If you ask a sales clerk what size TV to buy, she'll probably tell you bigger is better. Obviously a sales pitch, right? Maybe, but it's actually a pretty good rule of thumb — which isn't to say you should march off to the store and return home to mount a 65-incher on your living room wall… 3 feet way from your couch. Size matters, but mostly as it relates to viewing distance, angle and personal preference. It can have a dramatic impact on your viewing experience.
For most people, the ideal viewing distance for a 40-inch screen is somewhere in the range of 5 and 8 feet. Too much farther, and you may need to upgrade to a 46- to 50-inch screen. Also, keep in mind that these distances are given in ranges because people have different preferences. One person may enjoy sitting closer to the screen to really immerse themselves in the HD goodness, while another may prefer a bit more distance if they're bothered by motion-blurring during a football game. Experiment at the store with different distances and TVs to see what you like best.
So, when it comes to size, consider a TV as large as your room and budget will allow, and you may get to skip some serious buyer's remorse. After all, how many people have you heard bitterly complaining they should have bought the TV that was smaller and much less awesome? Exactly.
There are two basic types of flat-screen TVs — plasma and LCD. You've probably also heard of LEDs. While LEDs do perform a bit differently and are often marketed as a distinct television technology, LED televisions are essentially LCDs with a new and improved lighting technology. For the purposes of this article, however, we'll treat them as a third category. Each type of TV has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Plasmas have a lot going for them. Typically, they have the best size-to-price ratio. They also offer the best black levels, the highest contrast ratios and, unlike LCDs, do not dramatically lose picture quality when viewed from an angle. Motion is fluid and light is uniform across the screen. In short, a terrific TV for the living room but really shines as the centerpiece of a home entertainment room or man cave.
The biggest disadvantage to plasmas is their tendency to experience image persistence — basically, if an image is left static on screen too long, it will be visible later. It can be annoying, but it's usually only temporary. They are also the heaviest and thickest of the bunch, are only available in sizes above 42 inches and can use almost twice as much power as LCD or LED.
The only clear advantage of LCD over LED and plasma is price. They're available in a vast array of sizes and from various manufacturers, but so are LEDs. Bright colors are more vivid than those of plasmas, but again, an advantage shared by LEDs. When purchasing an LCD, look for refresh rates of 120Hz or 240Hz to minimize pixilation. LCDs and LEDs both excel in brightly lit rooms.
All LCDs suffer from some degree of motion-blurring, but in medium to higher-priced models, it can be nearly invisible to the naked eye, especially at a distance. Also, backlight bleeding is more common among budget LCDs, which makes some areas of the screen distractingly brighter than others.
While performing comparably to plasmas, LEDs are brighter and use less energy. They display a better picture than LCDs and are about half as thick, making them the ideal choice for wall-mounting and an option to enhance sleek, modern decors.
A significant disadvantage here is price. LEDs are almost always the most expensive TVs on the sales floor, especially the superior backlit ones. Edge-lit LEDs are the most common, but share in more of the flaws of LCDs. Bear in mind, too, that the refresh rates of LCDs and LEDs can create some jarring effects on broadcast and film.
In a couple of years, this kind of comparison won't be relevant as the number of manufacturers offering 720 TVs decreases year by year. But for now, you may be able to significantly reduce the cost of a new flat-screen TV.
If you're wondering what these numbers mean, 720p and 1080p are high-definition standards referring to the resolution of the picture your TV is capable of displaying. Those marked 1080p are obviously capable of higher-quality display, meaning you should be able to see greater detail — if the medium you're watching displays it. Head-to-head testing, however, often reveals that on TVs smaller than 50 inches, the benefits of 1080 are negligible.
Additionally, most of today's HD broadcasts are 720p or 1080i, not true 1080p — and won't be for quite awhile — so Ms. Xtina will still look fabulous on a 720p TV.
What about gamers? Most games for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are also native 720p. So, depending on your viewing habits and particular needs, you can go with a 720p TV over a 1080p and save a nice chunk of change in the deal.
That said, 1080p and higher will be the emerging standard. As HDTV hardware and software evolves and as 3D technology grows out of its infancy, you'll be best positioned for significant innovations with a 1080p TV. In fact, we recommend it if you want to use your TV with your computer or maximize your Blu-ray experience.
One thing to consider is the type and number of connections you may need. Are you planning to run your TV through a receiver with external speakers? Will your TV have satisfactory sound for your room if you don't? Would you like a TV that can connect to Internet applications, like Netflix and Hulu Plus? Once you're sure you've checked off your requirements, it's time to buy.
A little research goes a long way. Narrow down your preliminary choices and read as many reviews and ratings as you can. Ask friends and family what they like and don't like about their TVs. Did they miss any features?
Once you have your top candidates, compare them on the showroom floor. Don't be afraid to ask for assistance, explore the menus and turn up the sound — make sure you're familiar with everything; it's going to be with you for awhile. And maybe most important, don't be pressured by the sales clerk to buy something you didn't go there to buy. Be comfortable with the sale or walk away to shop another day.
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