The B&H Television Buying Guide
Experiencing double vision when purchasing a television? It's a process that can be as stressful and as life-consuming as anticipating a birth. Okay, that may be overstating it a little bit. But just a little bit. Both decisions will cost you. Both things will bring noise and confusion into your house. Both will require a lot of love and attention. But only one will return that love and attention and fulfill you, entertain you, and keep you happy for years to come.
Okay, children DO look better in family photos. I’ll give them that.
But purchasing a television is fraught with all kinds of danger as well. What size TV do I buy? What technology should I invest in? Name brand or not? LED backlit or plasma? What’s a good price? What should I look for?
Thankfully, you’re not alone. People ask a ton of questions about TVs, and with good reason. If you drop more than $1,000 on a TV, don’t you want to make sure it works for you? And fulfills your needs as a consumer?
Here’s a list of the most commonly asked questions about purchasing a television, with some helpful answers. If this is your first time making a big-screen television purchase, mosey on over to this article to get a background on TV technology, then come back and sift through this FAQ. By the time you’re finished, you can walk into any show room or online arena and confidently pick out the right television for you.
But before you delve further, consider a few basics to ask yourself.
- What will the television primarily be used for? Movies? Gaming? Web Surfing?
- What are the size limitations of the room in which you will keep your television?
- How many people in your household will use the TV?
- And finally, what can you budget for a television?
All important questions and all that should be answered before you walk into a showroom or click on a link. The answer to these questions will determine the make, model, and size of the TV you purchase. So take my digital hand and come with me as we explore more questions you should ask before buying a television.
How big a television should I get?
How big a television you purchase should be directly related to the room in which you’ll be placing it. You should always leave at least 10 to 12" of space between the edges of the TV and whatever is around it—if it’s a wall-mounted TV, this means try to keep pictures, air, and heating vents and other assorted items that far away. If the TV will be table or stand mounted, try to leave at least four inches from the back or sides of the set and the nearest wall (vents for televisions are usually at the backs or sides of the sets). Measure your wall or stand area, and make sure you have those clearances; that should determine the size of your set. Have a 200" wall? Go for broke.
Another consideration for determining screen size is how close you sit to the TV. A good rule of thumb is that the optimal viewing distance from the television to the viewer is 1.5 to 2.0 x the diagonal of the set. So, a 60" TV is best viewed at about 90 to 120 inches from the set, or about 7.5 to 10 feet away. Make sure you have the clearance in whatever room the TV is going.
Should I wall mount or stand mount the television?
This is more of a personal choice, but you should know that wall mounting a television is not for the squeamish—for TVs larger than 19", you need to locate studs in the wall, purchase the right mount, rated for the weight of your television, attach the mount, and then have someone help you lift and attach the television.
Wall mounting gives you the option of placing the television higher up so more people can view it comfortably from more angles around the room. Stand-mounted TVs can be viewed comfortably from the davenport or centralized viewing area, but can be blocked by objects such as non-transparent dinner guests or undisciplined children. A stand mount also runs the risk of being toppled. A wall mount makes sure that unless you rip the TV from the wall, it won’t be endangered by gravity.
What’s the difference between television technologies?
The main difference that concerns you: Plasma is being phased out by two of the biggest television manufacturers, so your options are—buy a plasma-screen television and hope it never has to be serviced, or buy a plasma screen television because you’ll find some really good deals.
Another difference to note: plasma-screen televisions offer greater saturation of color and deeper blacks and grays. Think this doesn’t make a difference? Watch a movie with a lot of shadows in it, and you’ll notice that some LED TVs show those shadows as muddy grays. Plasma screens show them in deep black tones but, because of the technology of plasma (two-second explanation: two pieces of glass, sandwiching gas that is fired up to transmit blues, greens, and reds), plasma screens do better in areas where there is minimal direct sunlight, like a den or basement playroom.
A lot of bad press was placed on plasma’s doorstep because of screen burn; the ghosting images that were left on the screen after the screen was left on for extended periods. While that was the case with many early plasma sets, the technology got better and it was not an issue with later sets. What was an issue was that most plasma sets only spanned 42 to 65", leaving little wiggle room for different setups.
LED TVs (light emitting diodes) use an integrated light source to make the colors appear brighter and more vibrant. You can find sets that light from the back or edge. Edge-lit LED TVs, for example, show vivid colors and sharp images, depending on the make and model. Because of advances in the technology, LED TVs can be found in sizes from nine to 105", and are now manufactured in super-thin configurations (some less than an inch thick). You can find them in Full HD 1080 resolution (which means the screen can display 1920 x 1080 pixels, or about two million total; trust me, that’s a lot of pixels).
In addition to LED, there was a brief foray into OLED (the “o” was for organic), which produced superior picture quality and outstanding visuals, along with inflated price tags. A 55" OLED set listed for about $15,000 at launch a year ago.
The push now is for 4K televisions. A 4K television transmits pictures at four times the resolution of a normal Full HD television. Now, we’re talking about 3840 x 2160 display, projecting around 8 million pixels—impressive and produced at a much better price point than OLED, originally.
