HDTV-buying for the confused
February 9, 2010 3:41 PM   Subscribe

My sis wants to buy a flat-panel HDTV, but is not terribly familiar with either the nomenclature or the various technologies underlying current-gen panel TVs. Can you help?

Specific suggestions as to what sort of HDTV she should consider buying are great, but since I'm not sure about her budget, it might be even more helpful if you could point us towards some good Web "beginner's guides" or "buyer's guides" to HDTV that'll help her to wade through the terminology and the technology options (e.g. 720p versus 1080i versus 1080p, the various input and output modalities available, etc.) and figure out what to buy.

As a side note, one thing I'm guessing she'll want to do is hook up her current-gen MacBook Pro to this thing, in order to play HD content on the big screen.
posted by killdevil to Technology (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Others will differ, but I say don't mess around with 720 or 1080i anymore. A couple years ago you could save a mint by compromising down to 720, but now that the prices have crashed, there's no real argument for saving a tiny bit of money, especially if you are connecting a computer to do anything other than watch movies. You can get a real 1080p and have very nice resolution (1920x1080) from that MacBook for everything, including web browsing and such.

(I do this with a Mini and it's gorgeous and sharp. She'll be in heaven.)

To work at that max resolution, she will need to use either HDMI (video and audio) or DVI (video only) or the usual old-style SVGA connector (DB25, video only) to connect her Mac. Anything else, like composite etc, will reduce the image quality and resolution. So factor in the cost of that cable and/or adapter, and be sure that the TV has at least one connector of that type. If you go one of the video-only

I like having many HDMI inputs as I can to handle most anything: my current TV has four, plus an array of older type inputs. Nice for PS3, XBox, computer, cable box, whatever.

So my two summary advices: (1) 1080p always, and (2) be sure it has a digital (HDMI or DVI) input to connect that MacBook. And (2a) get the right cable.
posted by rokusan at 3:56 PM on February 9, 2010

> 42" get a 1080p set, otherwise, 720p is fine. Almost all sets will have HDMI so you should be able to hookup to a MBP with no issue.

I prefer Plasma over LCD (generally better for watching video), but if you're going to be doing a lot of browsing, I'd stick with LCD.
posted by wongcorgi at 4:01 PM on February 9, 2010

Response by poster: Also, what brands offer the best value for money right now?
posted by killdevil at 4:04 PM on February 9, 2010

I really like Vizio.
posted by mrbill at 4:10 PM on February 9, 2010

1080p is the highest HD resolution. Pretty much all TVs do 1080p these days. You should check the TV's native vertical resolution and make sure it is at least 1080 lines. Some smaller (or cheaper) models may only do 720p. That is fine in a smaller set (say, 32 inches or less). It doesn't mean it won't be able to use 1080i or 1080p broadcasts; it just means that the set will throw out some of the signal to make it fit on the screen.

A lot of new HDTVs have motion smoothing. That is, they generate frames in between the frames of the actual video to make the motion smoother. They will claim to be "120 Hz" or even "240 Hz." Some people think this makes film look like video. If you like the look of it (have the salesman demo it) you will probably want the 240 Hz model.

To hook up the MacBook, she will want a set that has HDMI inputs. She will then need a DVI or MiniDVI to HDMI cable. Any modern set should have HDMI. It's convenient -- one cable for picture and sound (in theory -- the computer won't send audio over HDMI, just video. If you will be using the TV's speakers, make sure the set lets you use a separate audio input with HDMI so you can get the computer's sound into it.) These days sets distinguish themselves by how many HDMI inputs they have. I would get a set that supports at least four: one for your cable box, one for your Blu-Ray player, one for your TV, one for a game console, or a future device.

There are basically three display technologies in use by HDTVs at this point: DLP, LCD, and plasma. "LED" TVs are actually LCDs but have LED backlights rather than fluorescent tubes. (Some DLP sets have LED or laser illumination as well.) DLP sets offer a lot of value (bigger screen size for the dollar) so those might be worth a look too. Plasma used to be the gold standard, as it uses the same phosphors as CRT TVs and therefore the color was exactly what you'd expect, but these days LCDs rival or even surpass them.

An LED-illumunated LCD set would be my current pick, as it should have the longest useful lifespan. The LED backlighting, being solid-state, will last basically forever (unlike fluorescent tubes that will slowly dim and eventually die). I would be looking at Samsung or Sharp LCD sets, or possibly Panasonic, but probably Samsung.

