Our friends over at HDTV UK are doing a comprehensive series of guides to help you create the Ultimate High Definition Home Cinema Experience (er, in case the title of this post didn’t give that away). They’ve kindly allowed us to share their knowledge with you. The first part of the series looks at the best way to start your HD experience – buying your first HDTV.
This six step guide should give you a good grounding in the basics of TV buying before you face the glare of the showroom or begin surfing the web.
1. TV Types
There are a number of TV types capable of displaying high definition content, with the most prominent being LCD and plasma.
Despite the huge popularity of newer TV technologies, it is still possible to buy CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) TVs capable of displaying a high definition image.
Advantages: Tends to be cheaper, with less bulky form factor than old-fashioned CRT tellies, wide viewing angle, deep blacks and high contrast ratio, very fast refresh rate
Disadvantages: Less choice, heavy sets
One of the two flat panel TV types, the other being plasma.
Advantages: Slim form factor, comparatively energy efficient, available in many sizes, typically higher screen resolution, reduced screen glare, can be used in rooms with a lot of ambient light, wide choice of manufacturers, styles, and additional features, typically cheaper than plasma for same size screen, good for smaller TVs.
Disadvantages: Often reduced viewing angle, blacks can appear faded due to backlighting, colours may seem artificial, response rate times can be lower.
One of the two flat panel TV types, the other being LCD.
Advantages: Slim form factor, good colour reproduction, wide viewing angle, fairly wide choice of manufacturers, still rules larger screen sizes (though LCD is catching up)
Disadvantages: Can use higher energy consumption than LCD, tends to be available only in 37-inch+ sizes (though this is changing), typically lower screen resolution, low risk of static image “burn in”, typically more expensive than LCD for same size screen.
Rear Projection DLP
Digital Light Processing. One of three main types of rear projection TV, the others being LCD and LCoS.
Advantages: Good black levels and uniform colour reproduction, most popular rear projection technology with wide variety of manufacturers.
Disadvantages: As with all RP sets, more bulky than flat screen LCD or plasma, sets can exhibit some “rainbow effects” and screen noise.
Rear Projection LCD
One of three main types of rear projection TV, the others being DLP and LCoS.
Advantages: No “rainbow effect”.
Disadvantages: As with all RP sets, more bulky than flat screen LCD or plasma, as with flat panel LCD sets, black levels can be washed out, colour not as uniform as DLP, some “screen door” effects, slightly reduced choice, but improving.
Rear Projection LCoS
One of three main types of rear projection TV, the others being DLP and LCD.
Advantages: Good black levels.
Disadvantages: As with all RP sets, more bulky than flat screen LCD or plasma, some colour reproduction issues, not hugely well supported by manufacturers at present.
Points to bear in mind:
* The average TV showroom is most likely to push LCD and plasma TVs, and they tend to be the most popular, with the widest choice.
* As these different technologies develop, there’s less to differentiate them, and it really comes down to comparing individual sets rather than LCD versus plasma versus rear projection.
* If you want to wall hang your TV, it will need to be a plasma or LCD TV.
2. Screen size
Selecting the right screen size is important, and while (if you have the money) that 60-inch screen might seem tempting, if it doesn’t fit into your home environment, it’s the wrong purchase.
Points to bear in mind:
* If you’re upgrading from a standard 4:3 ratio TV, and you want standard definition programmes to be the same size (in height) then you need to buy a TV that has a six percent bigger diagonal screen size (see ScreenMath.com)
* You need to work out where the TV will be placed, and how far away you will be sitting from it. This will determine a range of ideal sized TVs for your particular room. See this viewing distance calculator for more information.
* Regardless of whether the TV will be wall mounted, free standing, or placed in a cabinet, it has to fit the space. Measure up before deciding on a TV.
3. HD Resolution: 720p, 1080i, 1080p
It’s important to understand the three main types of signal which a high definition TV may handle.
Any TV claiming to be at least HD Ready must be able to receive and display at least a 720p high definition signal.
This means that it can display a picture with a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels, at a rate of 24, 25, 30, 50, and/or 60 frames per second, depending on the source material.
More modern TVs will handle 1080i, an interlaced format with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels.
The holy grail, particularly for gamers, is 1080p, offering full, progressive 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution.
Points to bear in mind:
* Different manufacturers often band about the terms “HD Ready”, “Full HD”, and others, often meaning different things. Look for 720p, 1080i and 1080p in the specifications to be sure of what it can handle.
* The smaller the TV, the less you will be able to discern any difference between 720p and 1080i or 1080p.
* Smaller and/or less expensive TVs may be able to process 1080p signals, but may downscale them to fit their resolution.
