TV or not TV?
March 26, 2015 8:49 AM   Subscribe

I need a better tv and movie-watching situation than balancing my laptop on knees. It's been, like, a decade since I bought a TV and...whoa, the options are overwhelming. What does an infrequent watcher of mostly-streaming media set up for minimum hassle?

In my perfect world I have a screen on a cart, roll it out and plug in a couple things when I want to watch something, roll it away for the 6 out of 7 days when I don't. I am able to watch streaming media from Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime on it as well as network television. In this perfect world I do not have to get a cable subscription.

I would just get a cheap display and some speakers for my laptop but I don't *think* there's a way to stream real-time network TV, right? But if I get a TV instead is there even a way to watch network TV without cable anymore? And also - where do Roku/Chromecast fit in to all this, and how do they overlap with the features of a "smart" TV?

If I do have to get an actual TV (and a cable package?), what is a reasonable technology/value balance for someone who wants stuff to look good but doesn't care about it being THE BEST EVER, like which of the features/buzzwords around TVs actually matter? Any meaningful difference among brands? How about speakers?

Finally - what size do I need, and what should I be expecting to spend on this set-up (I have $500ish in mind but have no idea if that makes sense or not)? People will typically be watching from 5 to 7 feet away which looks like a 39" screen? That seems HUGE but who knows?

Sorry to be flailing so much with this—but I realized I didn't even understand the top-level categories of TV on the Best Buy site and that seems like a bad start. Thanks in advance, all!!
posted by peachfuzz to Technology (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Roku/Chromecasts basically replace the Smart TV "App" stuff. On a Roku you run apps on the TV screen and select video from there with a remote, with the Chromecast the app is on your phone/tablet and it just sends the video to the screen. Either is going to be much better than using a Smart TV interface which tend to be slow and slapdash.

If you want to watch networks without cable I'd try using an antenna first to see how many HD stations you can pick up, or there are tools online to help. I have an antenna and a Roku and that does me for TV needs.

I'll let others weigh in on TV size but 500 seems fine, Rokus and antennas are pretty cheap.
posted by selfnoise at 8:54 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

But if I get a TV instead is there even a way to watch network TV without cable anymore?

No cable! You should be able to pick up air channels with an HD antenna unless you live way out in the woods or something.

What I did was get a TV tuner for my computer. (They sell one that's a little dongle, mine is made by AverTV.) Lets you plug your antenna directly into your computer, which means I can watch (and record!!!) TV with my computer. I use Windows Media Center because it came with my computer and I'm too lazy to find anything else, but it works great.

You don't have to go the tuner route, you can just use your TV like a TV, but I vastly prefer using a keyboard to fussing with a remote. (And I can record the shows!)
posted by phunniemee at 9:01 AM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Widescreen dimensions are "bigger" than older SD TV dimensions for the same screen -- a 39" SD TV is significantly bigger than a 39" HD, because HD TVs are wider so the diagonal (that's what they're measuring) is longer.

We bought a $299 40" "store-brand" LCD TV a few years back and it's plenty for what we need -- about the only thing I wish it had is audio outs to hook up my stereo speakers, but we live without it. We have a Chromecast and an older SD Roku; since we got the Chromecast we don't use the Roku much at all.

We still have cable, and the thing we love most about it is the DVR -- even if you don't get cable, but get OTA television, you may want to budget in a DVR so you can time-shift the things you do want to watch instead of spending more on different internet video gadgets.

Our only complaint about Chromecast is a few of the things we want to watch aren't Chromecast-compatible, and screencasting is too jittery for our liking, or we hook up the laptop's HDMI out right to the TV.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:02 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What I did was get a TV tuner for my computer.

WHAT THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING. That seems perfect. Other experiences with tuners/advice for what to get?

If I go that route - any reason I should still get a TV TV if I really am just using it as a mirror display?

Hannibal on Thursday nights here I come!
posted by peachfuzz at 9:05 AM on March 26, 2015



Get as big a TV as you can reasonably fit in your house/afford. 32 is way tinier than you think, especially if you're used to having a laptop balanced on your lap.

Modern TVs come with apps to hook up to a wide variety of streaming services, if not, it's incredibly easy to hook your laptop up, or you could buy a roku/chromecast/HTPC to hook up to your TV

Rabbit ears are back: For network TV you can watch Over The Air in most decently populated places

This is a very good TV for less than $500, although you may be able to find the 50-inch version for a hair over $500 if you have some flex.
posted by Oktober at 9:08 AM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

any reason I should still get a TV TV if I really am just using it as a mirror display?

