HDTV buying guide: How to select the right set
You want to buy a new big-screen HDTV for your home. But where do you start? You have so many options, features, and specifications to choose from that it can be confusing. And since you're likely to keep this set for at least the next five years, you want to make a smart choice that you can live with for a long time.
High-definition television is truly different from the standard-definition television that it replaces. The screen is wider, and many more pixels make up the image, so you get greater detail. However, watching standard-definition TV on an HDTV won’t make standard-definition footage look any better. In fact, unless you adjust your HDTV to display standard broadcasts in their intended 4:3 aspect ratio (which fills only a portion of the screen), you’ll see a stretched-out picture that doesn’t look very good at all.
To get the most out of your HDTV set, you need the right content. That means you need to subscribe to your cable provider’s high-definition television shows and sports broadcasts, watch Blu-ray Discs, and stream HD movies via a set-top box or a TV with built-in Web connectivity.
For now, let’s focus on the TV set itself. In this HDTV buying guide, we'll break the process down into some simple steps that will help you pinpoint the best HDTV for your needs and budget. For finer-grained detail on the specific sets you'll find at each price in 2012, see our price-by-price HDTV guide.
Size, weight, and resolution basics
In selecting a flat-panel screen, you must first choose between plasma and LED/LCD technology. You also need to determine what size to buy. HDTV sets are classified by their diagonal screen measurement: A “46-inch” HDTV has a screen that measures 46 inches diagonally. Before you head to the store, make sure that the depth, height, and width of your TV’s setup area can accommodate a set of the size your desire. Also, make sure that the TV stand or the wall you’d like to mount it on can handle the weight.
These days, practically every set measuring 40 inches or larger will have a resolution of 1920-by-1080 pixels, or 1080p. If you're buying a set with a screen that's 35 inches or smaller, you may find 720p models available. The difference is that the 1080p sets have more pixels available to make up the image; they are thus capable of providing the highest detail possible. If you're viewing a smaller screen from a distance, however, you'll be too far away to notice the added detail of a 1080p set, so in many cases 720p will be just fine for smaller TVs.
Flat-panel HDTV technologies
If you walk into an electronics store today, you’ll find two main types of HDTVs to choose from: LED and plasma.
First, a word about that “LED” moniker: This is not a new type of TV, despite what manufacturers and electronics stores would have you think. Instead, it's simply an LCD (liquid crystal display) panel that uses LEDs (light-emitting diodes) as its backlight system instead of the traditional fluorescent tubes. Whatever you want to call them, these sets use a bright backlight that shines through a layer of liquid crystals. The crystals move to let the backlight pass through or they block the backlight altogether.
Plasma sets, on the other hand, use an electrical charge to make a gas emit ultraviolet light, which in turn causes phosphors to glow—basically the same process that a typical fluorescent lamp uses. (For more on modern plasma vs. LED/LCD TVs, read "Plasma vs. LCD: The State of HDTV.")
Other types of HDTV sets exist, but they're relatively rare. Rear-projection (DLP) TVs can offer incredible value—especially when you're looking at sizes of 60 inches or larger—but they're unpopular because they're bulkier than flat panels.
OLED (organic light-emitting diode) HDTV sets are at the other end of the thickness spectrum. An OLED set doesn't have a backlighting system; instead, each pixel is its own source of light and can be shut off completely. OLED sets are incredibly thin, they display pictures with incredibly sharp contrast, and they consume very little power. They’re also very expensive. The first generation of consumer OLED HDTVs was showcased at International CES 2012, and they’re likely to become more readily available in the coming years.
Selecting the right HDTV size
All HDTVs are wide format, which means that their proportion resembles a movie screen's more than a traditional, standard-definition TV screen's. In technical terms, the widescreen aspect ratio is 16:9—for every 16 units of width, the screen is 9 units tall—while standard-definition screens have a 4:3 aspect ratio. The widescreen format should fill more of your field of view, much as a movie theater screen does. As a result, the answer to the question "How big a screen do you need?" is probably "Bigger than you think." (For more about integrating your new HDTV with your home theater setup, see "How to Install Your HDTV.")
