Holiday 2012: TV Essentials

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No matter how smart the set, the TV will be challenged to deliver the most effective entertainment experience to you unless it is accompanied by a cadre of accoutrements—some useful, others essential.


Even before buying a TV, you should decide where it will be placed. That means designating a sturdy piece of furniture on which to rest it, or electing a wall on which to mount it. The former is an ideal opportunity to choose something new in a style that matches your décor and has the shelf space to accommodate multiple components. The latter means buying an appropriate mounting bracket.

Beyond physical support, your new TV may need an antenna, power strip and the type of connecting cables that deliver the highest-quality audio and video signals from your source components. It may even be a good time to upgrade the source components themselves. For example, if you’re still watching movies from a DVD player and switching signals through a receiver that predates HDMI ports, it’s an opportunity to upgrade to a Blu-ray Disc player and an A/V receiver with the most up-to-date inputs and outputs.

Though you can’t see it, sound is as important as the picture. That’s why an external sound system—whether a sound bar or discrete surround speakers—can spell the difference between snoozing in front of the set and being immersed in a real home theater experience. If you have a TV capable of leveraging your home network and broadband modem, there is a variety of accessories that can make the TV’s connection to the Internet invisible. Other Smart TV accessories you might not have thought about are mobile devices that function as a second screen or touch-screen remote and a TV-compatible Skype camera with sofa-directed microphone array that lets an extended family exchange high-def video calls at little or no cost. Finally, if you’ve purchased a 3D-capable TV, you should check to see if it comes with 3D glasses. Even if the set comes with a few pairs, more can be ordered in anticipation of outfitting additional viewers.

Furniture and Mounts

If you can’t identify an ideal household perch for your new TV, it might be prudent to buy a stand or mount at the same time as the TV. Watching TV on the floor gets tired fast. You have a cornucopia of choices in modern furniture that emphasize both utility and beauty. Consider such brands as Bell’O, Sanus, Elite Industries and Z-Line. Peruse B&H’s entire line of TV Stands and Cabinets , narrowing down your choice according to maximum screen size, finish (black, wood or chrome), number of shelves and whether you want more of an open or closed cabinet. Some video stands are designed to fit perfectly in a corner. Smaller TVs can even squat on a turntable for use in rooms with multiple lines of sight. The TV is then spin ready.

Mounting a flat-screen TV to the wall or ceiling is almost always an option. Adjustable wall mounts are available from such brands as Bentley, Chief, Peerless Industries and Sanus. There are also a number of integrated stands in which the TV appears to be wall-hanging, but it’s really mounted on a hidden column rising from the back of the stand. A helpful, though brand-specific tool is the Sanus MountFinder.

Antennas

If you want to take advantage of over-the-air digital TV, the one-time purchase of an antenna is less costly than even a one-month cable or satellite bill. With increasingly compelling content being streamed from the Internet to your smart TV, supplementing all that video-on-demand with free broadcasts from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW, Ion, PBS, foreign language and independent stations may be all you need to complete your program lineup. Antennas include the Sima SAA-1 Digital Indoor DTV Antenna and a variety of Terk TV indoor and outdoor antennas. See Terk Technologies Indoor and Outdoor Antennas for Getting Free HDTV.

Sound

The single biggest improvement you can make for enjoying movies, sports events, concerts and the commercial networks’ prime-time series is to add an external sound system. With almost every crime drama broadcast in Dolby Digital 5.1 and almost every movie on Blu-ray Disc and DVD encoded in 5.1 or a higher audio format, you’re missing half the show if you’re depending on the TV set’s internal speakers alone. There are many home theater sound systems across a broad range of price points to choose from. You can find one that will fit your viewing space no matter how small or spacious the room. If you prefer separate components, the center of any system is the Home Theater A/V Receiver. Add a home theater speaker system or just get an all-in-one home theater in a box (HTiB). (See “Turning a Dumb TV Smart,” below, for more HTiB suggestions.) If space is constrained, consider a soundbar system.

