Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
If you are looking to buy a TV, you have probably done your research and know what the different terms mean — if not, we have a jargon-busting guide for TV technology. But having that knowledge is only half the battle. When it comes to actually buying the TV, there’s a lot more involved than what’s on a spec sheet.
Television sets are more difficult to shop for than something like a mobile phone because, firstly, there aren’t as many reviewers covering that technology and secondly, it’s a much more long-term (and usually expensive) decision than a smartphone. But don’t worry, we have you covered. By the end of this guide, you’ll know exactly how to pick the right TV for your living room.
There Is No Escaping The Showroom
Before we start, I would like to lay this out here: you will have to go to a showroom at some point. It’s fine if you eventually buy online, but don’t make a decision without going to a showroom and checking out what’s on offer. Some of the tips I’m going to share with you will make that a necessity.
How To Pick The Right Size
The world of TV reviewers is split among those who believe in “bigger is better” and those who think there is an optimum size for a screen. Search around the Web and you will probably come across one formula for the optimum size:
Distance to Viewer (inches) ÷ 1.6 = Diagonal Length of Screen (inches)
This formula has been suggested by the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) and is generally regarded as the best way of figuring out the optimum size of your television. So how do you apply it?
Grab a measuring tape and sit on your couch or wherever you are going to watch the TV from. Get comfortable. Now measure the point where your eyes are to the position of the TV is going to be on the wall. Don’t forget to account for the wall-mount or stand — measure the distance between your eyes and the television screen, not right up to the wall. For most standard wall-mounts, that’s six inches away from the wall.
For example, let’s say the distance you measured was 8 feet. That’s 96 inches. So with the above formula, the best screen size for you is 60 inches.
But remember that this is only a recommendation. It doesn’t mean that buying a 50-inch TV is going to make it appear too small, or that buying an 80-inch will be too imposing. However, the lowest you should go to is dividing the distance between your eyes and the television screen by 2.5.
When it comes to TV screen sizes, I’m with the CNET team in their recommendation: bigger is better. Buy the biggest size you can afford as long as other criteria are being met and you’ll be happiest.
Bottom line: Use the guideline of “Distance divided by 1.6” to figure out the right size, but remember it’s just a guideline. Go bigger if you can. “Distance divided by 2.5 is the lowest you should go.
Ultra HD 4K vs. 1080p vs. 720p
The new standard of Ultra HD 4K resolution is technically four times sharper than FullHD 1080p. They also cost four times more and that amount is simply not worth it at the moment. The cheapest Ultra HD TVs by reputable manufacturers are close to the $3,000 mark on Amazon, so unless you have money to burn, forget about these.
What you should be looking at are 1080p and 720p televisions. Of course, 1080p is the desirable resolution since you get sharper images, but resolution is a very small part of picture quality; you’ll be perfectly happy with 720p, so don’t worry too much about it.
Bottom line: As long as you have 720p resolution, you’ll be happy with your TV. 1080p is obviously better, but other factors matter more.
Pay Attention To Contrast
Simply put, the contrast ratio is the ratio of the brightest white to the darkest black that the TV can produce. And you’ll find wildly varying claims by manufacturers for the contrast ratio of TVs. That’s because there are two measurements: native contrast ratio and dynamic contrast ratio. Without going into too much detail, all you need to know is that the native ratio is what matters and the dynamic ratio is an inflated number.
Remember when I said you can’t skip the showroom? This is one of the reasons — you need to judge the television’s contrast ratio in person. Sadly, there is absolutely no way to be completely certain about the contrast ratio of a TV because it’s dependent upon ambient lighting, picture content, and the nature of the panel (reflective vs. non-reflective).
The best way to find out, then, is to go with whatever looks best to you. So grab a USB flash drive with a FullHD video of your favourite movie (or a Blu-ray copy of the same) and head to the showroom. Find a salesperson and insist on testing that particular movie you have with you, and disregard whatever video that was already playing on the television when you arrived.
Ask for the remote controller, and revert every setting to the default. Play your movie (and skip to a dark scene). Do the same on any other TV you intend on purchasing. Pay attention to the darkest blacks and determine if you’re happy with the contrast.