* No satellite or cable broadcaster currently transmits full 1080p, and probably won’t for a long time — they don’t have the capacity to broadcast it using existing systems.
* This may be controversial to some, but unless you are a gamer, there is no discernible difference between 1080i and 1080p, when watching high definition DVDs (see this article for why).
* A 1080p HDTV is likely to be the most “future proof”, but the additional expense may not be justifiable.
Regardless of the underlying technology, how a TV looks and to some extent, sounds, is of paramount importance.
Points to bear in mind:
* Most TV showrooms turn up the brightness and contrast of the TVs on display so that they look “better” in bright conditions. They’ll probably be running most of them from the same source, which may not even be a high definition one.
* Consider visiting a more specialist retailer where you can compare TVs in a more realistic lighting, with decent HD, standard definition, and DVD sources.
* Try to set the brightness and contrast levels of TVs you’re comparing to a similar level (visually) before comparing.
* Main things to look for: colour reproduction, black levels, how well the TV displays straight lines, any evidence of rainbow, screen door, or noise effects.
* Bear in mind that you’ll probably be watching standard definition analogue / digital TV for quite some time yet, so ensure that the TV displays a decent picture for all sources.
* Most TV’s in-built audio systems aren’t particularly good, and you’ll always benefit from installing a decent home sound system (more on that later). So, don’t bother too much about that unless you know you’ll be relying upon the TV for audio.
TVs generally come with a wide array of inputs, and it’s important to check that the TV you’re considering is adequate for your needs.
HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface)
* Arguably the most important digital interface for connecting high definition equipment to your HDTV, carrying both video and audio information between devices.
* Most new TVs come with at least two, sometimes three, of these inputs.
* It’s worth having these so that you can connect several high definition devices at once without having to manually swap them, or buying an extra switching unit.
* Try to ensure the TV handles HDMI version 1.3.
DVI-D with HDCP
* Generally been superseded by HDMI, but can be found on some TVs.
* It may be useful for connecting some equipment, such as PCs, to the TV, and can be used with HDMI if you purchase an adapter.
* HDCP refers to the ability to handle the copy protection systems, and without it some content may not play back.
* DVI doesn’t handle audio, so separate connections are required for that.
Component, S-Video, Composite, RGB, Scart
* Other video connections which are either incapable or not used for carrying high definition signals, but may be useful for connecting other equipment such as DVD players, Freeview boxes, PCs, and other standard definition equipment.
* If you’re not relying on your TV’s built-in speakers, then you’ll likely be feeding your audio system from an AV receiver. We’ll look at ways of doing that in another section of this guide.
6. Extra features
TV manufacturers tend to add a whole host of additional features in order to make their TVs more attractive / useful / expensive.
Consider your viewing habits and environment, and decide which of these features, if any, are really necessary.
* Dual tuner: two tuners built in to the set will make it possible to watch two standard definition programmes at once – generally only useful if coupled with other features.
* Picture in picture (PiP): Allows you to watch two sources at once, in various ways depending on how the TV is set up. Note that you don’t need the TV to have PiP in order to watch high definition DVDs which have PiP functionality, because the DVD is still a single display source.
* PVR: The TV incorporates a personal video recorder which can record from the built-in tuner and store on a hard disc drive. Debatable how useful this is as it won’t record high definition content from an external box (such as Sky).
* Display enhancement: Most manufacturers will talk about the proprietary technology they’ve installed to make the display better. Far too many to mention here, and at the end of the day, it still comes down to what the picture looks like. If you can’t perceive any difference between two TVs, one with and one without the particular feature, it’s probably not worth having.
* Peripheral features: Some manufacturers make a big deal about external lighting, bezel design, “invisible” frames, and so on. If these elements seem important to you, fine, but be careful not to fall for their allure as only a few add anything to the viewing experience.
This is not an exhaustive guide to buying a high definition TV, but is designed to give you some basic pointers to look out for.
Five things to consider:
1. Know your budget limitations, don’t be wowed by flashy demos and cool-sounding features.
2. Ensure you look at TVs which will suit your home environment, don’t buy too big or too small.
3. Compare TVs in as controlled an environment as possible, don’t get too hung up on the types of TV.
4. Ensure the TV has enough connections to handle the equipment you want to connect to it, particularly HDMI ports but also analogue connectors if you need them.
5. Do some research and read independent reviews before hitting the showroom. Don’t fall for every word a manufacturer or salesperson gives you.
Feel free to leave your own general recommendations in the comments below.
Next week we’ll look at an alternative to the HDTV – the high definition projector. Great if you’ve got a big space to fill with image, and an increasingly affordable option.
By Stuart Waterman | November 6th, 2007