Buying an HDTV? Here’s What You Need to Know
How to Buy an HDTVTop HDTVs
Ready to upgrade your television? We have good news for you: HDTVs of all sizes and descriptions have never been more affordable. And while your quest will require time and patience (not to mention a well-honed BS detector), it’s not that difficult if you keep a few points in mind. Here’s Wired’s quick guide for selecting the perfect flat-panel.
Sizing Up the Situation
Room size: Your first task is to take inventory of the room where you’ll mount your centerpiece. Even the best TV can look like crap if placed in the wrong setting. Here’s what you want to take into account:
1. Measure the room the TV will be placed in, then determine about how far away you’ll sit from it. Use our handy chart below to figure which TV is the right size.
2. Determine the angle you’ll watch your set from. Plasma screens yield better views from obtuse angles.
3. Count the number of windows in the room, and whether you can you actually control the light — ambient or otherwise.
The basic rule of thumb for screen sizes to viewing distances should be as follows:
SCREEN SIZE OPTIMAL VIEWING DISTANCE 30 to 34 inches 3.75 to 6.25 feet 34 to 42 inches 4.25 to 7 feet 42 to 50 inches 5.25 to 8.75 feet 50 to 56 inches 6.25 to 10.5 feet 56 to 62 inches 7 to 11.75 feet 62 to 70 inches 7.75 to 13 feet
Basic HDTV Tech
If you’re in the market for a new HDTV, chances are you’ll look at two main technologies: LCD and plasma. Rear-projection and OLED screens are available, but you should only consider those in very special cases.
LCD: The most popular and versatile technology is LCD. Its advantages include the widest range of screen sizes as well as picture performance that’s finally rivaling plasmas. As a general rule, LCD sets reflect less light and tend to have brighter pictures, so they’re ideal for rooms with ample windows. Some LCD manufacturers are beginning to eschew traditional fluorescent backlighting in favor of LED backlights, allowing for slimmer designs and brighter pictures.
Plasma: If you want to go big (50 inches or more), get plasma. Because LCDs dominate the mid-to-low size ranges on the market, plasma makers have refocused their efforts on larger screens, where they have a distinct price advantage. Plasmas 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: Plasmas are not the best fit for bright rooms because their glass screens reflect a good deal of light.
One of our favorite plasmas is the 42-inch Panasonic TC-P42G10, which goes for just $1,300 — not bad at all.
Rear-projection: All indications point to rear-projection being on its way out. But like any tech in its twilight, there are some fantastic deals to be had. If you want to go really big — 65-inches and above — it might make sense to take a cursory look at some of these sets. (Mitsubishi and Samsung are really the only two manufacturers still making them.) Warning: They’re deeper than most flat screens (a foot thick or more), take up to a minute to warm up, and contain lamps inside that will need to be replaced every 3,000 to 6,000 hours, costing $200 to $300 a pop.
OLED: Short for organic light-emitting diode, this screen technology is still in its infancy — and it’s extremely pricey. But uber-early adopters with plenty of disposable income can get a Sony commercial 11-inch OLED TV for a mere $2,500. Image quality blows away both LCDs and plasmas, with mind-boggling contrast ratios and deep, luxurious blacks, not to mention amazing thinness (the XEL-1 is 0.12 inch thick). It’ll be at least two years until prices come down (and screen sizes go up) enough to make these sets a viable option for average consumers.
Resolution: Right now 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels with progressive scan) is the high point for TV resolution. And if you can afford a 1080p set, we say go for it. But keep in mind a few caveats: A person with perfect vision at a viewing distance of 12 feet or more will be unable to tell the difference between two identically sized 720p and 1080p sets playing the same Blu-ray disc.
Indeed resolution is really only important relative to where you sit. Put simply, you need to be closer to a 1080p set to get the full HD thrill ride. If you’re stuck at a longer viewing distance, you should at least consider looking at 720p HDTVs or purchasing a larger 1080p HD set.
