HDTVs come in many flavors, with plenty of upgrades: it's up to you to know about the technology, options and features that affect their quality and longevity BEFORE you make that big purchase!
This guide gives you everything you need to know about today's hottest (and dumbest) HDTV features, letting you make the most logical decision about what kind of HDTV you should consider as your next big electronics purchase.
Understanding the Basics
Let's get started on the basics by getting to know the most fundamental parts of what you're looking at when you see a "good picture" on an HDTV. It's all about the display itself -- regardless of screen size:
Scan Rate & Refresh Rate
Interlaced (i) vs. Progressive (p)
An HDTV's "vertical" scan rate can be either interlaced (720i or 1080i) or progressive (720p or 1080p). Today, all HDTVs are progressive.
You can spot an interlaced set (see "A" on the diagram to your right) by noticing their "sweeping" or blinking lines, especially if you're watching a video recording of a TV screen. It's not visible with the naked eye, although the strain they'll put on your eyes is noticeable after time.
Progressive sets (see "B" on the image to your right), on the other hand, refresh every line every single time...much like long, continual "sweeps" down the screen. Progressive screens means less headaches and bugged-out eyes, and smooth images with less jagged edges.
What Causes Eye Strain?
Watching TV can "stress" your eyes over time because of those little lines that are constantly being re-drawn while you stare at the screen. While you don't notice this happening, your eyes do: they're seeing flickering vertical streams that never stop as long as the TV is on. The slower those lines are drawn, the more stressful it is on your eyes.
Plasma Scan Rate Superiority
Most if not all LCD and LED TVs have a refresh rate of 120 Hz. By contrast, plasma TVs have a 600 Hz refresh rate, meaning that it is 5x greater than that of LCD/LED sets.
Faster refresh rates mean that fast or high-speed scenes in movies and games will appear more crisp and exact, because more lines per second are being drawn. Plasma HDTVs cause less eye strain on the viewer than LCD or LED.
Why Gamers Should Care
Gamers stare more intently at the screen for extended periods of time, and are more prone to eye strain and headaches as a result. Plasma screens are a gamer's friend: they're more "friendly" to viewers as your eyes will be subject to a less 'damaging' picture, that is displaying lines far more frequently than any non-plasma TV can do.
The TV with the faster refresh rate (the one that draws more lines per second) is easier on the eyes. In this case, plasma wins.
About the New UHD TVs and Refresh Rates
The new UHD TVs that are being positioned to make LCD and LED sets obsolete also have the same 120Hz refresh rate (some sets have a 240Hz rate). In short, plasma will still continue to be the best choice for gamers.
About "720" & "1080"
It's all about the pixels
HDTVs are always defined by the resolution, or their number of vertical pixels per "line." For instance, a 720p HDTV (see figure "A" on the diagram to your right) has 720 vertical pixels and 1,280 horizontal pixels. By contrast, a 1080p HDTV (figure "B" on the diagram) has 1,080 vertical pixels and 1,920 horizontal pixels.
The entire screen of a 720p HDTV has 921,600 pixels (720 x 1280) per frame, and a 1080p HDTV has 2,073,600 pixels (1080 x 1920) per frame.
Technically, the 1080 HDTV set is the better of the two, since "more pixels" essentially means "more detail." However, when it comes to smaller screens, it's important to note that this might be virtually unnoticeable. Read on:
720p Isn't Always A Bad Thing
The resolution and actual size in inches of an HDTV are not directly related. So, a 22" 1080p HDTV and a 22" 720p HDTV can both exist, as can a 42" 1080p HDTV and a 42" 720p HDTV. The difference in detail is not noticeable to the naked eye in smaller HDTVs, typically those that are under 40".
HDTV Salesman Tricks: Beware of Electronics Stores
Why do some HDTVs look so much better than others at the store?
A common sales tactic that retailers use to upsell certain HDTV models is to modify their video signal. HDTVs with a dedicated video signal are working at their full capacity, whereas HDTVs that are all using a split signal will have significantly less strength, and therefore, not look as good. Be sure to look behind the HDTV to see if the cable behind it is leading to other HDTVs around it (split), or, if it has a cable leading directly into it (dedicated).
