HDTV Buying Guide

November 23rd, 2009

If you’ve been thinking about buying a new High-Definition television, you have almost certainly been overwhelmed by the number of choices and options you are faced with. This buying guide is designed to help you understand what you should be looking for. Rather than recommending specific models or brands, which change on an almost weekly basis, this guide will give you the tools you need to make an informed choice about what TV is best for you.

More than likely you have already gone, or were planning on going, to a major electronics retailer or warehouse store to look at TVs, and even talk to a salesperson to learn more about what’s out there. The vast majority of people decide which television to purchase this way. Unfortunately, especially for a television, this is NOT the best way to make your choice.

The reason is because television manufacturers take advantage of the way your eye works to try and make you buy their TV, manipulating the picture on the screen in all sorts of ways that attempt to “Wow” you. But, these manipulations are actually ruining the picture. Not only that, but the store or warehouse has a completely different environment than your home, with different lighting, noise levels, and even a different angle at which you are viewing the TV. 

The Five Qualities

So, what is important when deciding which TV to buy? Well, obviously there’s it’s price. We’re not going to spend much time on this, but we suggest that you at least do some preliminary research before you set your budget. This will give you realistic expectations about what you can afford.

 Next is size. For many people this is relatively easy because there is a particular wall or piece of furniture that will limit the size. For those not limited in that way, you will typically want to get the largest size you can afford, after you’ve taken into consideration the things we will talk about next. There are some rules of thumb regarding size depending on how far away from the TV you plan to sit which are beyond the scope of this guide. You should easily be able to find more information on this by searching the internet if you are interested.

Third, and the most important aspect of the TV itself, is picture quality. We’ll go into more detail on this in a moment.

Fourth is the features the TV supports, such as what types of inputs it has, if it has built-in speakers, how much control there is over picture settings, whether it has internet capabilities, how well it can be calibrated, and as many other things as the manufacturer can think up to get you to buy their TV. We’ll talk about some features you care about later, but here is a tip for you: the vast majority of special “features” on a TV result in an inaccurately displayed image. As a result, most of them can, and should, be disabled. For the most part, you can simply ignore these special features.

Finally, there are two more elements most people don’t consider: build quality and customer support. While you may save some money when you first buy the TV, one that is poorly built won’t last as long as something a little more expensive but built well, and the more expensive one may actually save you money in the long run. Bad customer support can be a thorn in your side if something goes wrong, but good customer support can give you relief and peace. It is often worth the extra cost.

 In general, the cheapest televisions suffer from either lower quality components, poor customer service, or both. For this reason we don’t recommend that you shop based on price alone. Stick with well-known manufacturers and research their reputation. Ask a salesman how often a brand or set gets returned to get an idea of their reliability. 

Drilling Into Picture Quality

Now, let’s go back and talk about picture quality. We want to start out by saying that you pretty much can’t go wrong. Just about every HDTV out there, if it is working properly, will give you a great picture. Virtually all of them are capable of giving you a picture that conforms with the well-defined industry standards for what your picture should look like. So, don’t fret that you might choose a “bad” TV.

That said, what makes a good picture a good picture? There are four elements that contribute to picture quality: Dynamic Range, Color Saturation, Color Accuracy, and Resolution.

Dynamic Range refers to how big of a difference there is between the blackest black that the TV can make and the whitest white. Manufacturers have gotten quite good at making very bright whites – in fact, most TVs these days are too bright. The holy grail has become who can make the blackest blacks. This is the core of the various technology wars you hear about: plasma versus LCD, LED televisions, OLED, and so on. All of them are striving to make it so the television makes blacker blacks.

Dynamic range is the most important factor in picture quality – more important than whether it’s 720p or 1080p, or anything else. A TV with poor dynamic range will look washed out and dull. So, in your quest for a great picture you want to consider a TV’s dynamic range. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Dynamic range has also become the area of greatest confusion as manufacturers try to come up with ways of essentially “faking” a bigger dynamic range, as well as either publishing misleading numbers regarding dynamic range or not publishing them at all.

As far as HDTV technologies go, OLED displays have the greatest dynamic range, followed by plasma, then LED displays (which are really an LCD TV with an LED-based backlight, and whose dynamic range are getting very close to plasma), then regular LCD displays. Any sort of projector system, whether rear projection or front projection, would generally follow LCDs, with some (usually expensive) exceptions.