If you decide that you can get by with an HDTV smaller than 42 inches, you're limited to buying an LED/LCD HDTV; plasma screens are not efficient to manufacture at sizes of less than 42 inches. If you set your sights on something larger, however, you must choose between plasma and LED/LCD. And to make the right decision, you need to consider some other factors.
What kind of HDTV does your budget allow?
If your budget is tight and you want a set that's larger than 40 inches, you'll probably get the best deal if you buy a plasma screen. Plasma sets cost less to make in large sizes than LED sets do, but the price difference is shrinking all the time. Fewer companies offer plasma HDTVs now, but you’ll usually find good-quality models at prices that beat the cost of LED sets of the same size, especially in the 50-inches-and-larger range.
But if your budget gives you a bit more leeway, how can you choose between LED and plasma models? One way is to compare the specifications and features; but you should also consider other fundamental issues, as the two technologies have different pros and cons.
Plasma televisions continue to have an advantage in reproducing blacks, but higher-end LED sets are catching up thanks to new developments in backlight technology at the top tiers of the LED market.
Though the majority of LED sets you’ll find are edge-lit, meaning that the array of LED backlights behind the LCD panel are positioned around the edges of the set, more-expensive LED sets use full-array or backlit LED light sources. Backlit or full-array sets are more expensive to make (and buy), and they’re generally quite a bit thicker than edge-lit LED sets. Some of these higher-priced backlit LED sets feature a technology called local dimming. In a backlit HDTV set with local dimming, precise areas of the backlighting system can be turned off to improve image contrast, which usually yields a sharper picture than an edge-lit set can produce.
Brightness is another advantage that LED/LCD sets continue to enjoy over plasma sets, although that gap is shrinking, too. In general, LED/LCD sets are better suited for well-lit environments: They produce a brighter image, so they are less likely to look washed out in a room with bright ambient lighting. (This is why LED/LCDs sometimes look better than plasmas do in the well-lit showrooms of big-box stores and buying clubs.) On the other hand, plasmas tend to generate deeper blacks, which should result in better image quality in darkened rooms.
Early plasmas had a problem with images becoming permanently burned into the screen. The latest plasma sets are no longer susceptible to permanent damage, but such image echoes can persist for as long as a few hours before fading away. If you tend to leave the television on for hours at a time on the same channel, you may want to select an LED set instead.
The nature of LED/LCDs leaves that technology prone to motion blurring. To create an image, the tiny, cylindrical molecules of liquid crystal material respond to electrical charges and move to either transmit or block the light from the panel's backlight. Making the molecules move takes time, however, and if they don't move quickly enough, they can produce motion blur on the screen. This effect can be most noticeable during sports broadcasts in which you're trying to follow a small object on the screen, such as a baseball or a hockey puck. Generally it isn't a problem for typical movie or television-program images. Many LED sets now have higher refresh rates of 120Hz or 240Hz, designed to reduce motion blur.
LED/LCD sets tend to have the advantage in physical dimensions, as they are typically thinner and lighter than plasmas of the same size—especially the edge-lit LED sets, which are often less than an inch thick. LEDs also tend to consume less electricity than plasmas of the same size do.
The difference in power consumption can be difficult to assess, however, and some plasmas using newer display technologies can compete well with LEDs in this respect. Though a plasma screen uses almost no power when it's showing a black screen, an LED/LCD set uses about the same amount of energy whether the screen is all black or all white. (See our article discussing HDTV specifications for information about the Energy Star logo program.)
Once you've decided which technology you prefer, you can consider other features. For our advice, see "HDTV Buying Guide: Making Sense of the Specifications." And for a handy list of items to keep in mind when you're searching for the perfect set, see "HDTV Buying Guide: Shopping Tips."