Fudging The Display
But wait, there's more! Some sets are purposely displayed with incorrect brightness and contrast balances. This is why some HDTVs look crisper and clearer than others: it's because the department store is trying to make certain HDTVs look more favorable...typically, the ones whose inventory they are looking to reduce. Don't fall for it! The best HDTVs in today's market have the reviews to back them up, and should never be judged on how a sales-heavy department store decides to display them.
The "Warranty" Waste
Much like cars, an HDTV will experience factory or faulty part problems either right away, or within their manufacturer's warranty period (for HDTVs, that's 1 year). If your HDTV survives that initial period, it will most likely continue on without problems. This is why extended warranties for HDTVs are always a bad financial decision...so, don't waste your money on it.
Why You Should Care About QAM Tuners
Ditch the Cable Box, Forever
No qualms about it -- a QAM tuner is something you might really want in your next HDTV. It's a relatively new inclusion that started to hit the market back in 2013.
A built-in QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) tuner will allow the cable guy to connect your cable directly to the TV, without any need of a cable box.
A "Nice to Have" Feature for Cable Customers
Why is such a valuable feature? Well, your days of short-lived cable boxes and the frustration they cause will be over. It's well known that cable companies hand out refurbished boxes that go obsolete regularly.
Depending on who your cable company is, you might be able to get a free additional TV connected to your cable service (be sure to call your cable company and ask if additional TVs can be added for free if they already have a QAM tuner built into them, you might be pleasantly surprised!) This is why the QAM tuner is easily one of the best HDTV features, unheard of to most, on that long list of specifications that most people skim over.
What Is A "Smart TV?"
How Apps & Internet Are Changing HDTV
We're at a point in time where many HDTVs on the market can be classified as "Smart TVs." This simply means that the TV has "computer-like capabilities" such as an internet connection, social networking features, digital streaming and personalization.
The Singularity Between TV and Tablet
Smart TVs actually have their own operating system and downloadable apps. Today, they can even be managed via a tablet rather than a conventional remote control -- their instruction manual will tell you how to get the app that will turn your tablet into a remote. Due to the popularity (and ever decreasing prices) of tablets, using your own tablet with an app to control your TV set simply makes sense. If this is a feature you think you'd use often, several of today's best HDTVs with smart TV capabilities already have it as a default.
How Smart TVs Work
You've already seen this kind of technology in video game consoles, and it's basically the same concept. Log in to your account (on your TV) and you'll be served up with a customized menu, where you can access your social networking accounts, apps and streaming programs. Even Blu-Ray players are getting these features.
For Cable Cordcutters
If you're a cordcutter (that is, someone who has gotten fed up with the cable company and is seeking out alternate ways to watch their favorite shows that are not on regular broadcast TV), you'll love to know that today's Smart TVs make it easy to access and watch content directly from Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime through your gaming console, Roku box or Apple TV device.
How to Turn Non-Smart TVs Into Smart Ones
If your HDTV isn't a Smart one, you can add much of that functionality with numerous aftermarket products like Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and numerous others.
What is 3D TV?
Worth getting...or waiting on?
3D is a feature: that is, it's not an alternative to LCD, LED or Plasma but rather a feature for them.
Today, there are two kinds of stereoscopic (glasses required) 3D TVs: 3D sets that use battery-powered glasses that synch with an 'IR emitter' device -- known as "Active 3D," and sets that use the same non-battery glasses you'll find at the theater -- known as "Passive 3D."
The latter of these two (Passive) are more attractive, since the plastic pairs cost far less than the battery powered type.
"Dedicated" vs. "Conversion"
Additionally, there's dedicated 3D and "3D conversion." Dedicated 3D is processed using 3D cameras, making it the true 3D experience. "3D conversion" is an attempt to create a 3D effect by laying a duplicated 2D image over its original -- resulting in lesser quality.
