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HDTV Buying Guide

OK, let's forget all the hype and get down to business. Today, the best HDTVs are made by Samsung, Sony, Pioneer and Panasonic and in that order. If you buy a 42 inch to 55 inch HDTV made by one of these manufacturers, you almost can't go wrong. There are always a few exceptions with anything and you may just end up with one of the few bad apples. But that's why you have warranties, service contracts and returns. What do you look for in a HDTV? The list can go on and on but the following covers the major features to look for in a HDTV today.

HDTV Flat Panel Display Technology: Plasma, LCD, LED LCD, OLED

HDTVs today come in many display technologies. Look at them in the store. You may prefer one type over the other but it is hard to tell the difference sometimes.

Flat-Panel HDTV

PLASMA

Plasma HDTVs use an electrical charge to make a gas give off ultraviolet light, which in turn causes the individual phosphors to glow. Yes, that's right, phosphors, red, green and blue like in your old CRT TV, only a lot more of them on the screen. Plasma has many advantages but also many disadvantages. Plasma HDTVs are going to use more power than an equal sized LCD and therefore produce more heat. Brightness and color are the major advantages of Plasma TV’s. They produce rich colors along with very deep blacks. Their wide viewing angles allow more people to be able to watch TV comfortably. The pixels of Plasma HDTV’s are lit individually, unlike LCD screens. Because of this, the pixels can be completely turned off to display true black colors. Plasma HDTVs tend to reflect more light off the screen than LCDs so light from a window or lamp may cause a problem for you. Plasma HDTV produces its own lighting and does not need a backlight. Plasma also has faster refresh rates than LCD. If you like the look of a Plasma display, then go for it. Some like the LCD look as it is sharper. Plasma has a smoother look, more like your old phosphor based CRT TV, only better.

LCD Liquid Crystal Display

LCD HDTVs use a bright backlight that shines through a layer of liquid crystals, which move to transmit or block the light. LCD HDTVs need a backlight because unlike Plasmas, they do not produce light for each pixel on the screen. LCD HDTVs have become more popular than Plasma recently. Sony even stopped making Plasma HDTVs. LCD HDTVs are bright and have sharp looking displays, weigh less than Plasmas and are available in the smaller screen sizes for kitchen and bedroom.

LED LCD HDTV

In the drive for thinner and more energy efficient HDTVs, a recent trend is to use LED (Light Emitting Diode) as the "backlight" for LCD HDTVs. Note that in spite of what some manufacturers would have you think, "LED TVs" are simply LCD TVs with LED backlights. The LED LCD means the backlight is LEDs and not the older CCFL fluorescent tube lights. Using LEDs as backlights allows for a much thinner TV and in the long run means longer-lasting backlights.

LED TVs are a type of LCD HDTV—they are also referred to as LED-backlit HDTV. The Light Emitting Diodes (LED) are used to light the liquid crystal display (LCD), providing stunningly crisp images and colors. Why should you get an LED HDTV? For a couple of reasons—they’re more energy efficient, the LED backlighting enhances LCD performance and improves image clarity and coloring, and they’re super slim, perfect for mounting on a wall.

LED backlight: "LED TVs" are LCD TVs with an LED backlight instead of a standard fluorescent backlight. LEDs consume less power and produce better color response than traditional backlights do, and they also make it possible to create a much thinner LCD TV.

Dynamic backlight or local dimming: Some LCD TVs with LED backlights have the LEDs in a matrix behind the LCD panel, as opposed to other designs that put the LEDs along the edge of the panel to make a thinner TV set. It is possible to turn the LEDs in some sections down or even off, independently of the rest of the backlight. This means that the set can lower the backlight for portions of an image that are dimmer and do not need the backlight's full power. The result is that the set can increase the contrast significantly, as well as save energy.

OLED Organic LED

The real winner is going to be OLED displays with paper thin flex screens (Sony already has a small OLED TV available) but this technology is only just being perfected. Bottom line, OLED is the future but the best today is a LED LCD HDTV and Samsung leads the pack.