Because it's big and sexy. I'm watching an episode of SVU right now as I write this, on my TV, with my screen split side by side. I can see evveerrrytthiiiiinng.
posted by phunniemee at 9:09 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

TV tuner for my computer ... I use Windows Media Center ...

I find I can no longer record OTA signals via Media Center (XP and Win 7 versions) because MS no longer supports OTA in the Guide. Is there a way around that?
posted by achrise at 9:15 AM on March 26, 2015

achrise, I haven't noticed that. My computer runs Win 7 and enables my crap TV habit like a dream. Try deleting your antenna from Media Center and reloading it, make it run a fresh channel scan.
posted by phunniemee at 9:19 AM on March 26, 2015

Response by poster: Okay, so actually on second thought I don't need recording capabilities so it sounds like TV + HD antenna + a Roku will be fine. Discovering the cord cutter world and realizing lots of my questions can be answered there if I dig in.

So then I think my question boils down to which features matter in a TV and which don't? Specifically wondering now about brand, refresh rate, resolution, and size. Thanks!
posted by peachfuzz at 9:25 AM on March 26, 2015

Best answer: HD resolution is pretty standard; as long as it can get 1080p, you should be OK (some cheap TVs only do 720p). The bigger the screen, you don't get more 'resolution', it just blends the pixel edges better, but the pixels also get bigger so it may not be an improvement in quality to get a bigger TV. Like I said, we went with a cheap no-name brand and did OK, so I don't have any brand recommendations. If you're getting a smart TV with all the Netflix and Amazon Video and everything already built in it, then you may not need to worry about extra inputs -- but get a TV with as many inputs as you can get. Ours only has two HDMI connections, I wish it had 4. As you add different ways to watch things, the need for connections grows. If you want to run the audio through your stereo, make sure it has audio outputs. Also make sure it has regular standard-def inputs, just in case you want to hook up an old VCR or DVD player, or a Super Nintendo and the like. Size: despite what I said above about resolution, go as big as you can afford and fit into your home. Rarely has anyone ever said they wish they got a smaller TV.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:39 AM on March 26, 2015

Wirecutter has a great piece on the best $500 tv. I generally rely on them/their sister site the Sweethome for any big purchases. It looks like they are getting ready to update their recommendation, but you may or may not care to wait for their new pick. They do a great job of examining all the options and explaining the reasoning behind their choice. I'd recommend a TV + AppleTV/Roku/Chromecast. You can also get an HD antenna to get all the main networks in high definintion without the cable bill (here's Wirecutter's rec for an indoor antenna.)
posted by bluloo at 9:54 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Digital antenna plus any TV; if the tv isn't "smart," add a Roku or Firestick.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:25 AM on March 26, 2015

Our most-used TV is a 32" Vizio from Costco. It has HDMI input, and 90% of the time we just plug in one of the five iIOS devices (with a Lightning adapter) or 4 laptops in the house and stream Hulamazflixtunes. We also have a bluray player with all of those apps on it. We keep it on the back patio most of the year, but occasionally take it in the bedroom (it weighs less than my biggest laptop) and put it on the dresser when someone's sick or during our short winters. We have a $14 passive digital antenna for the occasional network sport or event.

(We also have a 50" TV in the living room. Same deal with the HDMI cable, or the xbox with all the apps on it. We don't actually watch TV in there much though, and it weighs several million pounds.)

I think I paid just over $200 for it, a couple years ago.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:35 AM on March 26, 2015

Best answer: have you thought about a projector? it's pretty portable and screen size can basically be your entire wall. I just plug my hdmi cable from my laptop to the projector and voila, movie time. the projector has decent sound but you can plug in whatever speakers you have if you want like surround sound or something. I had a 42'' vizio 1080p which was great for about $400 ~4 years ago. but I like the portability of a projector. just another option.
posted by lunastellasol at 3:44 PM on March 26, 2015

Your library (and Netflix DVD) still have some DVDs that will never be streamable, so keeping a DVD player in the loop can be useful.

If you use captions when watching, there's one thing to keep in mind. HDMI cables support neither analog nor digital closed captions. Eighty percent of new DVDs have subtitles in English. But older DVDs need to be connected to your TV with "component video" (three cords) to carry the closed caption data.

