Today's HDTV spec sheets are littered with confusing information, and much of it
is worthless. Here we present the major offenders and recommend you simply
ignore these specs when making your purchase decision. Manufacturers include
most of this information in an attempt to convey improved picture quality by
citing ever-higher numbers; however, in reality those numbers provide little
indication of how good the image looks in the real world.
Refresh rate (60Hz, 120Hz, 240Hz, 480Hz, 600Hz): These
numbers, which are supposed to refer to the number of times the still image is
refreshed on the screen (60Hz=60 times per second), have proliferated in the
last few years. That's because LCD TVs have a reputation for being blurrier in
fast-motion scenes than plasma TVs are. However, in reality, most people can't
perceive that blur in most material; in terms of motion blur, it's nearly
impossible to see the difference between a 60Hz and a 600Hz TV. Many LCD TV
or smoothing processing (see
"basic features") in conjunction with refresh rate, but smoothing and antiblur
are two separate, albeit related, visual effects. 240Hz:
What you need to know has the
Resolution (720p, 1080p): Nearly
every TV today is a 1080p model, but in the smaller LCD screen sizes and
entry-level plasma series you can still find 720p models. There's nothing wrong
with 720p resolution. In fact, the difference between 720p and 1080p resolutions
is nearly impossible to discern, even when watching content on very large screen
sizes. Check out HDTV
resolution explained for more
Contrast ratio (up to 1,000,000 to 5,000,000:1,
"Infinite"): Contrast ratio
refers to the difference between the brightest white and the darkest black a TV
can display, which is an important indicator of overall picture quality.
Unfortunately, there's no standardized way to measure it, so most TV makers
essentially make it up. Sometimes differences in contrast ratio among a single
manufacturer's own product line can be a true indicator of black-level
performance--the crucial capability of a TV to produce a shade of "black" as
close as possible to the absence of light--but just as often they can be
concocted to justify higher price points. That's
why we call contrast ratio the Dr. Evil of HDTV specs.
Viewing angle: Ideally
you want the TV's image to stay as bright and as colorful when seen from the
side, or from above and below, as from straight on. With LCD that almost never
happens, despite viewing-angle claims that approach 180 degrees. The rule of
thumb here is that LCD and LED viewing angles are always worse than the angles
on plasma TVs, and though different LCDs can have different characteristics,
this spec isn't a trustworthy indicator. That said, LCDs typically have adequate
viewing angles for most viewers, especially in bright rooms.
Wide color gamut: Color
standards for content production are strict, and matching those standards, to
most accurately reproduce the source material, is the main color-related
responsibility of the TV. Wide color gamuts and other color-related extras can
produce "redder" reds or punchier yellows, for example, but those colors won't
be accurate. On the other hand, many TVs can also deliver relatively accurate
color in certain picture settings, regardless of their color specifications or
Energy Star: There's
rarely a number associated with Energy Star specifications, but we're including
it here to prove a point: nearly every TV available for sale today qualifies for
Energy Star, making the certification useless for comparative purposes. See our TV
power consumption guide for more.
Now that you know what to ignore on TV spec sheets, let's take a look at what
bullet points are important. We'll start with the basic features that almost
every TV has, then tackle the "step-up" features that cost extra. Many of these
evaluations are best done in person, so it's worthwhile to trek to you local TV
dealer for a hands-on look at the TVs you're interested in.
most important thing here is to have enough HDMI inputs to connect to all your
gear. Three is the minimum number of ports in our view for a main, living-room
TV, because it lets you connect your HD cable or satellite box, video game
console, and Blu-ray/DVD player. If you have older gear with component-video or
standard yellow video connections, or if you want to connect a computer, be sure
those inputs are available on the TV, too.
Screen finish: Your
basic choices are matte or glossy, and their effects can be seen on the showroom
floor, especially when the TV is displaying darker material. If you do most of
your watching in a bright room, a screen that cuts down on reflections is a good
thing. Unfortunately, most higher-end LCD and LED TVs have glossy screens, so
your choice in this category is limited.
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, and we prefer TVs to include medium-size remotes with
well-differentiated, backlit buttons.
Picture controls: If
you like to adjust the picture settings yourself or are interested in trying
some of the user
calibrations available online, having the right picture controls available
is necessary. Look for TVs with enough picture presets, as well as the ability
to tweak those presets and apply the tweaks to different inputs. Advanced or
curious tweakers will also appreciate detailed color temperature controls (as
opposed to just presets), gamma options, and presets for the various
Ease of use and support: You want to look for
menu systems that embed explanations of various onscreen selections. We're fans
of onscreen manuals, as well as product support sections that provide phone
numbers, troubleshooting, and setup guides to make complex TVs easier to use.
Energy efficiency: As we mentioned, Energy
Star is worthless for comparing the real efficiency of different TVs. Also, it's
true that a more-efficient TV usually won't save you much money on your
electricity bills during the course of a year. However, there are still some
significant power use differences between otherwise similar TVs--a typical
plasma TV consumes twice as much power as a typical LCD--and many TVs have
power-saving extras (like sound-only modes) that appeal to green-conscious
shoppers. If you're interested in finding out more, check out our TV
power consumption guide.