Each technology has it’s drawbacks, however. OLED is new and very expensive. Plasma can have burn-in problems and the screens reflect more light from the room you are in. LED displays are thinner, but more expensive than regular LCDs. Projectors give you a big image but require a dark room.

When looking at dynamic range, you typically want to look at a TV’s “contrast ratio.” However, if the manufacturer has only published the “dynamic contrast ratio”, then you must disregard it, as that is the manufacturer’s “faked” dynamic range. Look for “native contrast ratio”. For reasons beyond the scope of this guide, you should regard any number larger than 3000 or 4000 to 1 with great suspicion. It usually means the number is giving a dynamic contrast ratio.

If you can’t find any useful numbers on a TV’s contrast ratio, go by this rule of thumb: within any given HDTV technology and price range, the newer the TV the better the dynamic range. Manufacturers are continually improving technology with time. Go for the newest model of the TV highest on the technology list we gave earlier that is affordable for you.

Next is color – both color saturation and color accuracy. Color saturation simply refers to how bright and rich the colors are. However, in television color is not just about how rich it can be – it’s about how accurate it can be.

There is not a whole lot you can do about color when choosing your TV. With some exceptions at the cheapest price point, most HDTVs have full capability of producing the full spectrum of color available in recorded content. However, most manufacturers set their TVs to over-saturate the color – make it more vibrant. This looks great in the showroom and will make you want to buy the TV. Unfortunately this comes at the sacrifice of color accuracy. For example, you’re watching a golf game and the grass looks neon-green instead of a natural green. Or people often look sunburned.

The single greatest thing you can do to get the best color is to have your television calibrated. This will ensure the best and most accurate colors, and can be done on just about any television you get. This is one reason why you should always budget for a calibration when buying an HDTV.

Finally comes resolution. This simply refers to how many dots of color the screen can display, similar to the megapixels on a digital camera. Higher is better, and you’ll see two standards these days: 720p and 1080p. It’s getting harder and harder to find anything that’s not 1080p, but for the most part you can use this rule of thumb: for any television 37 inches or less, getting 1080p is not worth the extra cost if a 720p option is available. Especially at standard viewing distances, the difference will not be noticeable for that size. For any television over 37 inches, you should find one that is 1080p.

Make sure you’re not duped by the manufacturer if they say the TV is “1080p-ready” but the TV is really a 720p TV. This means the TV can accept a 1080p picture, but will only display it at 720p. Any true 1080p display should have a “native resolution” of 1920 by 1080 pixels. 

A Brief Look at Features

Now on to features. For the most part you can ignore the hype, such as 120Hz or 240Hz, or any number of manufacturer-specific feature lingo and names. The only one you want is to be sure that it is 24p ready, which offers the best ability to display Blu-Ray and DVD movies. This often comes with a 120Hz or higher refresh rate, which is worth having but not a deal breaker. However, there are certain things you may find appealing, such as built-in Netflix streaming, a laptop or PC input, internet widgets, better speakers, or a thinner design. Having the ISFccc logo is also a good feature, as it guarantees the TV can be properly calibrated by a professional. Lack of this feature, however, does not mean it cannot be calibrated. Carefully research the features you think you actually need before you go shopping. 

To Sum It All Up…

HD televisions have come a long way in the last couple of years. Let’s summarize the important elements you should be considering as you choose your TV: 

  • Manufacturers care less about giving you the best picture than they do about getting you to buy their TV. As a result, they will manipulate the picture to make it something they know you will want to buy, even at the sacrifice of picture quality.
  • It’s hard to go wrong – almost all TVs out there today can give you a great picture – but the factory settings are usually very distorted.
  • “Dynamic range”, or contrast ratio, is the most important element in picture quality.
  • OLED has the best dynamic range, followed by plasma, then LED LCDs, then LCDs.
  • Get 720p for a 37″ or below television, otherwise 1080p. Check the “native resolution” (sometimes published as simply “Resolution”) to be sure you’re getting what you think you are.
  • Research the features you really want before you shop. Most features aren’t important and should be disabled anyway once you buy the TV (this will happen during calibration).
  • Given the same type of television within a given price range, a professional calibration will make a far bigger difference in the picture quality than which specific TV you buy. A calibration makes the picture match broadcast standards and corrects those things the manufacturer has done to the picture to try and grab your attention in the store.
  • Don’t forget about build quality and customer service. 

We hope this guide has given you a better idea of what to look for as you shop for your new HD television.

Contact us if you have any questions, or would like to schedule a calibration for your new TV.