All 3D TVs have a '2D mode' whose quality is comparable with most 2D HDTVs on the market, and can simply switch to 3D mode for 3D broadcasts and movies. There are very few 3D broadcasts in the current day. If you plan to watch 3D movies, you'll also have to buy a 3D Blu-Ray player, and additionally, purchase all of your movies all over again in 3D Blu-Ray format.
How Will 3D TV Evolve?
Currently, a new type of 3D HDTV technology is in the works called "autostereoscopic 3D," which will be advertised to the public as "glasses free 3D." With this technology, you'll experience 3D by simply watching the TV without any glasses at all. There's no definite date for its release, but will undoubtedly make glasses-based 3D TV obsolete.
Glass = Glare
Why you should double-think glass screens
If the TV you're looking at has a glass screen (as opposed to the flatter appearance of a 'matte' screen - the typical type found on most LCD HDTVs), you might be in for quite a bit of unexpected glare.
Matte vs. Glass
Glass screens -- much like iPad screens or those seen on many of today's laptops -- reflect anything and everything in front of them like a mirror, especially lamps and lights. During dark scenes, you'll be seeing your reflection, your windows and your lamps. On a matte (once again - what most LCD screens are), you'll see things that generate light, except they'll be heavily suppressed and far less noticeable. Just some food for thought.
Several of today's best HDTVs advertise glass screens with a more glare-proof finish, providing you that glossy surface with less ambient distractions. However -- if you had a choice, you still might be compelled to choose matte over glass.
Narrowing It Down, So Far...Your HDTV "Checklist"
Resolution: If at all possible, always choose a 1080p over a 720p. If an HDTV is 40" or less, there will be no visible difference, so, either is fine.
Refresh Rate: HDTVs with higher refresh rates (i.e., 120 Hz) will show fast scenes more smoothly than those with low refresh rates (i.e., 60 Hz). Higher refresh rate = better...both for picture quality, and on eye strain. This especially goes for console gaming. Know that 120 Hz is your standard refresh rate for LCD and LED...and 5x that much with plasma (typically 600 Hz).
Smart TV: It's in your best interest these days to get a TV that qualifies as a "Smart TV." Sets that are will very clearly say so in their description and packaging. This feature adds internet connectivity and allows you to use various streaming, WiFi and integration technologies with your TV.
3D TV or Not? 3D is a feature, not a display type...so, your decision when buying a 3DTV is to choose an HDTV that has 3D capability. Today's "glasses 3D" sets are already obsolete, and we already know that "glasses-free" technology exists, but hasn't hit the market yet. That alone should help make your decision.
What Size HDTV Should You Consider? While there are complicated diagrams showing the optimal sized HDTV for an exact room size, 46"-55" is what you'll find to be the most common HDTV range as it fits nicely in most rooms.
Why not measure out 32", 46" and 55" with your tape measure to see what makes the most sense, if you're concerned about getting something too big or too small? Remember, the bigger the screen and the closer it is to the viewing area, the more long-term eye strain you'll have, since you'll constantly be shifting your eyes around.
So, What's the Best Type of HDTV? Your choices, of course, are UHD, Plasma, LED, LCD and Projection. In this next section, we'll review each individually, with the pros and cons of each type.
What is UHD TV?
If you haven't already heard, a new HDTV display type is out, called UHD (Ultra High Definition) or "Ultra HD." It is replacing the conventional 1080p LCD, LED and Plasma sets of today, and features a dramatically better resolution. "Wonderful," you're probably saying, especially if you've already bought a new HDTV.
What is "4K?"
You'll also hear the term "4K" being thrown around. This represents today's UHD resolution, which is 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, or 2160p. That sure beats a 1080p LED.
There's a second resolution - 8K. This represents a 4,320p resolution, or 7680 x 4320 pixels, which is a near-IMAX quality picture. As you may have guessed, 8K will eventually overcome 4K in the consumer market.
