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The B&H Television Buying Guide

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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.

television size

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 mount or stand mount the televisio

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).

  television technologies

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 is HDR and do I need it?

HDR, or high dynamic range, is a technology that produces more vibrant colors and a higher contrast ratio than standard dynamic range. As with many first-generation technologies, there are currently two competing standards on the market, HDR10 and Dolby Vision. HDR10 applies its enhancement once, whereas Dolby Vision is constantly analyzing and processing the image. While that sounds like it would make a big difference, the images appear very similar. Just about the only thing that people that have seen it can agree on is that it’s noticeably better than standard dynamic-range viewing.

An important differentiation should be made here: TVs with HDR10 cannot be upgraded to support Dolby Vision because Dolby’s format requires their hardware and certification, but Dolby Vision TVs can have their firmware upgraded to support HDR10.

While HDR is certainly not a requirement for a good picture, it will definitely make a visible difference when viewing HDR-compatible media, when paired with an HDR-compatible source, such as a Blu-ray player, of course. And yes, everything in your home theater chain would need to be HDR-compatible to view HDR content; that means the source, the playback device, and the TV, plus your receiver if it’s in the signal chain between your HDR Blu-ray player and your TV.

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.

Smart tv

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. 

streaming media device

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.

Television soundbar

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.

Discussion 18

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Past time to update this article.

Once again, it depends on the circumstances.   I'm paying for my TV to go to Yale for some refresher courses, but thank goodness for very low interest student loans.  I should be able to handle it for a couple years. 

RD,                                                 Colington Harbor, NC

I'm looking to setup an entertainment system that allows me to do the following:

1) Hook into Apple TV - for movies, shows, podcasts and music

2) Show Netflix and Amazon video on the tv

3) Play the Wii (assuming this is just hooking into a free HDMI cable).

If I buy a Smart TV that is Netflix and Amazon compatible I should also be able to set up my Apple TV to it as well thus having all available, correct?  I'm hoping to be able to cancel my cable subscription and just downgrade to having internet bill each month that will also cover entertainment.

Am I on the right track?

Thanks,

A

Hi Alessandre -

Not only are you on the right track, Alessandra, but the Apple TV is the perfect adjunct to a SmartTV if you intend to cut the cable.  Good for you - Cable Cutters Unite!

Now you should update this list with 4K HDR and Dolby Vision. These are what to look for now in a 4K Television to really see the difference between 1080 and 4K content.

Very well written and thought out information Lawrence!  I'm just looking at the 4K TV's and thinking about purchasing one for Christmas.  The statement you wrote "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)."  Does this include cable TV?  I currently subscribe with Comcast in our area and I have a cable card in the back of my TiVo unit.  It does give me hi-def/full 1080p broadcasts but am wondering if it will push the 4K signal so I can enjoy the crystal clear picture detail!  Maybe I'll have to change out my TiVo unit as well and wait until the new models come out with 4K upscaling.  I have yet to see a demo of 4K, and need to go out to the local vendors to see the image myself.  Another thing is if I get a 4K TV I will have to change my Blu-ray DVD player.  It does not have upscaling, and I might have to purchase an Oppo Blu-ray DVD player with upscaling to enjoy the full 4K from my Blu-ray discs.  I've also read that it will upscale the regular DVD's as well.  Then there's the A/V receiver - mine currently has the HDMI inputs but I'm sure there will be models coming out soon with 4K upscaling.  We're talking about changing the whole entertainment system which will also include gaming consoles.  So you change out the TV, but more than likely everything else will have to be changed down the road.  I may be wrong about this, and maybe you can correct me here.  Your article hit the nail on the head!  Thanks for the great info!

Excellent!, well written. Real help for making the right choice.

All done for readers like you, LIsandro. There's plenty more to talk about this holiday season, so stay tuned!

Well presented article. I have a Mitsubishi split screen TV whose split screen feature quit working.  I have been unable to find a current manufacturer that offers such a function.  Any suggestions?

Hi Bill -

I've not come across this feature in some time, Bill.  I am not aware of any current models offering this or a similar feature.

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  AskBH@BandH.com

I may be a year late, but my SONY TV allows me to have a split side by side viewer with 1 HDMI input and 1 analog type input.

Hi Bryce -

What model SONY TV do you have Bryce?

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  AskBH@BandH.com

As in other examples B&H continues to present good information on a subject, for the reader to make a decision. Congrats to the writer(s) & thanks

Thank you Alberto. I hope to continue B&H's tradition of well-informed and reputable article writing. Read my other articles about video games, home networks and Sennheiser gaming headsets.

Nicely written - very helpful.  I am a long-time B&H customer.

Well thank you Don. Glad to have you on board as part of the B&H customer base. Hope all my articles are as helpful as this!

Excellent article. I am not new to TV and currently have my TV connected to my surround sound system. Thanks B&H

Thanks Gene! I recently switched out my 5.1 channel surround soud system for a nice soundbar, but I miss the booming bass of my subwoofer. I might go back.

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