You’ll see the sharpness and clarity differences, but not much else because, in order to full appreciate 4K, you have to have 4K content transmitted, and very few outlets are transmitting in 4K (although Netflix has plans in place to stream 4K movies). 4K televisions run about $1,000 more than a similarly sized 1080p flat screen television. Want to future proof your investment? Consider a 4K TV, if it’s in your budget.
What extras should I look for?
Salespeople will throw a lot of items your way, but the most basic thing to remember is the TVs inputs and outputs. You definitely want a TV with as many HDMI inputs as possible—after all, if you hook up a receiver, DVD player, streaming media device, and gaming system, you want them all to run through HDMI for the highest picture quality available. HDMI also transits sound via the same cable. And don’t let anyone fool you about HDMI cables—they are all made to the exact same standards using the exact same protocol, and a $5 cable works just as well as a $50 cable, in my experience. Besides that, another extra that’s nice to have is digital sound outputs for the aforementioned home entertainment receiver. Also becoming increasingly important is a USB port for streaming media sticks or file storage.
Besides what to look for in the back of the TV, look for LED TVs with local dimming capabilities. Local dimming only dims certain sections of the screen, leaving other sections brightly lit. This can improve the contrast and deepen blacks and grays on the screen. Although it’s a nice feature, you will pay a slight premium and, honestly, you may not notice the difference, but if you’re looking for a set and it has local dimming, that’s a plus.
What is a smart TV?
A Smart TV is a television set that has the ability to access your home network and the Internet through built-in Wi-Fi. Smart TVs usually come preconfigured with their own set of software and apps (Samsung Smart TVs, for instance, can access the Samsung Hub of apps and programs). Is Smart TV a deal maker when purchasing a set? It used to be, but with the advent of streaming media devices, it may not be as enticing as it once was.
What is a streaming media device?
Television and the Internet are the perfect partners. With both of them in one device, you can access far more information than you could with just your TV. Not too long ago, getting the Internet to work on your TV required running cables from your networked PC to the TV, using the TV as an ad-hoc secondary display. Eventually, television manufacturers developed Smart TVs, which allowed you to access the Internet through a built in Wi-Fi receiver. But that left plenty of recent sets without the cool ability to surf the Web.
Along came streaming media devices like Chromecast, which is a plug-in device that turns any TV with an HDMI port into an Internet-enabled TV. Using Chrome’s minimalist interface, more consumers can have access to the Internet via Chromecast.
But there are other streaming media devices which, while they don’t give you free-range Internet access, do allow you to access free and paid subscription movie services like Netflix, Hulu, and countless other streams or “channels.” The most popular is the Roku streaming device, now available in stick form. Plug this into any HDMI port on your TV, and sit back and enjoy hundreds of free channels in an easy-to-use GUI that will keep you busy indefinitely. Smart TVs are not obsolete, but they are headed this way with the advent of Chromecast and Roku, both of which devices cost less than $50. Finding a television with Smart TV capabilities will add about $100 to a television’s price.
Brand name or no name?
This is like asking, Should I buy a cheap no-name car or an expensive flashy car? It’s up to you and your budget. Brand-name TVs offer better customer support (sometimes), better online help and communities, and some peace of mind. No name brands offer rock-bottom prices. But remember the caveat of all purchases: you get what you paid for. Remember, Vizio used to be no-name, and it quickly climbed the ranks as a respectable television manufacturer. At the same time, can someone help me repair my Daewoo TV?
Will my new TV sound as good as it looks?
Believe me when I tell you that it is near to impossible to find a large-screen television with decent speakers. You almost always have to enhance the sound from flat-screen TVs. Why? Because the manufacturer is putting a lot into the R&D of a TV’s screen, and a lot less into the audio. Secondary industries have arisen, devoted to making your big screen sound better. Depending on the level of refinement you’re looking for—cinephiles and gamers love great big sound, families are looking for something more budget-oriented that makes their favorite TV shows pop—your choices are a full home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) solution with a receiver, front, rear, and center speakers and a subwoofer, or a sound bar. Sound bars are much better than they used to be, and many can deliver amazing sound in a small space, but they cannot deliver a full surround-sound experience. Your room, your call. If you go with a surround sound system, you have to make room for at least five speakers. Sound bars usually sit below the TV and add to their sleek aesthetic while delivering enhanced audio. You will find sound bars ranging from $80 to $2,500, and HTiB systems from $100 - $5,000.
What’s the most important accessory to buy?
There are a lot of things you can buy to enhance your television: sound systems, wall mounts, a nice table stand; but the most important thing you’ll need, especially if you’re not TV savvy, is a good protection plan. Many things can happen to a TV, and a lot of them are unexpected, but television repairs are far costlier than you realize. Protect your TV with a good plan (one that covers very specific repairs, like motherboards, capacitors, and control boards) and you won’t be faced with a bill that costs half as much as the TV.
So there you have it—a quick and easy guide to the most often-asked questions about TV purchases. Remember, it’s a big decision, one that will affect your household for years to come. Except you don’t have to pay for a television to go to college. Big plus.