast ratio is the difference between white and black color levels. The problem is that there are multiple methods used to determine the contrast ratio, so it it hard to compare apples to apples. A good contrast ratio will produce darker blacks, which makes the colors stand out much brighter. Plasma displays have better contrast ratios than LCDs or rear projection screens. Pick an HDTV that has rich colors and dark blacks. When you start to focus on the the blacks when viewing HD screens, you start to notice the difference in the richness of the colors.

The refresh rate is the number of times an entire image or frame is displayed on the screen per second. Most HDTVs have a refresh rate of Hz, which means that the screen is painted 60 times per second. Some of the higher-end HDTVs have a refresh rate of 120Hz. If you like watching a lot of fast-action movies, you will see less problems with motion blur with a 120Hz refresh rate.

Buying Tips

  • Shop around. There is a lot of competition in the HD television market. The more sales people you talk to, the more you will learn, which will make the ultimate choice much easier.
  • Always check the prices on a retailer’s web site before you buy. Best Buy and other retailers frequently run sales in both their stores and their web sites. We have seen prices on the web site that were $200 to $300 lower for HD TVs than the store sale prices. Print out a copy of the web page and bring it to the store. When we have done that, they have honored the lower price on their web site.
  • Make sure that you understand proper viewing distances and select a screen size that fits your living room or home theater. While in the showroom, move closer and further away from the screen. You will see why a proper viewing distance can make a big difference.
  • Have the sales person show you how to change the brightness and other video modes before you leave the showroom. They may try to sell you in-home calibration services, which can cost an additional $150 to $500. If is not hard to do yourself if you understand how to configure these features using the built-in menu on the television. Many people find that large screen TVs looks look terrible when you first turn them on. That’s because the video mode and brightness are usually configured for a showroom.
  • If you are buying a Blu-ray player or other high definition accessories, don’t let the salesperson convince you that you have to buy a $100+ HDMI Monster cable in order to avoid problems. That is nonsense. Most A $20 or $30 HDMI cable will work just as well.