If you're the kind of person who researches products and weighs their pros and cons before making a purchase decision, shopping for a new television can be an overwhelming experience. Confusion plagues even the most careful shoppers, and TV manufacturers, marketers, and vendors often create more uncertainty as they push extra features, new technologies, and add-ons in the incessant pursuit of profit.
We hope that this guide, which we created in 2002 and have updated every year since, will help you cut through the confusion with unbiased information so that you can select a new television. It won't answer every question, and when you read it, it won't tell you "the perfect TV for you" at the end. But we hope it can provide you with the basic tools you need to navigate this ever-evolving market segment.
We can't review every TV--not by a long shot--so in the end, we hope that our guide helps you make the ultimate buying decision by narrowing down the most-important factors.
One important factor we can't fully address directly in a general guide, however, is overall picture quality. It varies quite a bit from model to model, and images one viewer likes might seem garish, washed-out, or otherwise unacceptable to another viewer. Our product reviews focus primarily on this, and spell out differences from a critical perspective, so if you're looking for more "PQ"-related details than this guide provides, they're the best place to start.
With that in mind, let's get started.
TVs come in sizes from 5 inches to more than 100 inches diagonal; however, we recommend a size of at least 32 inches for a bedroom TV and at least 40 inches for a living room or main TV. If you're replacing an existing TV set, those sizes might seem too big--tube televisions had a maximum size of 36 inches--but trust us, a relatively big HDTV is a wonderful thing. In fact, more than any other "feature" we discuss on the next few pages, we consider stepping up in TV screen size the best use of your money. One of the most common post-TV-purchase complaints we've heard is from people who didn't go big enough.
How big can you go? Your upper limit will be determined by your budget, taste, and by the space where you want to put the TV. If you want to fit an existing entertainment center, make sure you have at least an inch on the sides and top of the TV cavity to allow for ventilation, then shoot for a TV that can fill that space without being too big (usually too wide). HDTV width is generally 1 inch to 3 inches less than the screen size, so a 46-inch TV is typically 44 inches wide, whereas a 65-inch TV is 63 inches wide.
Can you go too big? Definitely. Depending on your decor, you might not want the TV to "dominate the room" too much. If that's a concern, it might be worthwhile to tape together a cardboard panel that's the same size as the TV you're considering and place it where you want to locate the TV so you can get an idea of its size.
Seating distance is also a factor, although from a picture quality perspective with high-definition sources, you can sit pretty close to the screen and still not see any loss in quality. In a perfect videophile world, you'd want to sit no closer than 1.5 times the screen's diagonal measurement, and no farther than twice that measurement to the TV. For example, for a 50-inch TV, you'd sit between 75 and 100 inches (6.25 and 8.3 feet) from the screen. Many people are more comfortable sitting farther back than that--typical living room seating distance is between 9 and 10 feet--but of course the farther away you sit from a TV, the less immersive feeling it provides.
This table lists the average minimum price for a TV given its screen size, our estimated "typical" price for a mainstream model in that size, and, just to keep things interesting, the maximum price for that size; as you can imagine, the sky's the limit for high-end HDTVs.
|Screen Size||32 inches||40, 42 inches||46, 47 inches||50, 51 inches||55 inches||59, 60 inches||64, 65, 70 inches|
At this point you can go to your favorite Web site, search for HDTVs, sort your chosen screen size by "lowest price," buy it, and perhaps be perfectly happy with your entry-level TV. It might lack the features, style, and picture quality of more-expensive models, but it will display high-definition TV channels and HD content like Blu-ray and video games with plenty of detail, and many people are perfectly happy with that. Any high-definition television is an improvement in most areas compared with standard-resolution televisions.
However, if you're interested in spending more than the minimum to get more features or potentially better performance, you should keep reading.
Once you settle on a TV size, you can narrow your choice further by choosing a display type. Most flat-panel TVs sold today are LCD-based, mainly because the cheaper, smaller screen sizes are all LCD TVs. And if you want a TV smaller than 42 inches, LCD is your only choice. Midsize HDTV models--42 inches and up--are either LCD- or plasma-based, and the largest size--starting at 60 inches--can also include the now rare rear-projection TV.
What about LED? The first thing to know is that LED TVs are just expensive LCD-based TVs with fancy backlights. Of course, it gets a lot more complicated than that.
Here you'll find our quick-and-dirty evaluations of each display type; however, these are generalizations only and variations among different models are quite common.
Today's HDTV spec sheets are littered with confusing information, and much of it is worthless. Here we present the major offenders and recommend you simply ignore these specs when making your purchase decision. Manufacturers include most of this information in an attempt to convey improved picture quality by citing ever-higher numbers. Those numbers provide little indication of how good the image looks in the real world.
