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iPO Reports - The Simplified Guide to HDTV Buying
Friday, November 21st, 2008 at 8:45 AM - by
HDTV technology can be complex, and buying a first-time system can be a daunting task. This article will describe, in high level terms, the most important things you need to know if you're planing an HDTV system this holiday. As an added bonus, there is a companion article, the Detailed Guide, that goes into more detail for those who want it.
The subject can be confusing. You just want to get into High Definition TV (HDTV) this holiday season with a minimum of fuss. You don't want to get bogged down with technical details, yet you want to make smart decisions.
That's in contrast to HDTV buying for geeks for whom getting into all the technical details, optimizations, and system configurations is all the fun. That's a road not taken in this simplified guide. I'll tell you the most important things that will keep you from making a big mistake, and then if you want more details on one or more items, you can check the companion article.
Where I've added hyperlinks in this article, you can click to find out more in the companion article that goes into more detail. All set?
What You Need to Know
1. HD Source - The very first thing you need to do is decide on the source of your high definition content. Most if not all cable and satellite carriers have upgrade packages, and you'll need to check on their pricing, packages, then order HDTV service. It's compatible with your current standard definition (SD) TV, so getting that piece into place first will pay off when the new equipment is brought home. Do this now. More details
2. Flat Screen or Rear Projection? - There are two kinds of HDTVs. The first, rear projection, uses a light source that shines on a special surface to create the image, then lenses and mirrors project that image from behind onto the front screen of the TV. The rear projection TVs are somewhat bulky, not too heavy -- because there's mostly empty air inside -- and can be somewhat unsightly because they need to be about 12 to 15 inches deep to make room for a big mirror inside.
The advantage of the rear projection TVs is that you get a big screen size for your money. Much more so than thin, flat screens. The disadvantage is that the technology is dying because customers love the thin LCDs and Plasmas, and in some older models, there may be an expensive lamp to replace in the future. Rear projection TVs cannot be hung on the wall. Buy one only if money is really tight, you want a big screen, and don't care about impending obsolescence.
There are two major kinds of thin, flat screen TVs, LCD and Plasma. They are more expensive than the rear projection TVs for a given screen size, but are generally less than 4 inches thick, look great, and tend to have a brighter display.
The advantage is that they can be hung on a wall, look more modern, have no moving parts, and don't use a big internal mirror which can sometimes introduce minor distortions. Prices are way down from last year, so you will probably want to go with one of the flat screen TVs. More details
3. LCD or Plasma? - Everything you have read about Plasmas is probably obsolete. Modern Plasma flat screen HDTVs no longer buzz, overheat or have significant worries of screen burn-in. They are a great choice because they have a deep, rich color most like the old CRT TVs we used for 60 years. They have a fast response time for action movies. Also, the new ones have special anti-reflection coatings, so if the salesman tells you that it won't work well in a bright room, he's using old and anecdotal information. I own a Plasma TV and it's good in daylight and fantastic in the evening with dim room lights.
LCD TVs started out not as good as Plasma but have made huge strides. They don't always have the darkest black levels, a desirable feature, don't always have fast response times, and can appear somewhat two dimensional compared to the Plasmas. However, the very latest 120 Hz LCDs, especially with LED backlighting are terrific (and expensive).
You will have to look for yourself and compare. Do NOT evaluate these TVs with animated movies or cartoons. Ask the salesman to see action movies that have some dark scenes, then compare the clarity, apparent depth, crispness in the dark areas, and smoothness of the picture when a scene pans.
Either way you go here will work. Based on my own experience, don't let a salesman steer you away from a Plasma if that's what you want. They have a terrific picture even in the daytime, and while LCDs often look brighter, older, cheaper models can't match Plasmas for overall quality.
If you can afford it, an LCD HDTV with a 120 Hz circuitry can equal the Plasmas displays and looks fantastic. Remember, even if you go with a less expensive LCD model, it'll look a gazillion times better than than the standard definition TV you have now. More details
4. Be Wary of Discount HDTVs - Thanks to a somewhat weak economy, I suspect merchants will be offering some really inexpensive HDTVs. The problem is that many of these TVs will be several years old, obsolete models, and may not have the features you need today.
4a. Inputs - Some older models will only have the Red, Blue, Green Component input plugs. Don't buy an HDTV without at least one HDMI input. HDMI carries both the picture and sound.
4b. Older Plasmas - A lot of older Plasmas were limited to 720p resolution, not so great lifetimes and may be offered at fire sale prices. If that's okay with you, go for it. But most of the new, modern Plasmas with a screen size of 40 inches or larger are now 1080p. I'd stay with that because a 1080p Plasma will be the latest technology and have a longer technical lifetime.
4c. Older LCDs - LCD HDTVs have made huge strides in picture quality, response time, brightness, and contrast levels. Don't buy an LCD TV made before mid-2007 unless you're willing to compromise on picture quality to save some money. More details
5. Where to Put the HDTV - Do NOT, I repeat, Do NOT try to mount a flat screen TV on the wall yourself. Have a professional installer from a local home theater store or Best Buy do it for you. There are structural and wiring issues that could lead to a dangerous situation if done by a first-timer.