It’s an unscientific and subjective way to test, plus it isn’t going to be entirely accurate. But right now, this is the best we can do.
Bottom line: Go to a showroom with your own media and compare how close to absolute black can your shortlisted TVs go.
LCD vs. LED vs. Plasma vs. OLED
I’ve gone into a detailed explanation of the difference between these four display technologies already, so here’s what you need to know:
- Plasma is great but will soon be outdated and will be difficult to get repaired in a few years, so if your TV is a long-term purchase (as most TVs are), then skip it.
- LCD is the cheapest option and still good enough for most people.
- Edge-lit LED is the second cheapest option and the difference in quality and price between these and LCD isn’t much. These TVs are thinner and consume lesser energy, but quality LCD will give you better pictures. Test the contrast as instructed above and choose between a shortlisted LCD and Edge-lit LED.
- Full-array LED is the costly option, but you get fantastic picture quality in return. If you have the extra money, it’s worth it.
- OLED is ridiculously expensive right now and you’d have to be nuts to buy it. No, really. Get yourself a projector instead.
As you can see, the choice mainly comes down to LCD, Edge-lit LED or Full-array LED. Here’s the dirty little secret: all of these are further dependent on the type of panel used, such as TN, IPS, PVA, PLS and more. There are further degrees in these too, like S-IPS and P-IPS and S-PVA and so on. That gets us into a whole new realm of jargon, so I’m just going to give you a cheat sheet for panels that generally holds true, but not in all cases.
Full-Array LED > Edge-lit LED > LCD
IPS > PLS > PVA > TN
Connectors and Remotes
The most important part of a buying a new TV now is figuring out all the ports it offers. Thankfully, TV manufacturers have all converged upon one standard to make things easier: HDMI. Just like with computers where “more USB ports is better”, the same logic applies in TVs: “more HDMI ports is better.” Don’t settle for anything less than two HDMI ports; three is ideal; four should make you do cartwheels.
Similarly, have at least one USB port, although having two ports is ideal.
Image credit: Alexey Goral via Wikimedia
Another thing to consider is Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity. If you ask me, this is a must-have in a TV now and something you shouldn’t compromise on. Even the 32-inch Vizio e320i that Danny reviewed comes with Wi-Fi and Ethernet for $300, so don’t settle for anything less.
The remote control is probably going to be a standard affair, but it’s best to check if it works with any standard remote by the same brand. This holds true for most infrared remotes, but at the showroom, just ask the salesperson to show you two different remotes by the same brand and check them both on the TVs you are eyeing. Chances are, your remote is going to get busted long before your TV so it’s best to know that you can get a replacement easily. And just in case you can get a back-lit remote by paying a little extra (these are available, ask the salesperson), get it!
Bottom line: The more HDMI ports, the better, but have at least two. At least one USB port as well. And get Wi-Fi and Ethernet too. Check if multiple remote controls by the same brand work on your TV.
Smart TV and 3D TV
For all the things you would need out of a Smart TV, it’s a better option to buy a Roku. And while there are ways to get 3D content for your TV, it’s not mainstream enough to warrant spending more on it.
But here’s the good news. Chances are, you will probably buy a TV with 3D and Smart features because the prices of such televisions have dropped to a point where they are super affordable.
Bottom line: Don’t spend extra for a Smart TV or a 3D TV. But if you’re getting these features at a bargain, then rejoice!
Now, there’s one last trick I’m going to share with you: bargain. That sticker price on a TV in a showroom or on a website like Amazon is just indicative. TV sales margins are different from other consumer electronics, so find a salesperson on the floor or hit up a live chat window in e-retail and bargain for a better price. They will almost always give you a discount or throw in freebies.
Now you have everything you need to know to pick the right TV for your living room. However, be wary of showroom tricks that salespeople use to deceive you, for example, selling you on upscaling when it’s not worth it.
Once you have your television, make sure you calibrate it for the best settings.
Image Credits: Kazuho Okui Via Flickr