Refresh rate (60Hz, 120Hz, 240Hz, 480Hz, 600Hz): These numbers, which are supposed to refer to the number of times the still image is refreshed on the screen (60Hz = 60 times per second), have proliferated in the last few years. That's because LCD TVs have a reputation for being blurrier in fast-motion scenes than plasma TVs are. However, in reality, most people can't perceive that blur in most material; in terms of motion blur, it's nearly impossible to see the difference between a 60Hz and a 600Hz TV. Many LCD TV manufacturers incorporate dejudder or smoothing processing (see "basic features") in conjunction with refresh rate, but smoothing and antiblur are two separate, albeit related, visual effects.
Resolution (720p, 1080p, 4K): Nearly every TV today is a 1080p model, but in the smaller LCD screen sizes and entry-level plasma series you can still find 720p models. There's nothing wrong with 720p resolution. In fact, the difference between 720p and 1080p resolutions is nearly impossible to discern, even when watching content on very large screen sizes.
Contrast ratio (up to 1,000,000 to 5,000,000:1, "Infinite"): Contrast ratio refers to the difference between the brightest white and the darkest black a TV can display, which is an important indicator of overall picture quality. Unfortunately, there's no standardized way to measure it, so most TV makers essentially make it up. Sometimes differences in contrast ratio among a single manufacturer's own product line can be a true indicator of black-level performance--the crucial capability of a TV to produce a shade of "black" as close as possible to the absence of light--but just as often they can be concocted to justify higher price points. That's why we call contrast ratio the Dr. Evil of HDTV specs.
Viewing angle: Ideally you want the TV's image to stay as bright and as colorful when seen from the side, or from above and below, as from straight on. With LCD that almost never happens, despite viewing-angle claims that approach 180 degrees. The rule of thumb here is that LCD and LED viewing angles are always worse than the angles on plasma TVs, and though different LCDs can have different characteristics, this spec isn't a trustworthy indicator. That said, LCDs typically have adequate viewing angles for most viewers, especially in bright rooms.
Wide color gamut: Color standards for content production are strict, and matching those standards, to most accurately reproduce the source material, is the main color-related responsibility of the TV. Wide color gamuts and other color-related extras can produce "redder" reds or punchier yellows, for example, but those colors won't be accurate. On the other hand, many TVs can also deliver relatively accurate color in certain picture settings, regardless of their color specifications or claims.
Energy Star: There's rarely a number associated with Energy Star specifications, but we're including it here to prove a point: nearly every TV available for sale today qualifies for Energy Star, making the certification useless for comparative purposes.
Now that you know what to ignore on TV spec sheets, let's take a look at what bullet points are important. We'll start with the basic features that almost every TV has, then tackle the "step-up" features that cost extra. Many of these evaluations are best done in person, so it's worthwhile to trek to you local TV dealer for a hands-on look at the TVs you're interested in.
Inputs: The most important thing here is to have enough HDMI inputs to connect to all your gear. Three is the minimum number of ports in our view for a main, living-room TV, because it lets you connect your HD cable or satellite box, video game console, and Blu-ray/DVD player. If you have older gear with component-video or standard yellow video connections, or if you want to connect a computer, be sure those inputs are available on the TV, too.
Screen finish: Your basic choices are matte or glossy, and their effects can be seen on the showroom floor, especially when the TV is displaying darker material. If you do most of your watching in a bright room, a screen that cuts down on reflections is a good thing. Unfortunately, most higher-end LCD and LED TVs have glossy screens, so your choice in this category is limited.
Remote control: If you aren't planning to use a universal model or the remote that came with your cable box, pay attention to the TV's included clicker. It's nice when it can command other gear directly via infrared, as opposed to simply controlling gear via HDMI, and we prefer TVs to include medium-size remotes with well-differentiated, backlit buttons.
Picture controls: If you like to adjust the picture settings yourself or are interested in trying some of the user calibrations available online, having the right picture controls available is necessary. Look for TVs with enough picture presets, as well as the ability to tweak those presets and apply the tweaks to different inputs. Advanced or curious tweakers will also appreciate detailed color temperature controls (as opposed to just presets), gamma options, and presets for the various video-processing modes.
Ease of use and support: You want to look for menu systems that embed explanations of various onscreen selections. We're fans of onscreen manuals, as well as product support sections that provide phone numbers, troubleshooting, and setup guides to make complex TVs easier to use.
Energy efficiency: As we mentioned, Energy Star is worthless for comparing the real efficiency of different TVs. Also, it's true that a more-efficient TV usually won't save you much money on your electricity bills during the course of a year. However, there are still some significant power use differences between otherwise similar TVs--a typical plasma TV consumes twice as much power as a typical LCD--and many TVs have power-saving extras (like sound-only modes) that appeal to green-conscious shoppers.
Beyond the basic features, there are some features that cost extra money. Are they worth paying for? We can't answer that question directly--buyers usually have different definitions of "worth it"--but we'll describe them below to help you form your own opinion. Many of these features go by proprietary names, and, of course, their implementation varies somewhat, so check out our individual TV reviews for more details.