Rare Availability of UHD Content
What's the catch? Well, in order to tap the full potential of UHD, you'd need to watch a UHD broadcast, or a UHD movie. These things are difficult to find, since the market is now in its inception. However, if they become a standard -- that is, if TV programming is offered in UHD, and UHD DVD players are released with UHD DVDs, then this will be the next kind of must-have TV.
Note that UHD TVs do "upscale" older formats (like HD or Full HD) of movies and broadcasts to UHD, but as you may have guessed, there is a definite difference of upscaled quality vs. true quality.
What does a curved screen do?
Curved screens have become a new feature (or gimmick, depending on your opinion). Popularized by Samsung, the curved screen was designed to create a greater sense of peripheral view from "any angle," although, the product manual suggests a ridiculous viewing distance of 5' from the screen for optimal results.
The design of a curved screen gives a more up-front view of the left or right edge of the TV screen when you're viewing at a 45-degree angle.
What is Plasma TV?
Plasma TVs use thousands of tiny phosphor-coated cells filled with charged ionized gas [plasma] to create their display. One of the oldest technologies: plasma screens used to be criticized for issues including screen burnout -- images remaining "stuck" in the picture, such as numbers/letters, and "ghosting" -- trails following moving objects.
Plasma vs. LCD & LED
Today, plasma technology has advanced greatly. Compared to LCD HDTVs, plasma screens generally have a better color spectrum and viewing angle, as well darker black/brighter white rendition and a vastly superior response time.
Plasma TVs have the highest refresh rate compared to any other technology, including LCD or LED, typically reaching numbers such as 600 Hz (that's 5x the refresh rate of an LCD HDTV). They also make ideal choices for gamers, although you'll only find plasmas with screen sizes at 40" and up. Compared to LCD and especially LED, Plasma screens are far less energy efficient.
Plasma's "Black Levels"
Here's where Plasma TVs really shine over other types of HDTVs: 'black levels' is a term you'll hear often when comparing plasmas. It's basically what you'd think -- the way an HDTV displays shades, and how they contrast against colors.
Plasmas are known to display the best black levels of all. In scenes with dark or pure black backdrops, you'll really want a deep black tone to be pictured in order to bring the best out of the overall picture.
On the right is a dramatization used to show the difference between an HDTV that portrays rich black levels (top) and one that portrays sub-standard ones (bottom). It's a comparison of crisper black tones vs. colors as opposed to a more "washed out" image. The top picture is the typical view you'd get on a plasma, whereas the bottom is more typical of an LCD.
What Is LED HDTV?
On your right: an LCD (figure A) and an LED (figure B). Ok, I'll admit -- it's just sarcasm. They look the same...but, that's the point.
LED, or "Light-Emitting Diode" is a newer feature to be introduced, but is, by no means, a new type of HDTV. It's not an LCD alternative, but an LCD upgrade. Essentically, it is an LCD HDTV using LED backlighting. LED TVs are not exactly 100% "powered by LED" as you'd assume from their marketing descriptions.
LED vs. LCD: What's the Difference?
In general, LEDs use less power, have a longer lifespan, have a thinner screen, and have a faster response time than fluorescent lighting. There is no noticeable improvement in color, contrast nor lighting with an LED HDTV, and they have the same viewing angle issues.
Think of LED as a newer form of technology that results in a much thinner screen than LCD, with superior energy efficiency. Over the past couple years, it has practically made LCD screens near obsolete in the consumer market.
What is LCD HDTV?
It's one of the oldest HDTV technologies around, aside from Plasma. LCDs started off their career with ugly side-effects, like ghosting (objects leaving "trails" as they traveled across the screen). These days, all of the old issues and quirks have been re-designed and perfected, resulting in the crisp image that today's LCD HDTVs yield.
LCD HDTVs produce an image through pixels, which are broken down into super tiny sub-pixels made of red, green and blue light. These pixels get a filtered white light pushed through them through numerous fluorescent lamps within the composition of the HDTV, displaying pictures of various shades, brightnesses, and of course, colors.
