It used to be simple; when you bought a new TV you looked at 3 basic things: Price, Quality, and Screen Size. Aside from a few features, all sets were pretty much the same. Today, things are not quite as simple. Buying a new TV can be frustrating and confusing. Progress is usually a good thing, and for that matter, so is competition. Progress gives manufacturers the technology needed to produce new and innovative products, while competition forces them to offer better products at lower prices. The consumer is definitely the winner here, but along with the good we must take a little of the bad. All this leads to more choices and options when considering the purchase of a new TV. Along with Price, Quality, and Screen Size, the modern day TV buyer must also consider Display Type, HDTV or SDTV, Sound Options, and Connectivity of Components.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with the basic knowledge you need before heading out to buy that new TV. You won't be able to read product descriptions and compare options unless you know, and understand exactly what is available to you. So let's keep it simple, to the point, and leave the intricate, techno stuff for another time and place. Read this article, print it out, and take it with you on the quest for your new TV.
Analog (scan lines) vs. Digital (pixels):
If you haven't bought a TV in a while the one big difference you must be aware of is the use of pixels to produce an image rather than scan lines. Our familiar CRT televisions are known as analog displays. They use a scanning technology to draw the image, which is made up of a series of horizontal lines, onto the screen. If you walk right up to your CRT set you can actually see the horizontal lines that make up the image. LCD, DLP, and Plasma displays are Digital, and use pixels to form the image. Pixels are a series of small boxes arranged in columns and rows. When viewed from a distance they appear to form one solid image. If you walk up close to an image produced from pixels you can actually see the pixel structure which appears as though you are looking through a screen door. When buying a CRT set, the number of lines that the set is capable of producing will affect the sharpness of the image (the more the better). The same goes for Digital displays, the more pixels the sharper the image will appear and, the closer you can sit to the screen without the pixel structure becoming visible.
Display Types (CRT, Rear Projection, and Plasma/LCD)
CRT displays (Cathode Ray Tubes) use a sealed vacuum tube with the screen at the front and an electron gun at the rear. The gun fires electrons at the screen in a series of passes drawing the image onto the screen. CRT's still deliver the best quality picture available, and the image they produce can be viewed clearly at almost any viewing angle. In addition, their brightness and contrast ratios exceed that of other types of displays. They are also relatively inexpensive. The drawbacks to CRT televisions are that they are heavy, and take up more room than Rear Projection or Plasma displays. Their screen sizes are also limited to around 40".
Rear Projection (RPTV):
RPTV sets are a great alternative to the standard CRT, since they take up less room and can have very large screens. RPTV's project the image onto a mirror which reflects it back onto the screen. This greatly reduces the cabinet depth of the unit, and allows for much larger screen sizes. RPTV's can be either analog or digital depending on the projection method. There are 3 main types of projection methods CRT, LCD, and DLP. CRT uses standard Cathode Ray Tubes just like a direct view TV set, they can produce a bright, detailed image, but are heavier and take up slightly more room than LCD, or DLP. The LCD method passes a powerful light source through transparent LCD chips. The image displayed on the chips is then projected through a magnifying lens, and then onto a mirror, which reflects the image onto the display screen. Rear Projection sets using LCD's tend to take up less room than those using CRT's, but usually cost slightly more. Also, the image produced by the LCD panels is made up of individual pixels which get enlarged when projected onto the screen. If you sit too close to one of these sets you will see what is known as the "screen door effect", as the pixel structure is often visible at close range. DLP is the latest and greatest of the projection technologies. It stands for Digital Light Processing, and uses micro-mirrors to reflect colored light onto the screen. Because the light is reflected rather than passed through the chips as with LCD, DLP projectors produce images whose contrast and color saturation can rival that of CRT based systems. They do this while retaining the compactness and light weight of LCD systems. Of course they are not cheap, but the cutting edge of technology never is. Brightness and viewing angle are among some of the most important factors to consider when looking at RPTV's. When measuring brightness, you want to compare the intensity of the image emanating from the screen, not the brightness of the projected image inside the cabinet. The intensity of the image will always be less, so make sure you are comparing apples to apples when looking at brightness specs. Contrast ratio (the ratio between light and dark areas of the image) should be in the neighborhood of 1000:1 If this figure is too low, the picture will look dull, and blacks will appear to be gray.
Plasma/LCD displays are the most versatile when it comes to shoe-horning a large screen into a small room. Plasmas are usually less than 4" thick and can be hung on the wall if so desired. They provide an image by passing a high powered light source through cells which consist of two layers of glass between which neon-xenon gas is trapped in a plasma state. The gas is then electrically charged and reacts with phosphors which produce the colors on the screen. LCD screens work by shining a light source through an LCD chip which produces the image. Though both Plasma and LCD screens can produce beautiful, sharp, color rich images, their contrast suffers slightly due to the fact that a bright light is passing through the pixels. Blacks appear to be a very dark shade of grey, when compared to the true deep blacks that only a CRT can produce. One big advantage Plasma displays have over RPTV and LCD's is viewing angle. A plasma screen has about a 170 degree viewing angle (as good as a CRT), where as RPTV's and LCD's typically are less. Recently, LCD displays have made tremendous strides in improving their off-axis viewing angles. Although they are still not as good as a plasma or CRT, depending on your room configuration, this once important factor may now be less of an issue.
Deciding What's Right for You
The type of display you buy will have a direct impact on the size of the TV you can fit in your room. Plasmas are the most accommodating while CRT's take up the most room. Now that you know the types of displays available, you can determine what size screen to look for.