Internet connectivity: Video services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, audio from Pandora and Rhapsody, photos from Picasa and Flickr, and access to Facebook, Twitter, and even Skype are built into midrange and higher-end TVs. However, before you pay extra for these features, consider that you'll need to either connect an Ethernet cable or connect via Wi-Fi--we recommend a "G" Wi-Fi network or better for video streaming, and a cable still works best. Also, many of these services are available on other devices, such as an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, TiVo, Blu-ray player, or dedicated external set-top boxes such as the Roku player.
3D: Among flat-panel TVs, the capability to display 3D content is found on many midrange and higher-end TVs. The necessary 3D glasses, in addition to 3D sources and 3D content, can also increase the price. You shouldn't worry about 3D compatibility unless you really enjoy the effect and understand that, because of scarcity of content, the feature will go unused for nearly all of your TV watching time.
Photos, video, and music: USB ports or memory card slots can let TVs display digital camera photos, video, and even play MP3 music files via the TV's speakers or a connected audio system. Many TVs, usually those with Internet connectivity, can also stream those kinds of files from a PC in your home. Using a TV as a big photo viewer is definitely nice, but most digital cameras can connect directly to the TV via standard-definition video or even HD connections. Streaming video from a networked PC is also cool if you have a lot of such files, but often devices like game consoles, video streamers, Blu-ray players, and DVRs perform these functions, too.
LED backlight: LCD-based TVs that use LED backlight technology cost more than ones with standard fluorescent (CCFL) backlights. Unless they use local dimming, LEDs don't do much to affect picture quality. They do use slightly less power, but since CCFL LCDs are pretty efficient to begin with, it will take years (or decades) at today's electricity prices to make up the difference. Using LEDs can also let manufacturers shave a few inches off the TVs' thickness.
120Hz, 240Hz, 480Hz, and dejudder processing: As we mentioned in the "Specs to ignore" section, the difference in blurring afforded by these faster refresh rates is really difficult to discern, and definitely not worth paying extra for, in our view. TVs with these extras usually incorporate so-called dejudder processing, too, with names like "MotionFlow" and "AutoMotion Plus" that introduce a smoothing effect to motion that's usually only visible in films. We usually don't like the smoothing effect of dejudder, but if you're interested in seeing it for yourself, it's best to experience it in person before you pay extra for it.
1080p/24 or 24p compatibility: This feature isn't always mentioned on spec sheets but is popular with videophiles since it's one of the few extras designed to deliver an experience closer to what the director intended. It's usually associated with 120Hz, 240Hz, and higher LCD refresh rates (and 96Hz on some plasmas), but unfortunately it doesn't always work correctly on TVs that purport to have it. It requires a source capable of delivering 1080p/24 video, typically a Blu-ray player playing a film-based Blu-ray movie. Even then, the effect will be subtle for most viewers, manifesting as a smooth-but-not-too-smooth cadence most visible in camera movement, that reproduces the look of film.
There's no such thing as "the best TV for gaming." The reality is that good picture quality for regular HDTV and Blu-ray sources translates to good picture quality for HD gaming. Here we outline what gamers should look for, and what to ignore, beyond that kind of picture quality, and throw in some tips for those who want to use their TVs as big computer monitors.
With any large purchase, the urge to accessorize can be overwhelming. Here are a few add-ons to consider, as well as some words on warranty and buying online.
The final question you'll be asked when buying a TV is generally, "Would you like an extended warranty with that?" Most buyers should skip the extended warranty. According to the March 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, the overwhelming majority of HDTVs do not need repair during the extended warranty period. Though rear-projection HDTVs do fail at a higher rate than flat-panels in general do, they are still quite reliable and again not worth an extended warranty. Consumer Reports goes on to mention that many credit cards and some retailers, such as Costco, will extend the manufacturers' warranty free of charge, which seems like a better deal to us than spending hundreds on an extended warranty.
The standard warranty covers parts for one year and labor for 90 days. Some manufacturer warranties have separate time frames for the picture element and the rest of the TV. High-end TVs can also have a one-year labor warranty. Some manufacturers also offer in-home service on more-expensive and larger models that are difficult to ship.
You can often get a great deal if you buy your TV online, but you should be aware of some differences.
An increasing number of TV makers are cracking down on "unauthorized" retailers of their sets, especially online, and some will not honor warranties on products purchased from such dealers. See the Web site of your set's manufacturer before you purchase a TV online for its policy on unauthorized retailers. Not coincidentally, unauthorized merchants often have the best prices.
If you decide to buy your TV online, our best advice is to choose a vendor with a solid return policy. There are many cut-rate vendors out there that don't allow any returns on televisions--an exception to their standard return policies. If there is a problem with the TV, many brick-and-mortar retailers will accept a return no questions asked, but some online merchants often make you pay return shipping or a restocking fee, provided they accept returns on TVs at all. Others, notably Amazon, offer free return shipping and don't charge a restocking fee.
Consider how to get it through the door and set it up in your room or on a stand; big TVs often require more than one strong person to lift them. Some online and many brick-and-mortar dealers will move the TV into your house and even set it up for you, but it usually costs extra.