LCD TVs Are Going Obsolete
Due to the fact that LED backlight HDTVs are slimmer and more energy efficient than their LCD counterparts, LCD TVs have dropped dramatically in price as they are slowly being phased out of the market.
The fact of the matter is that there's truly nothing wrong with an LCD TV -- it's simply a case where its day has come and gone, and it has been upgraded to better alternatives.
What is Projection TV?
When bigger is better
They're big, they're clunky, and they're still heavy. There's one main reason why someone would consider a projection TV: they want a mammoth-sized screen. Projection TVs, on the consumer market, typically reach sizes up to 82" or 92". They use a projector to magnify an image onto their screen.
Projection TVs do not enjoy the same crispness of an LED or Plasma. Another major downfall is that their lamp needs periodic replacing, which can cost $100-$300+.
DLP Is A Key Feature with Projection TVs
If you're going for a Projection, a DLP model should be considered a worthy investment for its long life, great color quality and slim size.
DLP or "Digital Light Processing" is a rear projection technology for projection TVs. DLP sets are immune from screen burn-in & color decay, and able to represent high speed images without ghosting or blurring effects that other television technologies suffer from. They are known to have excellent color and grayscale representation.
Non DLP projection screens suffer from motion blurring, whereas DLP sets show a crisp image during high motion. Mitsubishi continues to dominate the projection TV market.
Poll: Discovering the Top HDTV Manufacturer
The purpose of this poll is to see what the general public perceives to be the best HDTV brand. Vote in your choice for best manufacturer, if you have a strong opinion!
What's an HDMI Cable?
Learn how HDMI Makes Everything Better!
HDMI or "High Definition Multimedia Interface" cables act as a replacement of the old RCA cables (those cables with three male ends: red, yellow and white).
It's a single-ended cable, and all you need to know is that it really transmits the full potential of your gaming console or Blu-Ray player to your television.
Today's HDTVs all include at least one HDMI cable input slot,. Look for it on the back of your HDTV, and connect it to your Blu-Ray player, or your PlayStation (or other console). It's as simple as that. If you don't already have one, make sure your cable company gave you an HDMI cable box. If not...demand it!
The difference between HDMI and RCA cables are like the difference between a pair of old and new eyeglasses - you'll never go back to RCA again! Pick up an HDMI cable for under $5, for your Blu-Ray player & game console!
The biggest mistake you could ever make is to spend $60 on a name brand HDMI cable, like the ones Monster Cable makes. It's an utter waste of money, since a cheap cable that costs under $5 will perform just as well, last just as long, and save you significant cash.
Since You Can't Simply Plug-In and Watch an HDTV
(If you will be using an HDTV that does *not* have a cable connection, you'll want to read this!) So, you've gotten that new HDTV, plugged it in, and see a wonderful screen that says "NO SIGNAL!" Yes, that's right. You can't simply plug a TV in the wall and flip channels like the good old days - you actually need an HDTV antenna, like it or not.
A great high-end indoor antenna is the Winegard FL-5000 FlatWave (MSRP $50). Winegard is by far the best manufacturer of digital TV antennas. This one has a 15-foot cable, great near & far range, and best yet - it's smaller and thinner than a mouse pad, and can easily be stored anywhere behind your HDTV.
Note: There are also HDTV antennas that can be mounted outside of your house, although an indoor one is more than capable of serving your purposes.
Using An HDTV As A Computer Monitor
Thanks to HDMI, you can direct-connect your laptop to your HDTV and use the TV as a monitor. It's the best way to show pictures, videos, websites, PowerPoint presentations or anything else to a room full of people. Some even use it to play emulated video games on their HDTV by also hooking up a gamepad to their laptop.
All HDTVs from around the mid 2000s onward have an HDMI connector, and the same goes for laptops. (simply check to see if your laptop has the connector). If you're going to use your laptop further away from the TV, be sure to get one of the longest HDMI cables available.
An HDTV isn't a good substitute for a real monitor if things like color accuracy are of major concern; so, don't even consider one if you're intending to use it for graphic design or video editing.