Evaluate your current TV:
Deciding on the optimum size for your new TV is one of the most important decisions you will have to make. This will often help determine the type of display that your new TV will have. It is much easier to buy a new TV once you know what type of display you are interested in. The best way to determine the desired size of your new TV is to start by evaluating your current set. Is the size of the screen adequate, or would you like something bigger? What type of TV do you have, is it Direct View (CRT), or Rear Projection? Are you planning on redesigning the room, or must it fit into the same space you now have? How far away from the screen do you sit, and at what angle are you to the screen? One last and very important note on size -- TV's Grow when you get them home! I know bigger is usually always better, but be careful not to buy too big of a TV. If you go to one of the giant retailers to purchase or evaluate your next TV bear in mind that the store is a very big place, and that even the largest televisions will appear smaller than they really are. When you get the set home to your hose it will seem much larger than it did in the store I can guarantee it! The last thing you want is to have some huge box dominating your room. Plus, a large TV in a small room will not perform as well as one that is properly sized.
HDTV or SDTV:
This is really a personal decision, and is based primarily on how you watch TV and what you expect from it. While SDTV (Standard Definition Television) will be fine for most people, the amount of High Definition programming is set to steadily increase during the next few years. You may want to consider a set that is HD Capable so that if you want to make the move to High Definition in the future, the TV will be able to display a High Definition image.
If you are the type that likes to watch TV and spend a lot of time in front of your set, then HDTV should definitely be high on your list. Television transmissions are either Standard Definition SD (480p), or High Definition HD (720p or 1080i). The numbers refer to the lines of resolution that make up the image, while the letters refer to how the image is drawn on the screen (p) progressive, and (i) interlaced). Interlacing requires two separate passes across the screen to display the picture, while progressive scanning draws the entire picture in one pass. Progressive scanning is generally superior to Interlacing, as it produces a smoother, flicker free image. Most HDTV's can display 480p, 480i, 720p, and 1080i, but there are a few that can only display HD signals in 1080i. You should look for a set that can display both 720p and 1080i since the image can be displayed in its native format rather than be converted to 1080i by the TV. High Definition televisions come in 2 basic flavors, HDTV and HD Ready. An HDTV set is capable of both receiving and displaying an HD signal. It has an integrated HD tuner that can receive digital signals in both SD and HD. HD Ready sets are physically capable of displaying a High-Definition image, but lack their own integrated HD tuner. This means that you will need to purchase a separate HD tuner (receiver) to capture and send the signal to the TV. In this scenario, the TV is acting as a display monitor, like the one connected to your computer. Some people don't mind this, as it allows them to mix and match components for higher overall quality. If you're a satellite or cable subscriber, you will be using a separate HD receiver compatible with your provider's system. In this case "HD Ready" may be a smarter choice since you won't be paying extra for an integrated HD Tuner that you will not need.
The aspect ratio refers to the shape of the display screen. Unless you're buying an HDTV, you will have to decide on which aspect ratio to get. The Up until now TV's were all 4:3 aspect ratio or relatively square. All HDTV screens and many other modern TV sets are 16:9 aspect ratio, or rectangular in shape. This is a real sticky point since most of the programming available today is still formatted to fit the 4:3 aspect ratio. If you opt to buy a TV with a 16:9 aspect ratio, it will have to artificially stretch the image to fill the whole screen. Even when buying an HDTV you should ask to see how the set displays 4:3 programming material in the full screen mode. Some brands manipulate the picture better than others, and this may be a consideration in your final purchase.
Once again it helps to know what you expect from your new TV and how you plan to use it. If you have a DVD player and tend to watch a lot of movies at home then you will want a TV with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. This is the standard sound format used on DVD's and for all HDTV broadcasts. If your TV is integrated into a home audio system that has its own Dolby Digital Processor, you may not be as concerned with the TV's sound capabilities. The Dolby Digital audio that accompanies a DVD or HDTV signal can be carried by either an Optical or Digital Coax cable. You should check your DVD player to confirm the type of connectors to assure that your new TV will accommodate it.
This can be a little technical, but is very important in determining how well your new TV will integrate with other components, now and in the future. Once again, if you are not concerned with HDTV then your choices are simpler and much less crucial. Most modern TV's have a more than adequate number of inputs to allow you to connect just about any device. For video, you should assure that at the very least it has Component, and S-Video inputs. For audio, some sets will have Optical connections while others will have coax. Either one is fine, but Optical cables have an advantage because they are not affected by electromagnetic interference. When we are thinking about HD components things get a little more complex. The preferred method of connecting an HD source component such as a Satellite Receiver or Cable Box to your new HDTV is by a connection known as DVI (Digital Video Interface). This connector looks kind of like the VGA connector used to connect your computer monitor. You can use Component connectors for this but DVI is preferred since it has extremely high bandwidth, and will also keep the signal in its native digital format. There is a noticeable increase in picture quality when viewing HD material via a DVI Connection. A more recent connectivity method that is even better than DVI is HDMI (High-Definition Multi-Media Interface). HDMI is a connection method similar to DVI, but goes one step further by carrying both HD Video and Audio over a single cable. This will prove to be very popular as it greatly reduces the cost and complexity of connecting HD components together. HDMI is supported by many new products, and is currently available on HD Satellite Receivers from DirecTV and DISH Network, as well as many new DVD players.
Well, that's it. Having a good basic knowledge will make your buying decision easier and more fun. Whatever you choose, try to always keep an open mind and think toward the future. Don't be afraid to spend a little more now, it can save you a lot in the long run.
© Written By: Michael Casamento
Michael Casamento is the founder of SatelliteTVSmarts.com offering comprehensive comparisons, along with the latest News, Deals, and Information on Digital Satellite TV, and Internet Access.
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