HDTV Buying Guide

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HDTV Buying Guide

High Definition Televisions, or HDTVs for short, allow viewers to experience the bright colors, crisp details, sharp contrast, and clear sound of high-definition programs in a sleeker, thinner unit than standard-definition CRT TVs. For anyone in the market for a new television, a new flat-panel HDTV might be the way to go. Whether it’s LCD to Plasma, 60Hz to 600Hz, two dimensions or 3-D, the choices are abundant.

Even so, the tech-speak surrounding HDTVs can be confusing and even misleading. With some basic knowledge about HDTVs and an understanding of their most important features, it is possible to navigate this ever-evolving market and make an informed HDTV purchase.


Types of HDTVs

There are three formats for digital television: standard, enhanced, and high definition. High definition televisions are televisions whose displays offer the highest level of resolution among digital TVs. There are four basic formats for HDTV displays, and while each has its own benefits and drawbacks, many of the advantages of one over another have begun to dissipate as technology has improved. That said, there are characteristics within each category that should be taken into account before one purchases an HDTV. Whether shopping for an LCD, LED, plasma, or rear-projection set, it is essential that one understand the major characteristics of each type.

LCD

Flat-panel LCD, or liquid crystal display, televisions are available in sizes ranging from 19 inches to 65 inches, measured diagonally from the lower left corner of the screen to the opposing upper corner. Almost every television under 42 inches uses LCD technology rather than plasma. The matte plastic screens on most of the models reflect less light, making them ideal for viewing in bright rooms. They are also more energy-efficient than plasma HDTVs.

Consumers should also be aware that LCD TVs have a relatively limited viewing angle compared to plasmas; if one is watching from side angles, there may be some change in brightness and color. Historically, LCDs picture quality has been considered inferior to plasma televisions due to backlighting, which results in poorer black levels and lower color saturation. But this gap has closed as technology has enhanced these features.

LED

LED flat-panel televisions are actually LCD TVs that use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as backlights to alleviate some of the picture quality issues typical of traditional LCDs. These televisions tend to be more expensive than non-LED models, and for some, the increase in picture quality isn’t noticeable enough to justify the price increase.

To make screens thinner, manufacturers reconfigure the placement of the LEDs, thus creating edge-lit LED-based LCD televisions. The drawback to their thinner screens is that the edges of the screen can seem brighter when white images are displayed and grayer when an all-black image is displayed. As with standard LCDs, picture quality suffers when the TV is viewed from side angles, as well as from above or below. Picture quality in dark rooms, such as home theaters, can rival that of plasmas, though, and LED TVs are lighter and more energy-efficient.

Plasma

Unlike LCD technology, which is configured such that each pixel has to be backlit, plasma televisions use an emissive technology that treats each pixel as its own light source. Plasma televisions typically start at the 42-inch category, although there are a handful of slightly smaller ones available.

Plasmas TVs are best known for their superior picture quality in dark rooms. They are also lauded for their picture uniformity and wide viewing angles. They tend to have high power usage, though, and their glass screens reflect light, making them poorly suited for bright rooms. Plasma TVs in the 42 - 50-inch range are priced comparably to LCDs, and above that size may even cost less than a high-quality LCD television of similarly large dimensions.

Picture quality varies widely among makes and models, so shop wisely when buying a plasma TV. One concern about plasma televisions is the potential for burn-in, when a "ghost" image becomes permanently imprinted on the screen. Keeping contrast low for the first 100 hours of use and avoiding displaying static images for long periods of time can help prevent burn-in. Many models have burn-in reduction features like pixel orbiting and screensavers, as well as settings to treat the problem if it occurs. Fading was an issue on early models, but manufacturers have made improvements to lifespan; some manufacturers claim their models can last for 60,000 hours, or more than 20 years of viewing at eight hours per day.

Rear-projection TV

For those who want the biggest screen for the price, a less-expensive rear-projection HDTV might be a good choice. In a rear-projection television, an image is projected onto the screen from behind, instead of from the front of the screen. These TVs feature a user-replaceable lamp and a DLP microchip to produce a picture.

Though bulkier than flat-panel TVs, rear-projection HDTVs are considerably smaller than the old CRT big screen televisions, and often outperform the flat-panels in both contrast and black level performance. They are also more energy-efficient than similarly sized flat-panel TVs and are rated for the same lifespan. They are too big to be mounted on a wall, one of the selling points for flat-panels.


HDTV Features That Matter

No matter what type of HDTV one purchases, there is an important point that must be considered-and it’s one that many shoppers who are inexperienced with HDTV technology might struggle to understand: having an HD television doesn’t mean everything you watch will automatically be high-definition.

Only shows that are broadcast in high-definition on a high definition channel, and that are received by a high-def tuner, will come through in high definition. And to get these shows, one will need an HD receiver (set-top box) from a satellite or cable company. Without cable or satellite service, it is possible to watch over the air broadcasts in HD from networks and local stations that broadcast in high definition if you live in an area that receives OTA signals. If you want to watch your cable company’s digital channel offerings without using an external box, look for an HDTV that is digital-cable-ready (DCR) and will accept a CableCARD, available from your cable company, to enable the digital channels. Using a CableCARD may mean that you won’t be able to use features such as video on demand.

