How to Buy an HDTV | LCD, LED, HDMI, 3D, 1080p, 4K?
Whether you’re looking for a very basic low-cost set or a feature-packed, razor-thin 4K HDTV, selecting the right television isn’t easy. There are plenty of questions to answer: What type of display should you get? How big should the screen be? What about resolution, refresh rate, and other specs? What sort of extras do you need? Understanding the basics will help you make your choice (and your video) crystal clear, so here’s what you should consider when shopping for your next HDTV.
LED or Plasma? Probably LED, Because Plasma’s Nearly Dead.
Plasma TVs were the only flat-panel models available when they were first introduced more than a decade ago. But given evolution of LCD and LED TVs in the past couple of years, most manufacturers have stopped making plasma sets entirely. That means your choices will mostly consist of LED-backlit LCD HDTVs, or LED TVs, with the exception of much, much rarer and much, much more expensive OLED displays.
First, a note on LCD: “LCD” and LED HDTVs have been separate for a while, despite both using LCD panels. LCD panels themselves aren’t lit, so they need to be illuminated. LED HDTVs simply backlight the LCDs with LEDs, while “LCD” HDTVs use CCFL for backlighting. CCFL-backlit designs have fallen by the wayside now, and even budget and midrange HDTVs use LED backlighting. They’re lighter and more energy efficient than CCFL-backlit HDTVs, so at this point there’s no reason to settle for an LCD that doesn’t use LEDs.
There are further differences in the various designs. LED HDTVs can be either edge-lit or back-lit (though “backlighting” as a general term can refer to any method to illuminate an LCD panel). Edge-lit HDTVs light up their screens with arrays of LEDs along the edges of the panels, letting the HDTVs be very thin and light. Back-lit HDTVs use a large array of LEDs directly behind the panel, making the screen a little thicker, but allowing it to more evenly illuminate the panel and, for high-end screens, adjust individual LEDs to enhance black levels in scenes. Very good edge-lighting systems can produce excellent pictures, though, and HDTV manufacturers are making back-lighting LED arrays smaller and thinner, so the distinction means less than it used to; regardless of the technology, an LED HDTV’s thinness and brightness will be roughly proportional to its price range.
Plasma screens once offered the best color and contrast performance available, but now the technology is nearly dead. Panasonic and LG have both left the plasma market to focus on LED screens, and Samsung plans to cease making plasma models this year. Unfortunately, whether the technology is better or not is moot at this point; for new HDTVs there simply are no high-end plasma options, and the very few budget and midrange plasma models available face stiffer competition than ever. Plasma is a thing of the past.
OLED, or Organic Light-Emitting Diode, displays are a new technology for HDTVs. Each diode both produces color and illuminates the picture, like plasma screens, but they can be much smaller and thinner than even LED-lit LCD panels. They’re very and rare very expensive, but screens like the LG 55EC9300 curved HDTV can get even darker blacks and better colors than the best plasmas. Unfortunately, that new technology means spending closer to $10,000 than $1,000 on a screen. Unless you want to put the effort into getting one of the few plasmas left, LED is the only affordable choice.
For a closer look at the difference between HDTV display types, read Plasma vs. LCD: Which HDTV Type is Best?
Choose Your Resolution
Right now, 1080p resolution (1,920 by 1,080 pixels, progressively scanned) is the only serious choice. Like LED and CCFL backlighting, the choice between 1080p and 720p has become irrelevant thanks to affordable 1080p screens. Even budget and midrange HDTVs are available in 1080p, and you shouldn’t settle for the significantly lower resolution of 720p.
You may have heard some mutterings about 4K or Ultra HD, which is being billed as the next big thing in HDTV resolution. An Ultra HD television is one that displays at least 8 million active pixels, with a minimum resolution of 3,840 by 2,160. You can expect to spend $2,000 to $6,000 on a 4K HDTV from a prominent brand, and even less expensive, less-well-known models are pretty pricey compared to comparably sized 1080p screens.
Considering there’s little content in native 4K, 1080p upscaling isn’t quite good enough yet to justify the higher price, and there are few ways to actually get 4K content on your screen (YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, and Netflix stream some videos in 4K, but Netflix suggests a whopping 25Mbps Internet connection to even hope to hit that resolution), it just isn’t ready yet. For nearly all consumers, 1080p is the way to go.