Maybe the last thing you want is booming, room-filling sound. In that case, consider a private listening system. In households where someone needs to sleep while someone else wants to watch TV, consider adding a wireless headphone system as a practical way to keep everyone in the family happy.

Cables

No matter how crisp the display or robust the sound system, resolution can be debased by plugging in a legacy-type cable instead of the latest digital connections. So, for example, the only reason to use the composite video and stereo inputs on a new TV is to connect a VCR or older camera. If you want to take advantage of the TV’s high-def resolution, whether the source is a cable box, DVR or Blu-ray Disc player, you’ll want to choose an HDMI cable. HDMI is a digital connection that also delivers digital audio. (The second choice is component video, an analog connection that delivers the picture only.) If you’re hooking up a 3D-capable Blu-ray Disc player to a 3D TV, make sure the cable is 3D-compatible. HDMI Licensing, LLC, the industry consortium behind the High Definition Multimedia Interface, used to recommend HDMI specification Version 1.4a for 3D compatibility. More recently, though, the group has disclaimed the use of version numbers in favor of cables labeled one of five ways:

  • HDMI Standard Automotive—1080i/720p video

So, look at the labels. Older HDMI cables you happen to have stuffed in a basket won’t necessarily support 1080p or 3D. They probably won’t pass through Ethernet, support an audio return path (from the TV to your receiver) or be future-proof when 4K displays become popular. So, it’s a good idea to get the latest cables that match the capabilities of your newest equipment. Also, if you’re trying to convey a 3D signal from a 3D-compatible Blu-ray player to your 3D TV through a receiver, or you’re deploying ARC (from the TV’s tuner to your receiver, for instance), make sure the receiver’s HDMI inputs and outputs are High Speed compatible. Otherwise, it might be time to replace your receiver. By the way, the pre-ARC alternative, using a digital audio cable (optical or coaxial) from the TV to your receiver is still viable.

If you want to connect a PC or notebook to your TV and the computer has an HDMI output, use it. If not, you’ll need a VGA cable for the picture and an audio cable (first choice digital, second choice stereo) with ends that match the typically one-pin audio outputs on the computer and the one-pin or stereo inputs on the TV. For every cable need, check out the B&H Cable Finder for identifying what it takes to connect with the greatest picture and audio fidelity. By the way, the last thing you want to face when you’re ready to power up all your A/V components is a dearth of electrical outlets. That’s why power strips are so helpful. They can accommodate a half dozen or more components and protect against power surges, too.

Wireless HDMI

Since most data traffic connecting components is now routed through HDMI cables, it isn’t a stretch to seek a wireless bypass. Several solutions are being offered. The ScreenCast AV 4 Wireless AV-to-HDTV Adapter from Belkin packs four HDMI inputs into a 5 GHz transmitter with a 100-foot range to a receiver that attaches to an HDMI input on the TV. The system supports Full HD 1080p resolution and 5.1-channel audio and comes with a remote control. Screencast AV 4 is compatible with the Wireless Home Digital Interface (WHDI) protocol. Also based on WHDI technology is the Iogear Wireless 3D Digital Kit. However, the transmitter has two HDMI inputs. Both products come with a remote that you point at the receiver, which in turn provides a wireless back path to the transmitter where an IR emitter controls your source equipment. That means you could be sitting in front of your TV in one room but the cable box is in another. Pass-through ports are built into each transmitter, so you could keep a second TV close by.

Alternatively, if your only goal is to connect a computer wirelessly to your TV—and the computer has both an HDMI output and an available USB port—the HP Wireless TV Connect 2.0 Kit with WHDI technology is for you.

WHDI aside, the Actiontec MyWirelessTV Multi-Room Wireless HD Video Kit uses its own protocol to convey a cable-free HDMI signal. You attach the 4.8-ounce transmitter to the HDMI output of your cable box, for example, and an identical-looking receiver to an HDMI port on your TV. You’ll be able to enjoy high-def TV viewing at distances up to 150 feet.

