Perhaps you blinked at some point during 2004, and when you opened your eyes again, high-definition television sets (HDTVs) suddenly dominated living rooms. Just one problem: Many still don’t know how to buy an HDTV – a point of growing concern, as they’re no longer just an extravagant indulgence. Even basic cable stations are constantly optimizing viewing experiences for subscribers who own high-definition sets. And if you or anyone in your family plays a video game console, an HDTV is practically mandatory (vital features, like in-game text, no longer show up clearly on standard-definition sets).
The trouble, as you may have surmised, is that if you don’t know much about HDTVs, the act of buying one can be extremely intimidating: When you walk into an electronics store, you inevitably run smack into the ever-raging price war between television manufacturers. From LG Electronics to Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and Vizio, everybody boasts the best features and highest resolution for the lowest price. Don’t get freaked out, though. You can successfully buy a more-than-decent HDTV set if you adhere to some simple bits of advice that call on your common sense.
Don’t automatically jump for the set with the highest resolution – Most sets that are 40 inches or larger have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, which is defined as 1080p. A lower-cost option is 1366 x 768 pixels, also known as 720p. 720p is generally restricted to sets under 40 inches, and its picture isn’t quite as sharp and well-defined as 1080p.
However, the cost of a 720p set is typically lower, so if you’re on a budget, you should ask yourself how your new HD set will be getting most of its use. Will it be the centerpiece of your living room theater? Or will it be a secondary set in the bedroom? Weigh your plans against your options before spending big money.
Consider contrast – Contrast (AKA “Contrast Ratio”) is important to consider when you’re buying an HDTV. Contrast determines the difference between the picture’s darkest blacks and brightest whites. A set with a poor Contrast Ratio will wash out colors, which goes against the point of an HDTV.
Manufacturers understand the importance of Contrast Ratio, which is why they’ll often try to demonstrate their sets’ abilities by displaying black-and-white images in a darkened room. Big deal: who watches HDTV in black and white? The best way to determine a set’s Contrast Ratio is to simply eyeball a typical show or movie in natural lighting. Compare sets side-by-side, if you can, and in real-world conditions, versus under the harsh, bright lights many big-box showrooms employ – how they look at the store won’t necessarily reflect how they look, say, in your living room, with its many windows and natural open lighting conditions.
What about plasma? – Plasma HDTV sets give you a remarkably rich and sharp image. Their Contrast Ratio is unmatched, and there’s less motion blur versus what you get from LCD HDTVs. Plasma TVs are definitely an option if you’re in the market for the best possible picture, but there are a lot of downsides to the format, too. Plasma HDTVs are expensive, use more energy than LCDs, and may still suffer problems with image burn-in.
Don’t go crazy with cables – After you buy your HDTV, the salesperson might try and upsell you on HDMI to DVI cables. While you definitely want to purchase HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cables so that you can view games, movies, and shows with optimal picture quality, some stores sell fancy, expensive cables that are supposed to work better than standard offerings. This typically isn’t the case, as there is virtually no degradation between cable brands. Whereas audio and video “leakage” was a problem in the analogue era, it doesn’t apply in the digital world. Your $15 HDMI cable should work just fine.
Do you care about 3D TV? – Your salesperson might also try and get you to invest in a 3D TV set, but you need to ask yourself how much you care before you spend that kind of money. It’s sure to delight the kids—at least for a time—and you can still watch movies in 2D, but you might be better off trekking to a theater to get your occasional 3D fix.
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