Basics & Buying Advice: Televisions

Buying a TV isn’t something you do every year, or even every three years. This is a medium- to long-term investment. All the factors involved — size, image quality, panel type, internet connectivity, USB and HDMI ports, viewing angle, and screen refresh time — affect not only your viewing experience, but also how future-proof your next TV set is.

The Basics:

What Type of Screen Should I Get?
Big or small, if you’re in the market for a new HDTV, you’ll be looking at two main technologies: LCD and plasma. Rear-projection and OLED screens are also available, but you won’t run into many on showroom floors. Today, LCD remains the most popular and versatile screen technology. Not only will these sets have the widest range of screen sizes, they’ll also reflect less light and have brighter pictures. This makes them ideal for shadeless rooms with a lot of windows. Most LCD manufacturers are now using LED backlights instead of traditional fluorescent ones, which has allowed for even slimmer designs (great for mounting on walls) and brighter pictures. When compared to plasmas, LED backlit sets also tend to have better energy efficiency, increased contrast and a richer color gamut. Just make sure you know what type of LED backlighting scheme your set has — Edge-lit displays (the most common) tend to suffer from picture uniformity issues, while full-array LED sets with local dimming tend to do a much better job with black levels. Unfortunately, the latter can also be afflicted with an effect known as blooming, where brighter areas of the screen bleed into darker ones.

If you want to go big (60 inches or more), consider a plasma. Plasmas still consume more energy than LCDs, but they also yield a more enjoyable home-theater experience, particularly for discerning cinephiles. Picture consistency tends to be higher (there’s less saturation and contrast loss when viewing at wider angles) and these sets have faster-pulsing pixels, so they won’t lose detail when displaying fast-moving images. Be warned though: Plasmas are not the best fit for bright rooms because their glass screens reflect a good deal of light. Notice we said glass? These guys are also heavy: Often 120 pounds for a 60 incher. So if your only option was to mount your new trophy on a flimsy apartment wall, a plasma may not be your best bet.

How Big Should I Go?
Consider where exactly you’ll be sitting, as viewing distance is still paramount to the whole big TV equation. In order to see all that glorious 1080p detail, your eyes need to be at least a certain distance from the set, but sit too far away and you’re essentially paying for performance you won’t be able to see. The quick and dirty formula for any 1080p set is to multiply the diagonal screen measurement by 1.56. That means for a 1080p 42-inch set, you’ll need about 5.5 feet of eye-breathing room. HDguru has a super handy chart that outlines ideal distances for any HDTV going up to 120 inches.

Should I Get a Smart TV?
These days, Ethernet ports and built-in Wi-Fi command little or no price premium (unlike 3-D capability), so there’s no reason your next set shouldn’t be a connected one. If you’re just looking to supplement a steady diet of cable or satellite content, the choice is simple: Buy the best HDTV you can afford. Almost all of them now come with great backup video services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video. If you’re in a cable-cutting state of mind, make sure your broadband speed is up to snuff, then think about the services and apps you use most — the offerings vary widely between TVs. And don’t equate more apps with a better experience: On a 50-inch plasma, using Twitter or Google Talk is about as pleasant as staring at test patterns. If for whatever reason you choose not to snag a web-connected TV, you can still upgrade your “dumb” set with a tiny hockey-puck-sized Roku or Apple TV for less than $100.

To 3-D, or Not to 3-D?
If your budget is on the high end and you have space for a large TV, 3-D is another option you can factor in. 3-D TVs generally run 42-inches plus, and display both regular old 2-D content, and 3-D content. You’ll want to go plasma, not LCD, to avoid less-than-HD display quality or fluttery artifacts. Plasma also offers near 180-degree viewing angles, which is necessary if you plan on watching flicks with the whole family. 3-D still suffers from its share of problems, though. You’ll need a pair of glasses for each viewer (quality ones will run you about $80 each), as glasses-free 3-D TV options are still a few years off. Content choices, while originally limited to a handful of Blu-rays and ESPN 3-D, are slowly improving, but by no means plentiful.

Buying Advice:

Bigger isn’t always better — it depends on your space and your budget. For a small apartment, a wall-mountable LCD is your best bet. And even if you plan on ordering online, it still pays to visit your local store armed with a few sample Blu-ray movies (preferably one with lots of dark scenes) or even a calibration disc. Most of these showroom sets will be in what’s known as “torch mode” — a super-high-contrast, high-brightness setting — but you can tweak and adjust these settings to get a better sense of their individual capabilities and how they’ll perform at home.

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