By Will Murphy
I originally wrote this post in early 2012 after responding to a friends request for advice on buying a new television. While most of the information below is still valid, I felt it was a good time to re-publish this with a few new updates.
This is not your “definitive guide to buying your next TV”, but rather just some things that you should know before shopping for your next television. TV Technology has changed a lot even in the last 5 years and it is good to know these basic things before you make your decision.
Plasma or LCD?
This isn’t really as much of an issue now as it was 5 years ago. They both have their advantages. The experts say that the picture on Plasma TV’s are better…mainly because the black’s on the screen are much darker than LCD’s. But Plasma’s are kind of a dying technology, they just were not as popular with consumers so they are getting harder to find. There are primarily two disadvantages to plasma. First the screens are usually glossy, which means in a room with windows or natural light you will have really distracting glare on the screen. Plasma’s are best in “Home Theatre Rooms” that are typically in a basement with no windows. The second disadvantage is that they are quite a bit heavier than other TV’s. A 55″ plasma TV can weigh well over 100 pounds, while an LCD of the same size can weigh about half of that. This is a factor to consider if you ever think you might want to mount the TV on the wall.
Let me start by saying that all LED TV’s are also LCD. LCD stands for “Liquid Crystal Display”. This LCD is made of red, green, and blue pixels and make up the actual picture you see on the screen. Most of the older LCD TV’s were back lit by cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFL) behind the LCD panel. Some of the less expensive TV’s still use this type of backlight today. LED stands for “Light Emitting Diode” and are used in many of the current LCD TV’s today. There are 2 types of LED TV’s, “full array” LED’s are just what they sound like…a full array of LED lights behind the display panel, just like the older CCFL backlights. The other type of LED backlight is the “EdgeLit” LED TV’s. These use LED’s only along the edge of the display and use a special panel to diffuse the light across the entire screen. This is the type of LED technology that allows for the extremely thin LED TV’s. Both types of LED produce a good picture with less energy consumption but there are also some full array LED back-lights that allow for local dimming, meaning portions of the back-light can be turned off when not in use. This results in darker blacks and a better picture overall.
Hertz is a a unit of frequency equal to one cycle per second. If you were to think of the Hertz rate of turning a light switch on and off, 1Hz would be turning the light on and off, 1 time in 1 second. When referring to LCD TV’s Hertz refers to how many times in one second the image is drawn on the screen. In the past all LCD TV’s had a 60Hz rate. The problem with a 60Hz refresh rate is that motion lag can be seen in fast moving images, such as sporting events on TV. To compensate for this lag manufactures began increasing the refresh rate…120Hz, 240Hz, even 480Hz. The biggest improvement can be seen when going from 60 to 120Hz, the other improvement only result in marginal improvements. This increased refresh rates not only eliminates the motion lag but also make the pictures on the screen look ultra-realistic. I personally like the way these higher refresh rates look, but some people don’t. Some believe that the cinematography, the magic in movies, becomes compromised. The images in the background become so clear that it is obvious that some objects aren’t real and are just props. This may distract you and keep you from becoming absorbed in the movies. But everyone is different and some may not be distracted as others would, it just comes down to personal preference. You can usually adjust the refresh rates on these newer TV’s so you can crank it up for sporting events and turn it back down for regular viewing.
Probably one of the newer trends in TV technology are “Smart” TV’s. These TV’s have wi-fi and/or ethernet with built in web apps such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and Pandora to name just a few. These Smart TV’s give you the option of watching or listening to content available online without the need for a separate HTPC or devices like a Roku or Apple TV. These Smart TV’s are one reason why many people are canceling their cable or satellite TV service and just keeping internet in their home. Using these available apps allows many people to watch the TV or movies that they want without paying for 600 channels they never need. This is definitely a feature worth considering.
The Road Ahead
So what does the future hold? You may notice that I haven’t really mentioned 3D…well about 4 years ago the movie studios and TV manufacturers really pushed hard to make this a mainstream technology. But it really wasn’t adopted by consumers. Sure, you can still find 3DTV’s but that trend seems to have fizzled. People just didn’t want to have to wear glasses in order to enjoy the experience. Plus, some complained about the technology causing headaches.
The next major evolution in TV technology is 4K or UHD. Technically speaking these terms are not interchangeable as 4K resolution (4096×2160) is not the same as UHD resolution (3840×2160). Television manufacturers and their marketing departments have used these terms so interchangeably that most people believe they are the same. There is a technical difference but as far as the consumer is concerned, there isn’t much of a practical difference so I’ll refer to these as 4K like most everyone else is. These TV’s have really gained in popularity recently and were prominently featured at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). I’ve seen these TV’s at a few electronics retailers also and I have to say…the pictures are stunning. Try and remember the first time you watched a DVD on a 1080p television, that is the experience you can look forward to with 4K. Even standing inches away from the TV you will struggle to see any pixels. The problem right now with 4K TV’s is the lack of content. No surprise here as that is the same story with any new technology that gains in popularity. But the content will come and you will be able to enjoy this like you enjoy the current HD standards. Netflix already announced that they would be pursuing efforts to stream 4K content.
Another new technology that has been struggling to gain ground is OLED. OLED stands for Organic Light-Emitting Diode. An OLED display works without a backlight. Meaning it can display deep black levels and can be thinner and lighter than an LCD TV. In low ambient light conditions such as a dark room an OLED screen can achieve a higher contrast ratio than an LCD, whether the LCD uses cold cathode fluorescent lamps or LED backlight. OLED displays have typically been very expensive in the last few years resulting in limited applications such as cell phone displays or PDA’s. At this 2014 CES LG showed a prototype 77-inch 4K OLED TV that according to reports I’ve read far surpassed the image quality of any other TV at the show. Supposedly this technology will be available in Q2 or Q3 of this year. Another interesting feature is that many of thes 4K TV’s at this years CES were curved displays. Supposedly if you are sitting close enough to the TV the curved designs create a more immersive experience. Time will tell if this catches on.
There are a lot of options available in today’s TV technology. There is no “one size fits all” TV out there. It’s going to just come down to personal preference, I’d recommend heading to your local electronics store and looking at the different models and choosing what looks best to you. I hope that the information I’ve provided here will give you a good foundation for you to consider when buying your next TV.
- 50″ 4K LED HDTV for less than a thousand at Amazon.
- Samsung 55-Inch 1080p 3D Smart Curved OLED TV
- LG Electronics 55EA9800 Cinema 3D 1080p Curved OLED TV
Well written article. I’m still partial to my Panasonic Plasma but I know its a dying breed. I’m one of those that didn’t like the look of some movies on the newer tvs. I didn’t realize you could turn down the refresh rate though, gonna have to try that on my buddies super duper lED.
I’m still not sold on 4K, though it’s obviously becoming the new standard. I’ve seen the TVs in person, and yes, they are impressive up close, but from usual couch distance I literally can’t tell the difference. Even with 4K content. If it ends up eventually costing the same as what a 1080p display does now, I guess it doesn’t make a difference.
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