Other Wireless PC-to-TV Solutions

A competing wireless protocol supported by Intel called WiDi (for Wireless Display) is embedded in a variety of notebooks and some tablets. LG’s latest Cinema 3D Smart LED TVs also have WiDi reception built-in. Those series include the LS5700, LM7600, LM8600 and LM9600. The LED-illuminated LCD screens are available in a variety of sizes. WiDi reception is also available on several LG plasma series: the PMA4700, PM6700 and PM9700.

Special Needs of Smart TVs

A “smart TV” is really a connected TV—that is, a TV that can stream content from the Internet and your home network. If you already have a local area network that reaches your TV via Ethernet cable, an Ethernet wall jack or Wi-Fi, you’re almost home. If you’re starting from scratch, then you need a router, broadband modem and Internet Service Provider such as your cable TV operator or the phone company. Assuming you’re already getting on the Internet from your computer in the home office, the major roadblock may be lack of network access near the TV. Thanks to its wireless reach, an 802.11n-type router should solve that problem without you or an installer pulling Ethernet wires through walls or stapling them to baseboard molding. Of course, you could buy an Ethernet cable ranging in length from less than a foot to 1,000-feet to do just that. Ethernet cables are available in about 10 colors, but blue remains the most popular. Every smart TV has an Ethernet jack for plugging in the cable. Almost all smart TVs are Wi-Fi-ready, meaning wireless connectivity is doable for the cost of an accessory, or are Wi-Fi capable, meaning wireless connectivity is built in.

To add Wi-Fi capability to a Wi-Fi-ready TV, you can buy a USB adapter from the same manufacturer as the TV, such as the Samsung Wireless USB 2.0 LAN Adapter or Panasonic DY-WL5 Wireless LAN Adapter. However, you can also get a Wi-Fi adapter that works with any device with an Ethernet port. An example of a brand-neutral Wi-Fi accessory for smart TVs is the Iogear Universal Wi-Fi N Adapter. Alternatively, you can piggyback data signals on the electrical wiring in your walls. By plugging in a pair of PowerLine adapters from such companies as D-Link, Netgear, Belkin, ASUS, Trendnet, Linksys or TP-Link, you’ll be able to feed your Smart TV’s data habit by wall socket.

Because of their bond with the Internet, a number of Smart TV models have the ability to make and receive Skype video calls. Some higher-end TVs have the camera built in. More likely, though, the camera is offered as an accessory. Unfortunately, you can’t plug in any webcam as you might with a computer. A TV’s USB ports aren’t so accommodating. Each TV manufacturer has its own short list of compatible cameras. They include Sony’s CMU-BR100 Skype Camera/Microphone, the Panasonic TY-CC20W Communication Camera and Samsung VG-STC2000 Skype TV Camera.

Thanks to its Wi-Fi connectivity, a smart TV can also share a certain kinship with a Wi-Fi-enabled mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. If you own an iPod Touch, iPad, Samsung Galaxy Player or a Nexus 7, you can go to the iTunes App Store for iOS devices or Google Play for Android devices to download a free app from the TV set manufacturer that turns your touch screen into a remote.

Turning a Dumb TV Smart

Just because your TV lacks Internet connectivity doesn’t mean you can’t advance its education with the addition of a streaming media player. These tiny receivers plug into an HDMI input on your TV or A/V receiver. Almost all have built-in Wi-Fi, which can be bypassed through their Ethernet jack. With these receivers, you can access a variety of movie, video, photo, music and information sites that would be built into the TV itself if it were indeed a smart TV. Choices include the ASUS O!Play Live Digital Media Player or one of Roku’s Streaming Players.

Alternatively, you could attach a computer to your TV (see “Cables” above), but some people believe computers are better left in the workplace. Also, computers don’t often come with remotes, but every media player is equipped with a remote.

