Friday, May 15, 2009

How to Buy an HDTV

Finally ready to chuck that clunky CRT? Even if it's not your first flat-panel set, here's what you need to know before you start shopping for a new HDTV.

While the current economy has consumers cutting back on spending, electronics manufacturers are making that difficult by slashing prices and delivering tempting deals. So if you've been considering an HDTV, this could be the right time to buy: Sets of all sizes have never been more affordable, and today most, if not all, offer better performance and more features than last year's models. But selecting the right HDTV can be a challenge: Plasma or LCD? How big should it be? What resolution? Understanding the basics will help you make your choice (and your video) crystal clear. So here's what you should consider when shopping for an HDTV:

Plasma or LCD?
Plasma TVs were the only flat-panel game in town when they first became available to consumers more than a decade ago. And steady, gradual improvements in picture quality have transformed plasma into the world's top-selling HDTV display technology. But as a result of the remarkable rise in popularity of LCD TVs, plasma manufacturers are consolidating and shifting toward producing only sets with the larger screen sizes, where plasmas have the price advantage over comparable-size LCDs.
The popularity of LCD TVs can be attributed to some of the technology's inherent advantages over plasma, including a wider range of screen sizes, a very bright picture, and superior energy efficiency. Plasma's strengths include its picture consistency, which (unlike LCD) doesn't exhibit either color shifts, loss of saturation, or reduced contrast when viewed at oblique angles. With plasma you don't need to be front and center to have the best seat in the house. And a plasma TV's fast-pulsing pixels are better suited to minimizing detail loss when displaying motion video.

Although a promising new display technology called organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) offers significant improvements in energy efficiency and picture performance over both plasma and LCD, longevity concerns and challenges in the manufacture of large screen sizes have kept OLED from catching on. For now, your choice is still primarily plasma or LCD.

Where Will Your New TV Go?
Choosing the right HDTV will greatly depend on the room in which you're planning to watch it. Finding the right display size for your viewing environment is simple—go as big as you can fit in the space, budget permitting, of course. One tip for estimating the best size screen that will fit in an available space is to measure the width of the space you've allocated for the set and buy the largest screen size (measured diagonally) that will fit. (The overall width of most flat-panel HDTVs is equal to or less than its diagonal screen measurement.) Of course, this estimate works only for HDTVs with bottom-mounted, hidden, or removable speakers, and not for those with fixed side-mounted speakers, which increase the width of the set.

This handy chart will also help you figure out which screen size will work best. It outlines the minimum ideal viewing distance for various screen sizes when displaying quality HD material. Sit any closer to the screen and you'll start to notice the pixel structure of the display. Keep in mind that standard-definition (SD) video on an HDTV will look disappointing at the distances listed on that chart, so consider moving the main seating position farther back to improve the appearance of SD material.

Room lighting is also important. You want a TV with a screen that produces the best-looking picture under typical conditions. If you usually watch TV in a dimly lit room, plasma is your best bet because it can seamlessly reduce the overall intensity of the picture when displaying bright scenes so you can take in more subtle details. LCD TVs can create brighter pictures, so they work well in brighter rooms.

In a well-lit area, screen color can also strongly influence the impression of picture quality—images on darker screens (LCD or plasma) can appear more contrasty and saturated. Most LCD sets have very dark-colored screens, but some models incorporate a glossy screen finish that functions like a pair of sunglasses, making video black appear even darker (boosting picture contrast). Just be aware that these shiny screen surfaces can also increase distracting reflections. If you want to use an LCD TV in a darkened environment, consider choosing a model that can automatically dim its picture in response to reduced room light levels—or one that makes it easy to do so manually—to reduce eye strain.

Choose Your Resolution
1080p resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels, progressively scanned) is currently the pinnacle for consumer home-theater material, and all other things being equal, you want the screen resolution of your HDTV to match this format in order to provide the most detailed picture possible. But many factors affect the perception of picture detail, including distance, a person's eyesight, and the quality of the video material. At a viewing distance of 12 feet, it would be difficult for a person with 20/20 vision to distinguish between a 720p/768p and a 1080p display showing the same 1080p video (like a Blu-ray movie). 1080p is most critical with larger screen sizes, where larger numbers of smaller pixels create a more seamless image, but is less important for screens smaller than 40 inches, since you'd have to sit very close in order to notice the additional details. These days, though, 1080p sets are nowhere near as pricey as they once were. If you can afford 1080p, go for it.

Make the Right Connections
Your ideal HDTV should provide enough video connections not only for now, but for the foreseeable future. The most important input is the High Definition-Multimedia Interface (HDMI), which supports most forms of digital video and audio (from upscaling DVD players, game consoles, set-top boxes, and even some camcorders) using a single cable. Smaller HDTVs should provide a minimum of two HDMI ports and larger ones at least three. If you plan to hook up older analog video devices to your HDTV, make sure your new set provides enough of these connections too, as many new manufacturers are reducing the number and selection of analog inputs on newer sets.

An increasing number of HDTVs will play music and display photos from USB thumb drives, hard drives, or over your home network. Some will even let you connect to the Internet for news, weather, and other information, or access Web sites like YouTube or Flickr right from your remote control. So if you're interested, make sure your prospective set has those capabilities.

But Which Set to Get?
The first thing to remember when you're ready to shop: Always compare prices. Rarely does an HDTV sell for its list price, so some savvy online shopping can save you a bundle. And don't forget to check out the reviews before you buy; we've rounded up our top LCD and plasma HDTV picks to help you make the best choice.

Buying an LCD HDTV
As mentioned before, the reasons for LCD TVs' popularity include their wide variety of screen sizes, bright and eye-catching picture quality, and outstanding energy efficiency. One of the most exciting areas of innovation is the adoption of LEDs to replace the fluorescent tubes that have lit LCD TVs. LED backlighting helps reduce toxic materials (particularly mercury), improve color and picture contrast, and increase energy efficiency even more. Upping refresh rates from 60 Hz to 120 Hz has also improved picture quality, and cinema enthusiasts appreciate the faster panels' perfect fit with the 24-frame-per-second (fps) format in which most movies are filmed. 240 Hz is the next—and likely last—step along the path for increasing refresh rates, although not all manufacturers' 240-Hz display technology are created equal. Also, before year's end, today's slimmest 2-inch-thick screens will make way for models that are less than an inch thick. Remember, though, cutting-edge tech will cost you. As with the introduction of 1080p resolution and 120-Hz technology, razor-thin LCD HDTVs with LED lighting and 240-Hz refresh rates will initially command premium prices.

Post a Comment