How to Test HDTVs in the Store

Use our experts' guide to in-store testing before you spend big bucks on your next HDTV.

How to Test HDTVs in the Store

You need a new TV. In the store, you see three different sets that might work, but you don’t know how to decide on the best one for you (not the best one for the salesperson). These quick and simple in-store performance tests will separate the winners from the posers, and lead you to a decision you can feel good about.

Note that these tests provide only part of the information that will go into your buying decision. They’re best used to choose from several models that you’ve already determined have the features you seek.

Also remember that how many tests you’ll be able to do will vary from store to store. Depending on the outlet, you’ll find display units that are fully functioning and ready to use (and test), or you’ll find a room full of sets that are largely disabled or not turned on at all. Our advice is to shop in stores that allow for a hands-on buying decision.

Photograph by Robert Cardin

Source and Settings

Make sure that the HDTV models you’re considering are using the highest-quality video source that they can (HDMI, typically). Also confirm that the TVs are set to display video at 1080p. (These days, nearly all new HDTVs have that capability.)

Compare the ways different sets handle the same scene, side by side. Some televisions may make a dark scene look too bright, for example, while other sets might oversaturate the colors so that everyone ends up looking a little too thoroughly tanned or even sunburned.

This video comparison is also a good opportunity to try out a TV’s different preset modes, such as its movie mode, to see whether you can get a good picture out of it without paying for a professional calibrator or adjusting settings manually.

Photograph by Robert Cardin

Light Levels

While you’re shopping, keep in mind that light levels in the store may differ from those in your TV room. (Plasma sets look best in dark environments. If your TV room is brighter than the showroom, a plasma screen may not look as good once you get it home.)

If you have a smartphone, download a light-meter app that uses your phone’s camera to measure ambient light levels in the room where you’ll have the TV. Take another reading in the showroom, and compare the results.

Photograph by Robert Cardin

Mode Test

Most TVs are configured to play in a special store mode that blows up the brightness. But you can change the mode to get a better idea of the TV’s home-use look.

First, press the set’s Menu button. Try changing the mode; if you can’t, try to go through the first-time setup process (usually an option in the menu system), which should let you change the mode. Then choose one of the available movie modes—preferably the THX preset.

Photograph by Robert Cardin


Confirm whether the TV panel itself re­­flects too much light. If you can see your reflection on the screen while the set is on, you’ll likely have a hard time watching anything, especially dark scenes, if you happen to have much light in your TV room.

Photograph by Robert Cardin

Movie Test

If possible, bring a sample video that you’re very familiar with—something indicative of your viewing habits, like a Blu-ray or DVD of a movie you watch frequently (or a few clips on a USB drive). Ideally, the salespeople will allow you to try your video on their array of TVs so that you can see which one makes the stuff you watch look best.

Photograph by Robert Cardin

Viewing Angle

On each TV you try, pause the video and slowly walk left and right as you look at the screen, stopping when the colors start to fade or darken. This exercise will give you an idea of the model’s viewing-angle range. With a 40-inch TV meant for a smallish living room, you probably need to worry only about the length of your couch; for a bigger room, buy a set that doesn’t require you to sit directly in front of it.

Illustration by Crystal Lee

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