I got a Roku 2 and I was sorry cause the menus are way slow. Pay the extra sawbucks and get a Roku 3.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:39 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pay the extra sawbucks and get a Roku 3.

If performance is an issue, the Amazon Fire TV is much faster than even the Roku 3 - the specs are just a lot stronger and it feels way zippier. Roku 3 has a dual-core CPU, Fire TV is quad-core; Roku 3 has 512MB RAM, FireTV has 2GB. Fire TV is fast enough to run Minecraft Pocket version and other games, but Roku 3's gaming options are limited. However, the Fire TV interface is less intuitive and a little buggier, and it's certainly weighted toward Amazon's offerings, so maybe performance is a fair trade-off.
posted by dialetheia at 6:21 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely don't waste your money on a "smart tv." You'll get more bang for your buck with a regular TV and a Chromecast, Roku, or Apple TV. Also the interfaces on smart TVs are awful. You can also get a digital antenna that will pick up some broadcast channels. We have the Mohu Leaf and it's pretty good although we don't honestly watch it very often. On the Mohu website you can figure out what channels you'll get.

When we bought our TV I found the big box stores to be super overwhelming. We figured out what size we needed based on the viewing distance, and went to a small local chain. There were just a few TVs in the size we wanted and they explained the difference. One of the nicer ones was on sale so we ended up with that. We have a fairly far viewing distance so our TV is 55" I think...which sounds big but now it doesn't feel so big at all!
posted by radioamy at 10:02 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

The old (SD days) rule of thumb for screen size vs. viewing distance was basically to be as far away from the screen as the screen is high, at least to have a fairly immersive viewing experience.
posted by werkzeuger at 8:06 AM on March 27, 2015

Response by poster: Well all this is incredibly helpful, guys. Sounds like a TV, an antenna, and a rokufirecastwhatever will do me. I forgot that Costco sells TVs and I'll probably go that route for the return policy.

Now I just need to figure out some sort of mobile situation that doesn't look ridiculous. Harder than I imagined!

Thanks, all!
posted by peachfuzz at 10:16 AM on March 27, 2015

Best answer: Seconding the projector suggestion! I have a little one that sits on my bookshelf and it's hooked up to a media computer, a Blu-ray player, and a TV box with an antenna, along with an audio receiver and 5.1 speaker system for sound. I just pull my 10' screen down when I want to watch something and roll it up and out of the way the rest of the time! Huge picture, lots of streaming options, no cable bill and no big TV screen taking up space when we aren't using it!
posted by platinum at 12:58 AM on March 28, 2015

Response by poster: Okay so I guess I am derailing myself now - I totally had thought about and dismissed projectors, but now I'm curious. The no-footprint-when-not-watching and huge screen possibilities seem perfect (I'd love to REALLY WATCH the few things I want to watch) but my house is like a sieve for light and I've always understood inexpensive home projectors to require total darkness for any kind of visibility. Could I set up a kit for $500 that I could watch while the sun is out? All my curtains are white, unlined linen that aren't sheer but still let in a lot of light and I'm probably not willing to put up anything heavier.

If I did this, sounds like the computer, a tv tuner, digital antenna, and some sort of speaker situation (plus projector and screen of course) would do it? I could run the projector directly off the computer?
posted by peachfuzz at 10:58 AM on March 28, 2015

Daytime viewing is definitely the downside to projectors. You will most likely need darker curtains. Mine aren't blackout, but they are pretty dark. It doesn't bother me much since I rarely watch TV during the day, but if you do, that might be a consideration. Otherwise yes, the gear you listed should give you a pretty good set up!
posted by platinum at 10:20 PM on March 28, 2015

Response by poster: Just want to finally update this thread: I ended up buying a projector, this Acer recommended over at the Wirecutter, plus a Bluetooth speaker, and run everything off my laptop. I decided that I can make do with streaming streaming services and a subscription to but may add a tuner card in the future if I really want to watch live TV.

All told, with cables and speakers and everything else, I spent about $700 and I couldn't be happier with the almost zero-footprint setup (I didn't buy a screen or mounting hardware, though). The projector is bright enough to watch during the day with blinds drawn, and even if it doesn't look perfect, it looks very good—and it turns out that bigger IS better, even in my tiny house. At 77" it's a lot better than an iPhone screen, for sure!
posted by peachfuzz at 8:00 AM on July 2, 2015

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