WHAT EXTRA STEP-UP FEATURES ARE RIGHT FOR YOU?
Beyond the basic features, there are some features that cost extra money,
begging the question of whether they're worth paying for. We can't answer that
question directly--buyers usually have different definitions of "worth it"--but
we'll describe them below to help you form your own opinion. Many of these
features go by proprietary names, and, of course, their implementation varies
somewhat, so check out our individual TV reviews for more details.
flat-panel TVs, the capability to display 3D content is only found on the
highest-end models of major makers in 2010, so it's expensive to begin with. The
necessary 3D glasses, in addition to 3D sources and 3D content, can also
increase the price. That's why you shouldn't worry about 3D compatibility unless
you're buying a high-end HDTV anyway. If you are, make sure you understand the
downsides. See our 3D
TV FAQ for more information.
Internet connectivity: Video
services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, audio from Pandora and Rhapsody, photos
from Picasa and Flickr, and access to Facebook, Twitter, and even Skype are
built into midrange and higher-end TVs. However, before you pay extra for these
features, consider that you'll need to either connect an Ethernet cable to the
TV or buy a Wi-Fi adapter; most Internet TVs don't have Wi-Fi built-in. Also,
many of these services are available on other devices, such as an Xbox 360,
PlayStation 3, TiVo, Blu-ray player, or dedicated external set-top boxes such as
the Roku player. Check out Internet
services on TVs compared for more
Photos, video, and music: USB
ports or memory card slots can let TVs display digital camera photos, video, and
even play MP3 music files via the TV's speakers or a connected audio system. A
few TVs, usually those with Internet connectivity, can also stream those kinds
of files from a PC in your home. Some TVs even have built-in iPod/iPhone docks.
Using a TV as a big photo viewer is definitely nice, but most digital cameras
can connect directly to the TV via standard-definition video or even HD
connections. Streaming video from a networked PC is also cool if you have a lot
of such files, but often devices like game consoles, Blu-ray players, and DVRs
perform these functions, too.
LED backlight: LCD-based
TVs that use LED backlight technology cost a lot more than ones with standard
fluorescent (CCFL) backlights. Unless they use local dimming, LEDs don't do much
to affect picture quality. However, they use slightly less power, but since CCFL
LCDs are pretty efficient to begin with, it will take years (or decades) at
today's electricity prices to make up the difference. Using LEDs can also let
manufacturers shave a few inches off the TVs' thickness. See LED
TVs: 10 things you need to know for
120Hz, 240Hz, 480Hz, and dejudder processing: As
we mentioned in the "Specs to ignore" section, the difference in blurring
afforded by these faster refresh rates is really difficult to discern, and
definitely not worth paying extra for, in our view. TVs with these extras
usually incorporate so-called dejudder processing, too, with names like "MotionFlow"
and "AutoMotion Plus" that introduce a smoothing effect to motion that's usually
only visible in films. We usually
don't like the smoothing effect of dejudder, but if you're interested in
seeing it for yourself, it's best to experience it in person before you pay
extra for it.
1080p/24 or 24p compatibility: This
feature isn't always mentioned on spec sheets but is popular with videophiles
since it's one of the few extras designed to deliver an experience closer to
what the director intended. It's usually associated with 120Hz and higher LCD
refresh rates (and 96Hz on some plasmas), but unfortunately it doesn't always
work correctly on TVs that purport to have it. It requires a source capable of
delivering 1080p/24 video, typically a Blu-ray player playing a film-based Blu-ray
movie. Even then, the effect will be subtle for most viewers, manifesting as a
smooth-but-not-too-smooth cadence most visible in camera movement, that
reproduces the look of film. If you're curious, HDTV
resolution explained has a
section on 1080p/24.
There's no such thing as "the best TV for gaming." The reality is that good
picture quality for regular HDTV and Blu-ray sources translates to good picture
quality for HD gaming. Here we outline what gamers should look for, and what to
ignore, beyond that kind of picture quality, and throw in some tips for those
who want to use their TVs as big computer monitors.
Get enough inputs. New
game consoles such as the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 usually occupy
an HDMI input each, so be sure you have extra ports.
Check out Game mode. Most
TVs have a picture preset designed to deliver a punchy picture that
looks better with video game graphics. Easy or automatic access to that
mode, as well as the capability to tweak it for each input, can be a
nice addition. Some game modes also remove any video processing to
eliminate lag, or delays between the game controller and the onscreen
Don't worry about blur. As
with normal TV sources, you'll have to be especially sensitive to motion
blur to see any benefit to 120Hz and higher refresh-rate LCD TVs. In
fact, the dejudder video-processing modes required to engage the
antiblurring on many of those TVs can actually cause lag.
