HDTV: A Practical Buyer’s Guide

HDTV: A Practical Buyer’s Guide

HDTV header

You've finally convinced your checking account it's OK to buy an HDTV. Congratulations, the hard part is over. Now learn the answer to your final question: “What should I buy?”

By Jeff Barnett

You're ready to buy a new HDTV. You know how to use Google, so you're drowning in data but thirsting for information. You've read eight LCD vs. Plasma articles, talked to five big box electronic store employees ranging from knowledgeable to clueless to weird, and you still haven't found the answer to your most basic question: What features should I care about when purchasing this TV. By arming you with just a little bit of tech knowledge to explain “why,” I'll help you make the decision on “what” to buy much easier than you might think.

First, let's get some of the techno-babble and common questions out of the way.

LCD or Plasma?

It doesn't really matter. Gasp! That's right. Despite the innumerable articles written each year on this topic alone, it simply isn't extremely relevant in 2008. When HDTV technology was in its infancy, LCD panels couldn't be produced as large as plasma displays. LCD TVs also suffered from high response times that contributed to blurriness for fast-moving objects. While plasma displays will always be able to produce a blacker black than their LCD counterparts, LCD displays have narrowed the gap in size and picture quality for all but the most discriminating videophile. They also lack the glass covering of plasma displays and will exhibit less glare in a light-rich environment. Practically speaking, just buy whichever technology within your budget looks best to you, because that's what is ultimately important.

What is 1080p and why should I care?

While I think the technical details of high definition video is an enthralling subject, I understand that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Therefore, I offer the following quick and dirty synopsis. There are three formats for high-definition television: 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. Because of the way display technologies have evolved, we don't talk much about 1080i, so just ignore it for now.

The number (720 / 1080) refers to lines of resolution. More resolution is better, therefore 1080p is better. Look at the picture below. The image to the right has more lines of resolution.

HDTV resolution

Not every TV can display 1080p and not all content is offered in 1080p. You must have both parts of the equation to get a 1080p image. As a matter of fact, the only widespread 1080p content offered anywhere right now is through Blu-ray movies and gaming consoles. If watching movies or high-definition gaming isn't a hobby of yours then you can immediately deduce that you do not need a 1080p HDTV. Furthermore, network and cable HDTV is not offered in 1080p, and because of bandwidth considerations it will not be offered in 1080p for the foreseeable future. Lastly, there is simply a limit to what the human eye can see, and the difference between 1080p and 720p isn't pronounced at smaller screen sizes and larger viewing distances. Use Carlton Bale's chart below as a rough guide, but not necessary canon.

HDTV Screensize

I present the above information not to talk you out of buying 1080p technology, but to show you that depending on your viewing habits you may never benefit from it. If that sounds like you, then you can save a ton of cash by going with a 720p display-and it will still look incredible.

Armed with that knowledge, let's see if you fall into one of these common categories:

You want a flat-panel TV that will make your home look more modern.

In this case a quality but budget-priced LCD or plasma will suffice. I recommend Vizio, Westinghouse, Olevia, and Panasonic. Each of these manufacturers produces a good product, even good enough for some discriminating videophiles, but they offer bargain-basement prices. You can often find the best deals from membership clubs like Sam's and Costco. Costco is generally better for electronics. While it's possible to find oddball sets 5-10% cheaper, I suggest going with a proven budget brand.

On July 8th Syntax-Brillian, the manufacturer of Olevia HDTVs, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Since the future of the company is uncertain, retail stores may liquidate their existing stock at bargain prices. However, your warranty on that new Olevia may not be worth the paper it's written on. On the other hand, it could also be as good as gold if the company successfully restructures. Caveat emptor.

You're a technophile that settles only for the best.

Look no further than a Pioneer plasma. Pioneer has long been the king of top-tier plasma displays, and their new Kuro line is no exception. However, the price is simply in a different league than other comparably sized HDTVs. If you've got the money to spend and you demand the best then this is one of the few simple answers in HDTV shopping. Black levels, color reproduction, and finish don't really get much better. Expect to pay at least twice as much as a comparable budget brand.

You want the biggest screen size possible for your dollar.

Check out projection HDTVs using DLP technology from Samsung and Mitsubishi. DLP stands for “Digital Light Processing.” These HDTVs take an image the size of a postage stamp and project it on a large screen through lamps, mirrors, color wheels, and black magic. Any new DLP HDTV is going to feature 1080p resolution and exhibit great picture quality at a comparatively lower price to even an LCD or plasma that only features 720p resolution. Because of market pressure most companies have concentrated their DLP lines on the 61″ and larger sizes. These screen sizes are still prohibitively expensive with plasma and LCD technologies, making DLP the king of screen real estate for the dollar. However, they are bulkier than flat-panel displays, and are not wall-mountable.

You're somewhere in the middle.

You want excellent picture quality but you can't bring yourself to buy a television that costs more than your car. You also want a sizeable picture, but your dwelling isn't large enough for a 60+ inch behemoth.

I suggest looking at product lines such as the Sony Bravia and Samsung LN series. There are numerous HDTVs in this price band, so be discriminating about which offer a superior picture and which simply offer a higher price. Never trust the store's picture calibration. Retail chains always jack up contrast to make the picture more eye-popping at the expense of accuracy and detail. Research basic picture calibration and insist on playing with the TV's settings before you purchase.

No matter what category you match, a few basic guidelines will ensure you get the most from your dollar when purchasing an HDTV:

Know the answers to the following questions before you shop.

  • What is your intended viewing distance?
  • What size display do you want?
  • Do you want a 1080p display?
  • Do you want a wall-mountable flat-panel display?
  • What video sources will you feed your new HDTV?

Know what features you want and understand why you want them.

  • Don't be intimidated by the jargon. For every term you don't understand there is a Wikipedia article to explain it.

  • Use the internet to research your decision meticulously before purchase. Don't buy impulsively.

  • Don't blindly believe salesmen. They often have just enough training to throw around fancy terms while misunderstanding the underlying technology. They are often correct, but independently verify everything they say.

  • Purchase the set within your budget that looks best to your eyes in your home.

Finally, relax. If you are upgrading from a standard definition TV then high definition content on any HDTV is going to blow you away, so you are unlikely to make any egregious errors that will haunt you for years. Educate yourself, shop around, and then go with your gut.