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Ten Factors to Consider When Buying an HDTV

Before the advent of digital television, the consumer had three choices, traditional direct view tube TVs, rear projection “big screen” TVs or front projectors. Most people opted for direct view sets and picked among the many brands and price points. In contrast, (no pun intended) today the consumer is faced with a bewildering array of new technologies for producing video images in the home. Therefore, what really is important and how do you go about making a “considered purchase” that you’ll enjoy for years to come.

10. Picture Quality vs. Screen Size: A captivating image always trumps the size of the screen. Too many consumers buy the largest screen they can afford and wind up with a big bad image that magnifies all the flaws in the TV and program content. The same holds true for front projection systems, don’t buy more screen size than your projector can handle at the half-life of the lamp’s light output. Greg Rogers, a veteran 30 year video engineer, has written extensively in Widescreen Review about the relationship of screen size, light output and throw distance to maximize image quality and lamp life.

9. Beware the Numbers Game: Specifications and marketing hype can be very misleading; either take the time to really understand before you buy or find another source to help guide you with the decision-making process. There is a small cadre of very good reviewers (some of whom are also experienced video calibrators), who write detailed reviews that point out the pros and cons of a given display. Internet forums such as AV Science and Home Theater Spot can be helpful as well as print and e-zines such as Widescreen Review. See my links page for additional sources of information.

8. Let There Be Light Control: The viewing environment and the video display can either be a match made in heaven or hell. A bright, sunlit room is very challenging to any video display. Consider your options for where the TV could be placed and what light control measures (drapes, blinds, shades) you are willing to implement.

Daytime viewing requires more light output from a TV and the screen surface must have effective anti-reflective filtering to work well in a sunny room. If you primarily use your TV at night and have some degree of light control, then you have more options for what types of video display technology (LCD vs. Plasma) will be most suitable for your viewing conditions.

7. Buy for What You Watch: What do you (and your family) enjoy viewing the most? People that watch a wide variety of program content from fast action sports, movies, video concerts, video games and a mixture of standard and high definition television programming with need a more versatile display. Film buffs will crave a display with excellent black level, low light shadow detail, depth of field, smooth conversion of film to video frame rate and color fidelity. Sports fans want displays with high light output for watching sports during the day. They, as well as computer and video game users, want a display with the ability to handle high speed lateral movement without losing resolution or creating motion artifacts with minimal risk of screen burn-in or image retention from static images.

6. Invest based on Interest Level and Utilization: Are you a serious videophile who can’t wait to watch the latest release on Blu-ray in the privacy of your “man cave” home theater room or a more casual viewer? How much time per week do you devote to “must see” video content or TV programs? Your investment should match your interest level, degree of usage, future plans for upgrading your home theater and household budget.

5. Those Darn Black Bars: For most people who watch a variety of program content from movies to TV shows, the 16:9 screen (16 divided by 9 equals an aspect ratio of 1.78 to 1) of a self-contained flat panel video display is the most practical and cost-effective choice. However, if you hate the black bars that appear above and below the on-screen image on wider aspect ratio movies and are willing to make the monetary investment in a dedicated home theater room, there is a solution. Specially equipped front projectors with retractable anamorphic lens and projection screens with variable masking to accommodate cinematic 2:35 movies, 1:78 high definition programs and 1:33 standard definition programs provide the best of all worlds and is the movie maven’s Nirvana.

4. Multiple Viewing Angles: Front projectors and plasmas can be viewed from nearly any vertical or horizontal angle by multiple viewers with no change in image quality. While LCD flat panel displays have improved with respect to viewing angle, you need to be mindful that their image quality does suffer when viewed too far off axis, especially when you are sitting close to the TV. Plan for the number of people who will be viewing the TV together and what seating arrangements work well for viewing and listening.

3. Intrinsic Performance Capability: Just like some cars or musical instruments offer better performance than others, various video display technologies and specific brands and models all have their own intrinsic performance capabilities. Without question, the display’s ability to produce a uniform grayscale from near black to white with an accurate color gamut is paramount to image fidelity. The quest for the elusive infinite contrast ratio based on achieving close to absolute black is fundamental to real dynamic range and color depth and shading. The quality of video processing and panel bit depth are both critical to image quality.

2. Calibration Friendly Displays: Would you buy a piano and not have it professionally tuned? Your car’s engine, brakes and suspension system must be tuned and adjusted for fuel efficiency, emissions standards, safety and ride comfort. Your home’s heating and cooling systems must be configured and tuned for maximum efficiency.

Video displays are not “plug and play” devices in the very real sense that to obtain their best performance they, and the rest of your home theater, need to be configured, adjusted and calibrated to maximize their performance potential. The word calibration means to measure and adjust precisely against a known standard.

Manufacturers are producing more “calibration friendly” displays with advanced or “pro adjust” sections in their user menus for optimizing film modes, noise reduction, color space, video processing and energy modes as well as adjustment items for calibrating color temperature, gamma response curves and in some cases, color management systems.

The presence of these features is good news, but as any calibrator will tell you, what is equally important is the overall range and gradation (uniformity and size of each step) for each adjustment control that determines how accurately and precisely a display can be calibrated to conform to television video standards to produce accurate images.

1. Getting the Best Deal vs. Long Term Value: We seem to live in an age where getting the best deal (lowest price) has supplanted the concept of long term value. As previously stated, buying the biggest screen for the least amount of money is not a good strategy. Television represents a gateway to a world of entertainment and enlightenment and unlike a swimming pool, boat, snowmobile or motorcycle; it can be enjoyed every day.

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). Given that level of usage, the cost per hour for a $3,000 TV over a ten-year period is less than 21 cents per hour compared to 10 cents per hour for a $1,500 TV based on 14,560 total viewing hours. Considering this does not include time spent watching movies, concerts or playing video games, the actual per hour cost is even lower.

In summary, making your purchasing decision while considering one or more of these ten factors should help guide you in selecting the video display that’s right for you.

Please contact me if you have any questions, comments or would like further advice.

Pete Nelsen