Be realistic about burn-in. Plasma
TVs, but not LCD or LED-based models, can evince burn-in or "temporary
image retention" if you leave the game paused for a long time, say, a
half-hour or more. In almost all cases, this retention is indeed
temporary and disappears after you watch moving material again. However,
if your TV is apt to be left on a paused game screen for hours at a
time, and your game console doesn't employ a screen saver--Xbox 360,
PS3, and Wii all have one--then you might want to avoid a plasma TV for
Consider power use. Heavy
gaming can rack up hundreds of additional hours of TV time per year, so
in some cases it can pay--literally, in money saved in electricity
bills--to game on a more-efficient TV. The more you game, especially
with a brighter picture setting on a bigger screen, the more power
What about Wii? The
Nintendo Wii is a standard-definition-only game console, making it one
of the few modern sources to benefit from good standard-definition video
processing inside the TV. If you want to get the best out of your Wii,
get a TV that does standard-definition well; see our reviews for
You'll want an extra HDMI input in the
front. Many laptops have
HDMI outputs for connection to TVs, and having a front- or side-panel
HDMI port for temporary PC hookups is a nice thing. For a more permanent
connection, you'll want an extra rear HDMI port.
Get VGA for older PCs. Analog
VGA inputs on TVs almost always provide worse picture quality than HDMI,
but if your PC lacks a digital output, you'll need one on your TV. If
you're going to use it a lot, make sure the VGA input supports the
native resolution of the TV (1,920x1,080 pixels for a 1080p TV, for
example) to get the best picture quality.
Avoid non-1080p TVs. The
benefit of 1080p resolution is much more apparent with PC sources than
video, so if you're planning to use the TV a lot as a big monitor, get a
LCDs work best for heavy PC use. We've
usually experienced the best PC picture quality when using LCD TVs as
opposed to plasmas, so we recommend that people who use a PC heavily as
a source, especially for text, still graphics, Web browsing, and other
nonvideo content, go with LCD.
ACCESSORIES AND WARRANTIES
With any large purchase, the urge to accessorize can be overwhelming. Here are a
few add-ons to consider, as well as some words on warranty and buying online.
Buy cheap HDMI cables. In
the store, you'll probably hear a salesperson tell you to get extra
cables. That's because overpriced cables are one of the few areas where
electronics stores can turn a big profit. In reality, cable quality
matters very little, especially with digital cables such as HDMI. Since
many stores don't even carry lower-priced cable alternatives, we
recommend shopping for cables online and buying based on price from a
vendor with a good return policy. Check out our HDMI
cables Quick Guide for
Get a surge protector. We
definitely recommend shielding your TV investment with some sort of
surge protector. Don't believe the hype that a better protector will
somehow improve video quality, but do choose a model with coaxial inputs
and outputs for your cable or antenna.
Consider the stand. Most
people don't hang their new flat-panel TVs on the wall, and most old
entertainment centers can't accommodate bigger wide-screen HDTVs, so
with many new TV purchases comes the need for a stand to support the
set. Our main advice here is to make sure the stand you get can easily
accommodate the combined weight of the TV and any gear you plan to stash
under the set inside the stand. If you anticipate tweaking your setup or
adding components fairly often, look for a stand with casters.
Consider room treatments. Watching
TV in broad daylight will result in a washed-out picture. We recommend
that any viewing room be equipped with curtains or other window
treatments that can block out some light during the day and that the TV
screen face away from the window. Try to keep room lighting from
reflecting onto the screen. A low-wattage light placed behind the TV in
an otherwise dark room can make an ideal viewing environment.
The final question you'll be asked when buying a TV is generally, "Would you
like an extended warranty with that?" Most buyers should skip the extended
warranty. According to the March 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, the
overwhelming majority of HDTVs do not need repair during the extended warranty
period. Though rear-projection HDTVs do fail at a higher rate than flat-panels
in general do, they are still quite reliable and again not worth an extended
warranty. Consumer Reports goes on to mention that many credit cards and some
retailers, such as Costco, will extend the manufacturers' warranty free of
charge, which seems like a better deal to us than spending hundreds on an
The standard warranty covers parts for one year and labor for 90 days. Some
manufacturer warranties have separate time frames for the picture element and
the rest of the TV. High-end TVs can also have a one-year labor warranty. Some
manufacturers also offer in-home service on more-expensive and larger models
that are difficult to ship.
You can often get a great deal if you buy your TV online, but you should be
aware of some differences.
An increasing number of TV makers are cracking down on "unauthorized" retailers
of their sets, especially online, and some will not honor warranties on products
purchased from such dealers. See the Web site of your set's manufacturer before
you purchase a TV online for its policy on unauthorized retailers. Not
coincidentally, unauthorized merchants often have the best prices.
If you decide to buy your TV online, our best advice is to choose a vendor with
a solid return policy. There are many cut-rate vendors out there that don't
allow any returns on televisions--an exception to their standard return
policies. Also, be prepared for a significant shipping fee. If there is a
problem with the TV, many brick-and-mortar retailers will accept a return no
questions asked, but online merchants often make you pay return shipping or a
restocking fee, provided they accept returns on TVs at all.
Consider how to get it through the door and set it up in your room or on a
stand; big TVs often require more than one strong person to lift them. Some
online and many brick-and-mortar dealers will move the TV into your house and
even set it up for you, but it usually costs extra.