Buying a new High Definition Television (HDTV) can be a confusing process, especially for buyers that aren’t inherently tech savvy. Let’s face it, most folks have little desire to spend hours learning about the latest TV tech, nor do they have an interest in deciphering a seemingly endless parade of fancy acronyms and manufacturer specific features. While that’s perfectly understandable, those are just the kind of buyers that Big Box stores love to see strolling down the aisle. Today, we’ll discuss Five Tips that you can use to guide your next TV purchasing experience.
Tip 1: 4K Ultra HD Isn’t the Best Option…Yet
4K Ultra HD Televisions (UHD TVs) are getting all kinds of buzz this year. They offer four-times the number of pixels (about 8 million in total) found on current 1080p HDTVs. While that sounds incredibly tempting, in reality those millions of extra pixels don’t automatically make UHD TVs better. There are lots of other factors (native contrast/black levels, color accuracy, and uniformity) that make for a stunning image, not to mention that there are limits to the level of detail the human eye can resolve from typical viewing distances.
While UHD TVs are the future of the television sales market, the technology is still in its infancy. Last year, a well-regarded HDTV Shootout pitted top HDTVs and UHD TVs against each other, and a panel of experts selected two HDTVs as their top choices. This will change as technologies such as High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Wide Color Gamut are introduced on UHD TVs, but they aren’t currently available (and won’t be for quite some time).
If you’re in the market for a new TV right now, it’s probably best to save your money and buy a well-reviewed 1080p HDTV model. Give UHD TVs another year or two to properly integrate budding image technologies and develop a catalog of UHD content. It will be worth the wait.
Tip 2: Avoid Being Snookered by High Refresh Rates and Frame Interpolation Modes on LCD TVs
One of the inherent problems with LCD technology is called motion blur, which occurs when LCD TVs display fast-moving content. Sports such as ice hockey and action movies are great examples of media where motion blur might be visible. To combat this problem, LCD manufacturers sell televisions with high refresh rates (higher than the standard 60Hz) and frame interpolation processing modes. Both use various technologies to make image motion appear to be smoother and are commonly used in concert.
Unfortunately, manufacturers often fudge stated refresh rates, knowing full well that customers think a higher refresh rate equates to a better TV. When you’re told an LCD TV has a refresh rate of 120Hz, 240Hz, or higher, you might just be getting tossed a well-concealed lie. There are all kinds of tricks used to fake higher refresh rates, which are then plastered on sales stickers. Tread carefully and do your research before believing a stated number, and never buy an LCD TV based on this number alone.
Frame interpolation can be found on LCD TVs with refresh rates of 120Hz or higher. This technology uses a processor to smooth motion imaging. While a smoother image sounds appealing, it often comes at a cost known as the “Soap Opera Effect.” This effect appears just as it’s described where movies and other content take-on an ultra-smooth appearance just like a Soap Opera. Images can look unnatural and plastic, with details that look fake and motion that appears dream-like. What you need to know is that almost every LCD television with this capability ships with it turned on in menu settings. If you have an LCD TV at home right now, take the time to turn it off and see if you like your TV’s image better without it engaged – you most likely will.
Tip 3: Contrast Ratios are Often Exaggerated
Contrast ratio is one of the more important components of a TV’s imaging capability, indicating the difference between its brightest and darkest images. A higher ratio should be indicative of deep blacks and bright whites. Unfortunately, there isn’t an industry standard for measuring contrast ratios and manufacturers are widely accused of inflating numbers. In other words: the numbers you’ll see on a store label are probably inaccurate.
You can attempt a side-by-side visual comparison of televisions in a Big Box store, but tread carefully. Unnatural overhead florescent lighting and demo televisions that are running in torch-modes (a hyper-color, cranked contrast, image mode that isn’t recommended for home use) will make it difficult to truly see which televisions are better than others. Your best bet (at the minimum) is to glance-over reputable professional reviews before you make a buying decision. Contrast ratio and black level performance is often highlighted in a review summary, so details shouldn’t be hard to find.
Tip 4: “LED” TVs Do Not Exist
One common misconception is that the acronym “LED” refers to a unique kind of television. In reality, there are only “LCD” televisions. The term “LED” simply refers to a specific kind of backlight inside an LCD TV (the other kind is a florescent lamp). Backlighting is responsible for producing light that allows an LCD panel to create a visible image.
While LED backlighting has many advantages over florescent light, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always worth the extra money. What matters most, is how the LED lights are positioned behind the LCD screen. Your best option is to look for full-array LED LCD televisions (as opposed to edge-lit). Full-array LCDs have the ability to perform local dimming, which allows a television to vary light intensity behind the surface of a screen to improve contrast and uniformity (especially important in dark scenes). Keep this in mind when a salesperson tosses around the term “LED,” and make sure you dig a bit deeper to see which LED deployment is used.
Tip 5: Nearly All HDMI Cables are Created Equal
An extremely common Big Box store sales tactic is to push high-priced HDMI cables. Sales staff will tell you that more expensive cables will allow your TV to produce a better picture. Don’t fall for this money-grab pitch. The truth is that nearly all HDMI cables (save for cables that are manufactured poorly) will produce the exact same picture quality. In fact, less expensive options frequently have thinner cabling that is easier to fit behind equipment stacks.
One exception is for HDMI cables longer than 50-feet. Typically, HDMI cable runs nearing 50-feet will experience some issues with signal quality. In this instance, it might be worth paying extra for an “active” HDMI cable that can boost a signal. Active HDMI cables are fairly easy to find through internet stores. If your run is shorter than 40-feet, do yourself a favor and buy the cheapest HDMI cable you can find.
The Internet is full of amazing resources to help guide buyers to the best television within a specified budget. Your best bet is to arm yourself with research before heading to the store. Take the time to do it right and your eyes will most certainly thank you!