With those points in mind, take the time to learn about and consider some of the other characteristics of HDTVs, such as screen size and resolution, before deciding which features are most important to you.

Size Recommendations for HDTVs

When it comes to high-definition televisions, size really does matter. With HDTVs, viewers are able to sit closer to the television set without noticing a loss in picture quality. Perfect viewing distance is considered to be 1.5 - 2 times the screen size (in inches). For example, for an HDTV with a 42-inch screen, optimum viewing distance would be 63 - 84 inches. Although many viewers prefer to sit farther back, some of the experience of television viewing is lost at greater distances.

One limiting factor for television size is often the amount of space available for it in a room. A large televisions may "take over" a smaller room unless it can be placed behind closed doors. A good way to decide if a particular TV size will seem too dominating in a room is to cut a piece of cardboard to match the dimensions of the TV and place it in the appropriate spot in the room. Also, if the television will be placed in an existing entertainment center, allow one inch above and on the sides of the television for ventilation. Generally speaking, most consumers find 36-inch screens well-suited to a bedroom and prefer at least a 40-inch screen for living area models.

720 or 1080 Resolution

Resolution is what sets HDTV apart from regular television. On standard-definition TVs, the resolution tops out at 480 lines. HDTV can support up to 1080 lines of detail. There are two resolution formats: interlaced (i) and progressive scan (p). Many HDTVs on the market come with definition of either 1080i or 740p. A resolution of 1080i supports more detail, but the progressive scan capabilities of 740p resolution means that fast-moving action may look sharper. A resolution of 1080p combines the detail of 1080i with the progressive scan smoothness of 740p.

Most viewers are satisfied with the quality of 720p resolution and few can even discern the difference between 720p and 1080p. As screen size increases, the difference becomes more apparent, and in situations in which the TV is being used as a PC monitor there is also a noticeable difference. If the additional cost of moving to a higher resolution isn’t an issue, go ahead, but otherwise, realize that in screens under 40 inches, 1080p isn’t a noticeable improvement. 

Inputs

HDTVs typically have several types of inputs, such as HDMI, RGB inputs, RFI coaxial, S-video, and VGA monitor. The average consumer will likely never use all of them. However, when to comes to the number of HDMI inputs, it is important to have enough to connect all your peripherals: cable box, video game console, Blu-ray player, etc. Three is usually the minimum recommended number, but depending on your specific situation you may need more, or you may be able to make do with fewer. Many devices can be connected through more than one plug. Generally, a peripheral attached through an HDMI port will boast the best image.

Remote Control

If you aren't planning to use a universal model or the remote that came with your cable box, pay attention to the TV's included clicker. It's nice when it can command other gear directly via infrared, as opposed to simply controlling gear via HDMI. Most users prefer TVs to include medium-size remotes with well-differentiated, backlit buttons.


HDTV Specifications Are Not Always What They Seem

The most important point to stress when it comes to shopping for an HDTV is that manufacturer’s specifications won’t ensure a quality picture. Much of the information found on HDTV spec sheets is misleading, and, in some cases, irrelevant to the viewing experience. Manufacturers offer this information as a way to show superior quality through higher numbers, knowing that naive consumers might assume "bigger is better" without further analysis.

Every television has slightly different characteristics, all of which work together to create a particular viewing experience. Moreover, the definition of a "good" picture is subjective. Some viewers prefer more color saturation while others are adverse to overly colorful pictures. Learn what contrast ratio, refresh rate, and wide color gamut really mean and why they might suggest less than one would think about an HDTV’s performance.

Contrast Ratio

Contrast ratio, the difference between the darkest black and the brightest white, has a significant impact on picture quality. The problem is that there is no standardized way to measure it, so it is impossible to compare one model’s contrast ratio to another’s. Consequently, it is up to you - the potential buyer - to look at the image and judge whether the aesthetic is pleasing.

Pay attention to the blacks in the image, for example. Are they washed out, with a gray or blue cast instead of a deep, dark color? Do they retain details in the shadowy areas, or is this information crushed? Most consumers prefer an image between these extremes: dark enough for the blacks to actually appear black, but not so dark that details are compromised.

The lighter areas, or highlights, are also important. Are these areas blown out? Or does the image feature a smooth, gradual roll-off as it transitions from highly detailed portions to completely white ones? Bright highlights can be attractive, but most consumers prefer at least moderate detail retention in these areas. If you can spot the difference between the bright spots in a motion picture, which will typically handle highlights gracefully, and a consumer video camera, which is likely to clip the bright areas, then you might attuned enough to this factor for it to sway your buying decision.