For more information on distance and resolution, see HD Guru’s fantastic seating chart for an optimal HD viewing experience.
Refresh rate: The refresh rate refers to the number of times per second that a TV’s image is repainted (or refreshed). It really only applies to LCD panels, which up until a few years ago all came at standard 60 Hz. The problem: Fast motion took on a blurred, herky-jerky quality. So, in an effort to maintain picture detail in these rapidly moving scenes, manufacturers started developing 120-Hz displays. These sets basically interpolate an extra frame in between each normal frame in order to make quick motion look smoother. You paid more for a 120-Hz screen last year. This year, however, most mid- to high-end sets come with a 120-Hz refresh rate baked in. Some even come with 240-Hz refresh rates (more on that in a bit).
Response time: Measured in milliseconds, response time is the amount of time it takes for one pixel on the screen to change from black (or gray) to white and back to black again. Indeed, as pictures on the screen change, so too must the pixels. In some cases, the pixels simply can’t keep up, effectively keeping the old image on the screen. This translates into a blurry image that appears smeared. When shopping for HDTVs, look for lower response times, ideally 4 milliseconds (8 ms is acceptable, too).
Contrast ratio: The difference between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks? That would be contrast ratio, and the higher the better. A TV with a high contrast will crank out superior subtle color details and will fit nicely in rooms with more ambient light. Make sure you compare apples to apples, though. Static contrast measures the difference between the lightest and darkest images simultaneously, while dynamic contrast measures the same thing over time. The latter is often at least four times higher than the former.
LED backlit: Chances are you already have a notebook screen (and possibly a computer monitor) with an LED screen. Indeed, there are numerous advantages to using LEDs over fluorescent lighting, including better energy efficiency, increased contrast and a richer color gamut. This year, TV makers started offering LED backlit panels, too. The only problem is many weren’t exactly forthcoming about how these LEDs were being used. True LED backlight is still rare — and expensive. Many manufacturers, like Samsung, are lining their high-end sets with LEDs around the frame. This pays dividends in brightness and color, but you’ll shell out more for these sets.
240 Hz: Twice as smooth as 120 Hz, right? Think again. As with the megapixel myth, bigger numbers don’t always translate into better results. While the smooth, anti-judder capabilities of 120-Hz refresh rates can make a big difference in LCD panels, most viewers won’t be able to tell the difference between 120 Hz and 240 Hz. And be forewarned: Sometimes 240 Hz can overcompensate and lend an artificial camcorder effect to images.
Web wizards: Also new this year is a fleet of sets with 24/7 web connectivity. Most of these HDTVs run Yahoo’s Widget Engine and deliver weather, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon VOD, news, sports and other web content right on your big screen. The experience depends largely on the manufacturer. On some sets, the widgets can be excruciatingly slow to load. Your best bet is to test out a few connected TVs to see if the premium you’ll pay is worth it.
Wired’s Top HDTV Picks
The demise of Pioneer’s Kuro plasmas this year (a line that many considered the ne plus ultra of HDTVs) had cinephiles shaking their fists. Then came Panasonic with its new G10 line. This series of THX-certified sets floored us with its stunning pictures. And at $1,300 for 42 inches of screen real estate, it’s the greatest steal since the Thomas Crown Affair.
Impossibly thin and brighter than a supernova, this is one of the best-looking HDTVs — on or off. Samsung got rid of the fluorescent backlight and replaced it with LEDs around the bezel. The result is a set that sips electricity, yet produces some of the most vivid colors we’ve seen on an LCD panel.
Sony Bravia KDL-52W5100
If you’re after internet content, this is your web-slinging savior. You’ll get tons of streamed goodies, including Netflix, and have one of the most compelling reasons to ditch cable altogether.
- Manufacturer: Roundup:
- Price: Roundup
November 25, 2009
Buying an HDTV? Here’s What You Need to Know