TV Buying Guide 2015
In the beginning there was the cathode ray tube, and it was good. Buying a TV used to be easy. You picked a size, then you picked the best deal on that size and you were done. There were no features to consider. The only feature was that you could watch television shows on it. Today, there are different designs, technologies and apps, as well as multiple image resolutions to choose from. In fact, the size of the picture may be the last thing you decide.
LCD? LED? OLED?
There’s a whole mess of alphabet soup out there when it comes to TV technology. To make an informed decision, you'll need to know what they are, what the differences are, and why it matters.
Plasma was the original technology that first defined the flat panel television for consumers. Unfortunately for plasma fans, the last two companies still making plasma TVs (Samsung and LG), ceased production of those models at the end of 2014. Despite their decline, plasma televisions had their benefits. Many argue, including some Slickdealers, that plasma allowed for better detail in dark scenes than any current television. Still, it did have its issues. Screen “burn-in” was the biggest one, even if the issue was a bit overblown since it would require leaving the same image on the screen for long periods. Even network logos, which sits at the bottom of the screen, go away every 10 minutes when commercials come on. Then there was the issue of size, as it was impossible to buy a plasma smaller than 42 inches (though a few smaller sizes were eventually produced). A 42-inch screen is on the small side for a primary TV these days, but 10 plus years ago anything 42 to 50 inches was considered big (median TV size in 2002 was 34 inches). Finally, considering the fact that LCD could get brighter, which made it stand out on the retail floor (and easier to watch in the middle of the day if you can't get your living room dark enough), and plasma's days were numbered. It’s been less than a year since Samsung and LG got out of the plasma biz, so there are still new TVs out there though. If you want a great movie watching experience, you may be able to find a good deal on a plasma. In the past three months we've seen deals as low as $460 for a 60" 1080p plasma HDTV, but it shouldn't be too hard to find one in the $600 to $700 range if you don't fancy waiting.
Following plasma into the flat TV space was Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology. At first LCD and plasma lived a nice peaceful life together. You couldn’t buy a plasma smaller than 42 inches and you couldn’t get an LCD larger than about 37 inches. But then LCD began to move up into the larger sizes and it was only a matter of time before it took over. LCD gives you a brighter overall image, but this comes at the expense of black level. Black looks more grey because you have a cold cathode lamp providing the light for the display at all times. Even when an image is supposed to be black, there’s a light shining behind it, so it can never be truly dark. Regardless, LCD took over the market, and prices have been driven down. If you want to get the biggest image you can for the least amount of money, traditional LCD is the way to go. Like plasma TVs, however, LCD TVs have been phased out over the past few years, so you will probably have to get a used or refurbished one if you're trying to hold on to a dying technology. A 55" 1080p LCD screen should be available for $500 or less, but you'll have to look hard.
LED, or Light Emitting Diode, is really just a modified LCD screen. It replaces the cold cathode lamp with a series of light emitting diodes. This allows the TV to dim, or turn off, sections of the backlight while leaving others on (although not all LED TVs take advantage of this ability). This greatly improves the issue that LCD's have with reproducing black on the screen. LED’s are also much smaller, which makes most LED TVs even thinner than LCDs or Plasmas. If there is a “standard TV” on the market today it’s LED; this is the primary type of TV you'll see online or in the stores. On any given day you can find a 60" 1080p LED for around $900, but deals can be had for as low as $600 if you keep you ears close to the ground. Or set up a Deal Alert.
Organic Light Emitting Diode is the newest technology to be used for television. OLED has a lot going for it, starting with the fact that it can get even thinner than LED, so thin it can be flexible. Imagine a television you pin to your wall rather than hang. Some prototype OLED TVs give you that ability. It also uses considerably less power and offers a much wider viewing angle so everybody can see the screen when you have the entire neighborhood over for your Super Bowl party. OLED, being new, is the most expensive option on the market today. You'll be paying at least $2,000 for 55" OLED TV, but it probably has 3D and/or is curved as well. As more OLED TVs are produced, prices should come down, but as usual, if you want the newest thing you’ll need to pay for it.
So which TV technology is the way to go:
Where to spend money: Get an LED TV with “local dimming” (also called full array) capability as opposed to “edge lighting” (like this 55" Vizio). This will give your TV the ability to get darker blacks for a better movie watching experience.
Where to save money: OLED is the newest technology which means it’s the most expensive, and the most untested. Skip it.
Now that you understand the basic designs, you're ready to consider the internal workings of the TV. We’ll hit some of the major features and specifications you’ll run into while shopping.
Contrast ratio is supposed to give you some idea of how many steps the TV is capable of making between the brightest white and the darkest black. However, there is no industry standard for how contrast ratio is measured, so comparing the specs between manufacturers is useless. The TV manufacturer simply made up a way to measure so that that they can give you a bigger number. References to "dynamic contrast ratio" should also be disregarded from consideration, as they too are based on measurement situations that don't seem to have any basis in realistic TV viewing, such as measuring the black level when the TV is off.