Refresh rate

Refresh rate refers to the number of times per second a still image is refreshed on a screen. For example, a 60Hz refresh rate means the image is refreshed 60 times per second. The focus on refresh rate stems from the notion that fast-motion scenes on LCD TVs are blurrier than on plasma TVs. Refresh rates of 120Hz, 240Hz, 480Hz, and even 600Hz are commonly advertised, but most people are unable to tell the difference between any of them.

Some HDTVs use a smoothing process, called dejudder processing, to smooth the picture, but this is different than the anti-blur effects of higher refresh rates, and is usually only necessary in films. Indeed, because films are typically recorded at 24 frames per second - as opposed to other frame rates that are commonly used for television programs, such as 29.97 framed per second - some claim that the screen’s refresh rate needs to be a multiple of 24 if the HDTV is to accurately render filmic motion. The extent to which this matters to you, though, will likely be a matter of personal preference.

Viewing Angle

No matter what viewing angle the manufacturer claims, a viewing angle close to 180 degrees on an LED TV is very likely inaccurate. Despite the unreliability of these claims, the viewing angles of the majority of flat-panels televisions will be adequate for most settings.

Energy Star

If shopping for an energy-efficient HDTV, keep in mind that nearly every new television qualifies for an energy star rating. If energy consumption is truly a concern, steer clear of power-hungry plasma televisions.


Other HDTV Features

As technology continues to advance, televisions are becoming increasingly capable and complex. Features like 3D capabilities and Internet connectivity have brought HDTVs into a new technological age that old CRT models could hardly have forecast.

3D HDTV

Home viewers looking for a 3D experience will need to purchase a 3D-capable HDTV as well as the glasses to go along with it. These televisions use a stereoscopic effect to create the illusion of depth on the display. It can greatly increase the price, and only works when used with other 3D sources and content, such as a 3D Blu-ray player and Blu-ray disc.

Connection Capabilities

Some mid-range and higher end HDTVs have video services built in, but still require either an Ethernet cable or a Wi-Fi adapter to connect to the Internet and use these services, as few TVs have Wi-Fi built in. Many gaming consoles offer these same services, though, or a dedicated set-top box can be purchased instead.

Photos, Video, and Music

For maximum versatility, one can buy an HDTV with USB ports or memory card slots to display photos and video. Some models even offer built-in docks for music players. Alternatively, most cameras can be connected using a standard video or HD connections, and game consoles or a PC work well for streaming video.


Accessories

Once you have selected your HDTV, don’t get overwhelmed by all the accessories offered for it. Know what to spend money on and what to skip before adding on any extras.

Buy HDMI Cables

High-end HDMI cables have a huge profit margin. And when it comes to digital cables like HDMI, cable quality is of little consequence. Stick with lower-priced alternatives. Many stores don’t carry them, but they are easily found online.

A Surge Protector Is a Necessity

While a better surge protector won’t improve picture quality, it will provide better protection for your investment. Select a surge protector that also has coaxial inputs and outputs for a cable or antenna.

Wall Mount or Stand

To save space and take full advantage of flat-panel technology, buy a wall mount. If wall-mounting isn’t an option, it will be necessary to purchase a stand to accommodate the television. Make sure the stand has enough space and is rated for the combined weight of the HDTV plus any equipment you plan to connect to it.


Find HDTVs on eBay

HDTVs are available from many sources. The global reach of eBay’s Internet marketplace, however, presents a particularly large variety of televisions and related accessories. What’s more eBay offers advanced research tools, prices that are often lower than those in traditional brick and mortar stores, and buyer protection programs that allow consumers to make purchases with confidence. In short, it’s an all-in-one resource for virtually any entertainment need.

Once you know what type of HDTV you want, you can visit to the Electronics portal via the "All Categories" link in the upper-left quadrant of the eBay homepage. From there, simply click TV, Audio & Video, and then choose Televisions from the navigation column on the left side of the subsequent page.

Category listings on the left of each page allow you to browse eBay listings and quickly narrow down your search. You’ll find links for Flat-Panel TVs, LCD TVs, and more. As you mode deeper into the site, these category listings grow increasingly specific, allowing you to specify specific display technologies, sizes, manufacturers, and more.

In addition to these category filters, you can also search eBay listings by keyword. For example, if you’re looking for a 40-inch plasma HDTV, simply type "40 inch plasma" (without quotations) into the search field. Be sure to visit eBay’s Search Tips Page to learn how to most effectively use the site’s search function.

If a search doesn’t return the item for which you are looking, try shopping eBay Stores, telling the eBay Community what you want by creating a post on Want It Now, or saving a search on My eBay. A saved search will trigger eBay to e-mail you when the product becomes available.


Conclusion

Once upon a time, television choices were fairly simple. How big? Color or black and white? In the high-definition age, however, a wealth of options are available, making it more important than ever for consumers to separate useful advertising claims from inflated techno-babble and unimportant specs. With a clear understanding of the available features and how they related to your individual needs, you can purchase an HDTV that will entertain you and your family for years to come.

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