HDTV Resolution:

HDTV’s have a minimum resolution of 720p. Many of the top HDTV’s now are capable of displaying 1080p resolution which is what Blu-ray and PlayStation 3 output. 1080p is superior to 720p but on a HDTV that is less than 50 inches, the chances of you being able to tell the difference are small. If you are shopping in the 50+ screen size range, you may want to consider 1080p resolution. Almost all sets 40 inches or larger have 1080p resolution, which is 1920 by 1080 pixels. This is what you want today. The 1080p resolution will give you the maximum detail available for almost all HD content. For some smaller HDTV sizes, 1366 by 768 pixels is often a lower-cost choice, but a 720p set has to scale 1080p images down to match its native resolution. This interpolation may introduce imaging artifacts, and the image may not appear quite as sharp or have the depth of the picture on a 1080p set.

720p models are available in many sizes as a lower-cost option, but 720p is going away sooner. All else being equal, you should pick a 1080p model, which will better match much of the content you can now get from broadcast, streaming, and satellite services, and will match the native resolution of a Blu-ray Disc player.

HDTV Contrast: This spec refers to the difference between the darkest images and the lightest images that a screen can produce; in general, it is determined by how dark the blacks are. Contrast is probably the most important factor in determining image quality after resolution. Unfortunately, manufacturers' methods for measuring and specifying contrast are almost useless for helping you predict how the screen will look. Manufacturers use full-screen measurements, all black and all white, in a darkened room. An all-black or all-white screen is not what people watch. When you have actual content on the screen, you get internal reflections, ambient lighting effects, and other optical crosstalk that results in the light from one section of an image affecting the light levels of another.

Tuners

Your HDTV should have a digital tuner for off-air TV broadcasts. This is called the ATSC tuner. In addition, the set can have a NTSC tuner for analog TV broadcasts. Some HDTVs also have a QAM tuner for unscrambled Cable TV channels. You need a proprietary set-top-box for satellite, cable TV or other pay TV services.

Internet connectivity: A growing number of HDTVs offer the ability to connect to your home network's router--either through a cable or wirelessly--so that you can view content stored on the computers on your network, or even access content from the Internet if you have broadband service. Different sets have different features, such as Amazon, Netflix, or YouTube, so if you want a particular service, make sure that it's included before you commit to an HDTV. Manufacturers are adding new services all the time, even to their existing models, so it pays to get the latest information. Note that if you use a wireless connection, 802.11n will give you the fastest performance.

Refresh Rates and Motion Blur:

The nature of LCDs leaves that technology prone to motion blurring. To create an image, the LCD's tiny, cylindrical molecules of liquid crystal material respond to electrical charges and move to either transmit or block the light from the panel's backlight. Making the molecules move takes time, however, and if they don't move quickly enough, they can produce motion blur on the screen. This effect can be most noticeable during sports broadcasts in which you're trying to follow a small object on the screen, such as a baseball or a hockey puck. Generally it isn't a problem for typical movie or television-program images. Some LCDs now have higher refresh rates of 120Hz or 240Hz, designed to reduce motion blur.

60Hz is the basic refresh rate and is found on only the low-end LCD HDTVs. Fast moving scenes may blur somewhat and if this bothers you, opt for a faster rate.
120Hz refresh rate: A set running at this rate takes the normal 60 images per second from the video signal and creates an intermediate image between every pair to create 120 images per second. This increase in refresh rate can help reduce motion blurring in LCD TVs.
240Hz refresh rate: Some newer HDTV sets double the 120Hz approach, creating three intermediate images per pair of frames. Other models simply use the 120 frames but flash the backlight two times per frame. Both of these approaches are intended to reduce motion blur even more in LCD HDTVs, but you are not likely to notice the difference. Plasma HDTVs claim a 600Hz refresh rate.





HDTV Connections: You have to get the image from your Bluray player or HD set-top box into the HDTV set, and to do so you need to use a video connection. Only three connectors, HDMI, component video, and "VGA", can deliver HD-resolution images, and of those, only HDMI is capable of providing full 1080p HD over an HDCP-protected connection. You want many HDMI connections on your HDTV.