If you will be playing video games, make sure the set has a low-lag mode. Some sets (especially those that generate in-between frames as described above) do a lot of processing on the image and this can take, oh, a tenth or a quarter of a second or so. They delay the audio to match, so you will never notice this if you're just watching TV, but it really makes it hard for video games. Ideally you will want to designate an input as a video game and have the TV turn off as much processing as possible whenever that input is selected.
posted by kindall at 4:11 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

As for the 720p bit, your eyes can't tell the benefits 1080p at normal viewing distances for sets 42" and under. Heres a size/viewing distance chart. I have a 50" 720p set and I sit 10 feet away, 1080p wouldn't make a difference for me.

Also, I'm going to disagree with rokusan, there is still a pretty large discrepancy between 720p and 1080p prices. Especially in the larger sets.

ie. 50" 720p Plasma for $599 vs $999 for a 1080p.
posted by wongcorgi at 4:13 PM on February 9, 2010

42" get a 1080p set, otherwise, 720p is fine.

Again, this is only true when talking about TV and movies, if you don't care about using your Mac for anything else. If you are using a computer, a lower resolution is most definitely not "fine".

The monitor I'm using right now is 1920x1080 (which is 1080p, coincidentally). I would certainly suffer using everything from Firefox to e-mail to games if I switch the resolution down to 1280 x 720.

Brands? I like Sony, Toshiba, LG and Samsung lately. Consumer Reports or even Amazon reviews will help you make a little table on that one.
posted by rokusan at 4:15 PM on February 9, 2010

The current issue of Consumer Reports has an extensive review of HDTVs. $5 at newsstands or free at the public library.
posted by bgrebs at 4:31 PM on February 9, 2010

Pay attention to the sort of screen it has. If it's glossy, like a plasma (there are plenty of glossy LCDs, too, though!), it may not be the best option if the room where she's putting it doesn't have some sort of way to control the light coming in. This is very important, especially if you're considering a plasma. They don't get as bright as LCDs, so they can be unsuitable for some people's houses.

Glare sucks, so think about where the TV is going before settling on a particular model.

Also, wongcorgi's chart isn't particularly accurate. It's a gross approximation. That's not to say it has no real world use, but I can easily see the difference between 720p and 1080p content on my 47" set, and I sit about 10 feet away. However, you can use the chart to get a general idea of whether 1080p is worth the money in your particular situation. If you're on the edge of being able to make use of 1080p, get the 1080p set.

As far as brands go, you do usually get something out of buying a Sony, Samsung, LG, Sharp, or Panasonic over the Vizio and similar brands. On the LCDs, at least, the black level on the better brands is significantly better than that on the off brands.

The best thing to do is to go to a few stores and look at the sets in person. See if you can get the remote so you can put the sets into a normal viewing mode (movie is usually the most accurate default setting) instead of "vivid" or its equivalent, which is just designed to make the TV super-bright and oversaturate the colors to catch your eye in a store. Few people want to leave it like that once they get the set home, because it's like staring into a light bulb.

Before you go to the store, measure the distance from the couch to the location where the TV will be going. Stand back that far from the TV set when you're looking at it in a showroom.

Once you've taken the candidates within your price range out of movie mode and watched each of them for a while from your intended viewing distance, pick the one you like to look at the best. If it's a toss-up, check out the menus and see which ones make the most sense. If that fails to produce a winner, use the remotes and pick the one that works best for you.

Oh, and get one with a QAM tuner. All of them should have tuners that work for over the air broadcasts, but it's nice to have the QAM tuner so you can get your high definition locals with nothing more than basic cable. No need for a box, an outdoor antenna, or expensive digital cable packages. Even if it's not needed today, one can never tell when financial pressures will require dropping to the cheapest cable package. With the QAM tuner you can do that and still get some HD.
posted by wierdo at 4:34 PM on February 9, 2010

Crutchfield offers their input on plasma vs LCD, noting each fit different uses better. Displayblog has a write-up on power usage, as one of the big concerns from plasma vs LCD is that plasma are more power-intensive (quick summary: that's not always the case). Here's a power consumption run-down, by models, posted back in 2008, so things might be better still.

HDTV Glossary covers the language, and here's Crutchfield's glossary, with a bit more info.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:40 PM on February 9, 2010

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