To keep your living room entertainment oriented while awarding a degree to that dumb TV, consider the addition of a smart Blu-ray player or, better still, an HTiB with smart Blu-ray player. Even without going to college, the TV gains the right connections through its newly juxtaposed device, benefiting from downloadable apps and content streaming. Smart add-on components abound. They include the BD-E6500, BD-E6000 and BD-E5900 Blu-ray Disc players from Samsung. For home theater sound, too, you can instead go with Samsung’s HT-E6730W Blu-ray Home Theater System or HT-E4500 5.1 Channel Blu-ray Home Entertainment System. Similar smart upgrades are available from Panasonic in the form of the SC-BTT195 Full HD 3D Blu-ray Disc Home Theater System or SC-BTT490 Full HD 3D Blu-ray Disc Home Theater System, among others.

Time Shifting and Place Shifting

You can lease a vanilla digital video recorder from your cable company or you can buy a more capable DVR of your own. Between on-demand viewing from the Internet and delayed viewing from your DVR, you’ll never need to be seated in front of your TV at a time chosen by the TV network again. Another benefit is the 20 minutes or so you’ll get back on every hour by simply leapfrogging the commercials. What greater return is there than the gift of time? Brands include TiVo, Brite-View, Elgato and Digital Stream.

With a place shifter like the Slingbox Internet TV Broadcaster you can leverage your home network to watch Cable TV content on your computer, smartphone and tablet. You could be watching from another room or anywhere in the world with a broadband connection. Better warn your wife, though, that if you’re using the virtual remote from the Slingbox software installed on your device, there’s a chance you’ll be changing the channel on her from afar.

3D Glasses

Manufacturers may include a few pairs of 3D glasses with their 3D-capable sets. But sometimes they don’t.  So, whether you need to get a couple of sets just to get started with 3D or add a few pairs to accommodate more viewers, 3D glasses are an essential accessory. It used to be enough to make sure you wore glasses from the same manufacturer as the TV. The main choice then was between rechargeable or battery-disposable glasses. But that was two years ago when everyone making 3D TVs was in the active LCD shutter camp. Now, several manufacturers have added models or switched entirely to TVs that use polarized (passive) glasses. You can’t use active glasses with a polarized 3D system or vice versa. So, be careful how you accessorize your 3D.

Sony offers package choices for its active 3D glasses, all rechargeable models. You can buy single pairs as in the TDG-BR250/B 3D Active Glasses or two pairs bundled with 3D Blu-ray discs as in the Harry Potter 3D Starter Pack including Deathly Hallows 1 & 2.

While Samsung’s glasses are all active, you can choose between rechargeable and disposable battery models. The former include the SSG-3500CR-3D Rechargeable Active Glasses, Active Glases for Samsung 2011 & Later 3D TVs and SSG-M3750CR 3D Rechargeable Glasses. The latter include Samsung's SSG-4100GB 3D Glasses and Samsung Battery Powered 3D Active Glasses for Adults. For the last two models, don’t forget to keep extra CR2032 3 v Lithium button batteries on hand.

LG has transitioned from active to passive 3D on all its all LED-LCD TV sets, while staying with active 3D for its plasmas. The company’s passive eyewear includes the AGF216 Cinema 3D Glasses Family Pack (6 Pairs) for entertaining a group. Panasonic has stayed with active on its plasmas and most of its LED-LCD TVs. But it has at least one series employing passive. So, depending on the 3D technology used in the TV, you should choose either Panasonic active shutter glasses or Panasonic passive polarized glasses.

Universal Remotes

While 3D effects seem to reach out at you, when it’s your turn to reach out, it’s probably for the remote—or more likely, remotes. Consider instead the power of one. That is, one extremely capable universal remote that can replace the coffee-table clutter and streamline your mission as home-theater commander. For a choice of advanced universal remotes, check out models from Harmony/Logitech. They include the Harmony 900, which each replaces 15 remotes. You can also convert an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad into an IR-blasting touch-screen remote complete with TV guide listings, with the Zero1.tv VooMote Zapper, in black or white.

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Very well explained. Good article