* HDMI: This is a digital connection, so it delivers the image data exactly as the player or set-top box sends it. HDMI can also carry sound--eliminating the need for extra cables--and it may let you control more than one device with a single click of the remote. The newest version of HDMI is 1.4, which adds more features such as the ability to carry a network connection, but it is not yet available on many devices (HDMI 1.3). HDMI is definitely the connection of choice, as it gives you the most accurate transfer of the image data, and it also supports the HDCP copy-protection features that can help guarantee that you get the best-quality image from your source.
One note: HDMI cables do not have to cost very much. A $12 cable bought on the Internet is likely to perform just as well as a $120 cable purchased in some stores. Try a cheap cable first, and if it works, you're done. If it doesn't, you can then try a more expensive cable to see if it solves the problem.

* Component video: This connection uses three separate RCA connectors, marked red, green, and blue for video. An analog connection, it can handle 1080p signals, but it cannot carry the HDCP copy-protection signal required for some devices. In theory, it may not be as good as a digital connection--especially over a long distance--but you're not likely to notice the difference. It requires an analog audio connection (white, red RCA cables).

* VGA: This refers to the d-Sub 15 connector that computers use to make an analog connection to a display. In many ways, it's similar to the component video connection. Often it's the easiest way to link a computer to your HDTV. This connection can handle up to 1080p resolution HD.

In addition to those three connectors, you are also likely to find two others: S-Video and composite video. They can carry only standard-definition video images, typically from older devices such as a DVD player, a camcorder, or a VCR. Depending on how you set your HDTV, it can scale standard-def images up to HD (interpolation).

* S-Video: This is a round DIN connector that offers slightly better quality than composite video connections do.
* Composite video: This is a single RCA plug, typically yellow. Cables with this plug often also have the standard red and white RCA plugs for stereo audio channels.

USB Ports: Today your TV needs a computer style USB port to transfer data into the TV for updates and user data. Samsung is now not including a printed user manual with newer HDTVs but opting instead to put the manual on a USB thumb drive included with the TV. You load the manual from the USB drive and view on-screen.

Most HDTVs today offer at least three HDMI connectors, while many provide four, and some have even more. Get as many HDMI connections as you can; doing so will allow you the most flexibility in connecting your other devices. For instance, you'll probably want to connect a set-top DVR, a Blu-ray player, a camcorder, or other gadgets like Western Digital's WD TV Live HD media player, which links a hard drive and your network to your TV for displaying media content. If possible, use HDMI for your high-definition connections, and try to buy an HDTV that has one more connector than you currently need, to allow for the future expansion of your home entertainment system.

If you have too few HDMI ports on your set, you can always add a HDMI switch that will multiply how many devices you can connect to a single input on your HDTV; but this device adds a level of complexity.

Energy Star logo: The U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency jointly operate the Energy Star logo program, which sets energy-consumption standards for appliances and consumer electronics. The current standard is Energy Star 3.0. Version 4.0, with more-stringent requirements for televisions, is slated to take effect in May 2010. Manufacturers are eager to promote a TV's energy-efficient status, so it's a safe bet that sets with the Energy Star logo will consume less power than ones without.

Automatic brightness control: This function will adjust the brightness of your set's image depending on the amount of light in the room; it can be a significant power-saving feature.

Automatic volume leveling: This feature will reduce the difference in volume levels, especially between TV programs and their commercials, which tend to be much louder.

VESA mount holes: Many people now hang their flat-panel TVs on the wall, and they often do the job themselves instead of hiring someone. Most wall mounts are designed to match the standard VESA hole patterns, so you may find it easier to mount a flat-panel TV that offers one or more of these standardized patterns on its rear.

3D display: This feature has been available in rear-projection models for years, but you'll start to see it in flat-panel HDTVs--both plasma and LCD--starting in 2010. It will take a few years for enough content to become available to make 3D TV worthwhile, just as in the early days of high definition, but it's a feature that could help future-proof your HDTV.

Now you know what features to look for in a HDTV. The decision is difficult as the choices are many and the cost, although getting less, is still a chunck of change. Remember you need a High-Definition source (HD cable, HD satellite, Bluray, broadcast HDTV) in order to get HD resolution on your screen.

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2010