One of the major downsides of LCD TVs in their infancy was "ghosting." When viewing fast motion, like a football game, the LCD often left a faded image of the previous frame so you might see a blurry ghost of where that player had just been standing. Like plasma "burn-in," this was made out to be a bigger issue than it was, mostly by the plasma TV manufacturers. Most people don't notice the issue at all and, as LCDs improved, even fewer did. However, the idea that LCDs were not good for watching sports became accepted wisdom and the electronic companies had to do something to combat the perception. Enter the newest marketing spec: refresh rate. A “standard” TV has a refresh rate of 60Hz, or the ability to create 60 frames per second (fps) but now you can also get 120Hz or 240Hz (or even 480 Hz) capable televisions.
Here’s the thing: movies are all shot at 24fps. Everything you watch on your TV, such as sports, broadcast sitcoms and video games, are only capable of producing 60fps. Your Blu-Ray player has processing in it to convert the 24 frames of film into 60 frames on your TV. It does this by actually showing you some frames more than once, faster than your eye can see. Your high refresh rate TV turns 60 frames into 120 by actually creating additional frames that don't exist in what you're watching. While the higher refresh rates can help make fast moving content, like sports or a video game, look smoother, it often makes movies and normal TV look unnatural. It's been called the "soap opera effect" (or motion interpolation) and it strikes many as unnerving. Here's a short slow motion clip where you can see the difference. The good news is that this feature can be turned off if you don't like it. Look for the setting on your TV that turns off the Auto Motion Plus (Samsung TVs), Motion Flow (Sony) or TruMotion (LG).
4K vs. UHD vs. HD
Your traditional HD television today is a 1080p set. This means it has a display containing 1,920 pixels horizontally and 1,080 pixels vertically. The "p" means that the image is displayed progressively, one line after another. The alternative, the way your old CRT television used to work, was an interlaced display, where every odd numbered line is created, then the TV goes back to the beginning to create every even numbered line. If you have an older HDTV, you may be limited to a highest resolution of 720p. Many companies are now offering 4K resolution televisions, which increase the number of pixels to 4,096 x 2160. Some also offer what they call UHD (Ultra High Definition), which gives you a resolution of 3,830 x 2160. At this time, spending the extra money on 4K TVs might not be the best decision due to a lack of native content. The majority of what you watch, satellite or cable TV, is still only broadcast in 1080i or 720p. TV content is not taking full advantage of a 1080p display, never mind one with four times the pixels. Another thing to keep in mind, as CMoney408 points out, is that when your TV has to convert a standard HD signal up to 4K it can actually make that content look worse than it did on your old TV. You can find a 55" 4K TV for about $900, but most of them will start around $1,200 in stores.
Before 4K and UHD became a thing, 3D was supposed to be the next big innovation in television. It didn’t really work out. The first 3D TVs required powered glasses that needed a battery, which made them big and uncomfortable. It also meant they were more expensive if you needed to buy more of them, and if you ever expected to have more than two people watching at once, you had to buy more. There was also the initial content problem. I hope you liked Avatar because that was about all there was to watch. While 3D is no longer a primary selling feature, it is still out there. Most manufactures have gone to a passive (non-powered) 3D system, which makes the glasses cheaper and lighter than they were a few years ago, usually around $10 to $20 each.
Many of the new 4K and OLED TVs are available with curved screens. They offer a more immersive viewing experience by bringing the image more toward the viewer. Curving the image can have a "3D like" effect and give the image a feeling of greater depth. However, this effect is lost if your screen isn't big enough and the larger screens will absolutely cost you. The 78" Samsung HU9000 has a suggested retail of nearly $9,000, though there are certainly deals to be had.
Because no device is produced these days without including apps, your TV has them too. While most brands will contain a few major apps (Netflix, Hulu, Pandora), each will also contain various others. If you want to be able to browse Facebook on your TV, be sure to check which apps come with the TVs you're considering. Even if you don’t already have a Smart TV, odds are you already have most of the major apps in your Blu-Ray player, your Apple TV, your Roku, your Chromecast, or your game console. Or your other game console.
Now that you've thought about all of the other features, what screen size do you want? As a baseline measurement, your viewing distance should be double the width of your screen. For example, if your TV is 60 inches wide, you should be sitting about 120 inches back. If you're sitting further back, you can get a larger TV
Where to Spend Money: Honestly, it's up to you. While any of these features may be useful, it's hard to say that any of them are “must haves." If fast motion ever appeared choppy to you on an LCD TV, a 120Hz refresh rate may help, though going higher will be unlikely to improve things any more. If you don’t have a Netflix app on any other device, then a Smart TV is useful.
Where to Save Money: There isn’t enough native 4K content to justify it. Unless you're looking for a really big (70 inches plus) TV, the curved screen isn't going to do much for you. If you need a more "immersive" experience from your TV, just sit really close.
Back in the days when plasma TVs were still a thing, television performance varied greatly. The expensive boutique brands were noticeably better than mass market video companies, which were, in turn, noticeably better than the cheap knock off guys. The expensive boutique brands don't really exist in TV today because the mass market guys drove the price down, while improving quality, to the point that they couldn't afford to stay in business. The upshot to the consumer is that everything out there these days is pretty good. You really can't pick a bad TV. The key is figuring out what's important for your TV and then finding the best deal for it.
Images courtesy of ©iStock.com/97, Amazon.com.
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