If you put any HDTV in a cubby hole, Plasma or LCD, make sure there's plenty of ventilation. A 42-inch HDTV crammed into a home entertainment center/book case with a 42.5 inch opening will become a wiring and heating disaster. It's far better to mount these flat screen HDTVs on their pedestal out in the open air. If it looks like a big dog or child could knock it over, get some help securing it to a wall stud with a chain or strap. More details
6. Ethernet Availability - In the old days, all you needed was your cable TV plug and a power plug behind the TV. Recently, it's been necessary to also have a phone jack for some satellite systems. Nowadays, however, Ethernet, connected to the Internet, is increasingly important to have available behind your HDTV and related components. Get some help from a professional installer on how to extend Ethernet, either via a wire in the wall, or wirelessly, via Wi-Fi, from your home router so that your Apple TV, Blu-ray player, or some other component can access the Internet. This is increasingly important in 2008/2009. More details
7. What About Sound? - You have an important choice to make about sound. HDTV has digital surround sound on at least 6 channels, and the right kind of sound system can make a high definition movie breathtaking.
If you run all your HDTV sources, like cable, Blu-ray or Apple TV directly into your TV, assuming it has enough HDMI inputs, you'll only get simple two channel stereo out of the cheap speakers built into all HDTVs. That's a really low cost solution and a poor listening experience. Worse, if you don't have enough HDMI inputs, you have to resort to a more complicated wiring system for video and separate sound.
A better solution is to have a modern audio/video receiver that's designed to accept all kinds of inputs, HDMI, component audio, digital sound, and can send just the picture to your TV and the audio to the speakers you select. That way, your sound system can grow as your budget allows, and someday you might have all six channels thundering during a Blu-ray showing of Quantum of Solace. More details
8. Upgradability - I wouldn't buy a bundled system, say, an HDTV with a Blu-ray player inside. It looks like a deal, but it'll keep you from mixing and matching components in a flexible way, locks you into a specific technology that may not be the best, and adds complexity. If your internal Blu-ray player fails, you'll have to send a large, heavy TV back for repair, and it could become damaged, scratched, etc.
There's nothing wrong with buying one of the LG or Samsung players that features Netflix access. See item #6 above. You'll need Ethernet and Internet access for that. More details
9. Testing in the Store - HDTVs that were affordable in the past were rear projection, and some of them suffer from a lack of screen brightness. That's why they were put in darkened, home theater-like rooms. Meanwhile, the small, bright LCD HDTVs could be safely put out on the showroom floor.
Don't compare two TVs in two different rooms. Try to arrange for them to be next to each other. If that's not possible, try to compare two TVs of different types, even if they aren't the models you're after, that are near to each other. You'll get a feel for the kind of picture you like.
Good comparison sources are: action movies, ice hockey (watch the puck) and nature shows with lots of detail. Bad comparison sources are football, cartoons, and TV shows with indoor scenes. These won't really test the TV because their slowly moving, saturated colors look good on any TV. More details
10. Those Darn Salesmen - Many salesmen in mass merchandising stores like Target, Wall-Mart, and so on won't have the expertise and training to guide you. Worse, they'll depend on knowledge passed along or store owner guidance that won't be in your best interest. For example, some Satellite TV and, of course, Blu-ray players can output 1080p, but I've heard salesmen say you don't need it. Yes you do on any TV that's 46 inches or bigger and you sit fairly close. The 1080p resolution will insulate you from obsolescence. Don't settle for less, like 1080i or 720p native resolution, for your new HDTV if you plan to keep it for some time.
Some sales people will guide you away from a Plasma TV if you say it won't be placed in a dark area like a basement. That's simplistic today -- don't fall for that. Modern Plasmas do fine in all kinds of ambient lighting - except direct sunlight, which no flat screen can endure.
Packages can be cost savers. Many merchants will offer a discount on a Blu-ray player if you buy a more expensive HDTV. (But see #8 above.) Just make sure the Blu-ray player isn't an older, obsolete model that they're trying to unload. (I'll be writing a Blu-ray buyers guide soon.)
If they do offer you that bundle, remain a little skeptical and ask if they'll also throw in a copy or two of a Disney movie on Blu-ray for the kids on Christmas morning. Chances are, you'll get one or two thrown in just to close the deal.
Be miserly on cables. Don't get gouged on $99 HDMI cables. Apple stores sell them for $25. More details
Armed with this information, chances are you won't make any big mistakes when you go shopping for an HDTV. If you're not real deep on the technology and trying to surprise a spouse at Christmas, take a friend along on your shopping trip who is aware of some of these issues. You won't get much meaningful help from the salesperson, but if the salesperson tries to take you down a questionable path, you'll have a friend to consult with.
If you're uncertain about any of the items here, the links will provide more technical depth. You may be uncertain about just an item or two, so don't feel compelled to read the full, detailed companion piece. It might overload you.
Print this article, scan it while watching (your old) TV, and take it with you when you shop. And happy viewing! HDTV is so fantastic, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.
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