Are you considering buying a new high-definition digital TV? Prices have come down dramatically in recent years. Most notably, digital TV pictures are clearer, sharper, brighter, and with more vibrant colors and better contrast than ever. Your TV viewing experience will be much better with a digital TV.
What do you need to know to make sure you are getting a high-quality set, and not just buying older or less desirable inventory? What specific features should you seek out, and what should you watch out for when you visit a store that sells TVs? You should ask questions at the store, but also verify the information you get by checking for answers on the TV packaging itself or by going to the manufacturer’s website. Doublecheck!
1. New TVs Are “Digital.” If you are a cable TV subscriber and are replacing an older analog set, call your cable provider. You will likely need a different type of “set-top-box” – or a digital video recorder (DVR) to record and play back programs – specifically designed for digital TVs in order to obtain the full benefits.
If you are replacing an older analog TV that uses an antenna along with a digital-to-analog “converter box,” your new digital TV will no longer require the converter box. Hook up the antenna directly to the digital TV and you will get a far better picture given the higher resolution of digital TV signals. Remember to use your remote’s Menu Button to “scan” for channels available to that new TV.
You can choose not to pay for a cable set-top box for one or more TVs by using a portable antenna (or a rooftop antenna) to bring in local “over-the-air” channels. This antenna should be “amplified” (i.e., it has a wire/plug that goes into an electrical outlet, and the power boosts the signal), like the RCA 1251 model.
2. Important: 720p vs. 1080p. Digital TV display formats are “720p” or “1080p” (and for “4K”: see below). Note that both 720p and 1080p sets are labelled as being “high definition” or “HD” or “HDTV”. Therefore, when buying a set you will need to look into the matter further in order to learn exactly what the set’s actual resolution is, and to know what you are getting. The actual resolution number is important.
- An HD 720p set (1280 x 720 pixels) has .922 million pixels. This is 2.25-3 times the resolution of an older analog 480i set (640 x 480 pixels) with “Standard Resolution” or “SD” and .307 million pixels. (The equivalent for an analog set with 16:9 ratio or 853 x 480 pixels is .409 million pixels.) 720p gives good picture quality.
- An HD 1080p set (1920 x 1080 pixels) has even higher resolution: 2.074 million pixels. This is 2.25 times the sharpness of detail as a 720p set, and 5 times the SD resolution of an older analog set (if figured with a 16:9 ratio). 1080p provides excellent picture quality, and this difference is quite noticeable on screens larger than 32”. So, if your budget permits, it is preferable to choose a 1080p set. (Note also: if you use “Blu-ray” discs, 1080p is important because a 720p set will not take advantage of the higher native resolution of these discs.)
- It is important to note that if the TV’s packaging simply states the set is “high definition,” “HD,” or “HDTV” – and it does not give a specific format number – it likely is only 720p. Also, if the box simply says “1366x768” resolution (which is similar to 1280 x 720 pixels), this actually means that the TV is only 720p. Look for where the box clearly shows it is 1080p. If the store clerk cannot show you where on the package it states it is 1080p, make note of the brand and model number of the TV, then research the resolution of the TV on the Internet or call the manufacturer’s toll-free number. Unfortunately, some clerks may “assume,” or tell you, that the TV is 1080p when it is not.
- It also is best to avoid TVs with an “i” rather than “p” designation after the number, such as “1080i” vs. “1080p”. The “i” means an “interlaced” display, which is of lower quality than a “p” for “progressive” display. 1080i is better than a 780p set, but it is best to pay the small amount extra for a 1080p set.
3. When Is 720p Enough?On smaller sets (up to about 32” measured diagonally) 720p probably is sufficient, particularly if this is a secondary set and not the main television that you will be watching. At 32” or less, the screen is small enough that 720p resolution is OK, and will be less expensive than 1080p. Once the screen size is larger than 32”, 1080p screen resolution is better and will be more noticeable to the viewer.
4. “High Definition” Channels. Television stations send programs to your TV via a 720p, a 1080i, or a 1080p signal. A 1080p set will display all three types. On the other hand, a 720p set will “down-convert” 1080 signals to 720p, because at 720p it is not capable of displaying the higher 1080 resolution.
It is important to note that cable providers may provide some programs, other than local broadcast news stations, only in 480i (SD) or 480p (ESD: “Enhanced” SD) resolution. For some channels, you have to pay extra for the HD tier with 720 or 1080 resolution. If you do not subscribe to the HD tier, many programs you watch will be available only in SD or ESD, and you will lose some real benefits of your HD-capable set.
Golf tournaments, for example, frequently are broadcast on both an SD channel and on a HD channel; they are noticeably better in HD. Consult your cable program guide to learn which programs are available in SD and which are in HD (high-def programming is usually on the higher channel numbers). Choose HD over SD.
5. 4K or UHD Sets. The newest TVs are 4K sets, also known as “Ultra High Definition” or “UHD.” These TVs (3840x2160 pixels) have a resolution of 8.3 million pixels, or 4 times the resolution of a 1080p set and 8 times that of a 720p set. This is over 20 times that of an older analog set (if figured at a 16:9 ratio).
Currently, there is only a limited amount of “true” 4K programming that can take full advantage of this higher resolution. This will gradually change over time. Netflix has a good number of offerings. But all programming, even at lower resolution levels, will look better on a 4K set. It can display 720P and 1080p by using its built-in “up-scaling” chip.
Budget permitting, choose to buy a 4K set rather than a 1080p or 720p set. It is important to buy a 4K set from a “name” quality manufacturer (see #8 below), and not buy a “cheaper” or lesser-brand set.
Finally, some cable and satellite programming is already being sent in 4K and is viewable on a 4K set. (Non-4K sets will down-convert the UHD (Ultra High Def) signal to the set’s native resolution: 720 or 1080.)
Note: you should also purchase a new HDMI 2.0 cable to use with a UHD or 4K set.
Curved screens rather than flat screens – primarily a marketing technique vs. an important new feature.
8K screens with even higher resolution than 4K – a potential new standard, but for now: quite expensive.
OLED or “organic light-emitting diode” displays – flexible and ultra-thin; to date, very expensive.
Virtual Reality or VR – This may well become the next big “revolution” by providing highly realistic and “immersive” viewing experiences. (Right now, VR is confined to using expensive, strap-on headsets.)
- or “High-Dynamic Range” TVs – designed to produce more vivid pictures via increasing the range and difference between lighter and darker portions of the TV picture. HDR is under development, there is little HDR programming available, and there is no industry-wide “standard.” In time, however, HDR will make for a substantial difference in TVs: closer to what the human eye sees under natural light conditions.
7. Important: 60 Hz vs. 120 Hz vs. 240 Hz. Another important consideration is theTV set’s “Hertz” (Hz) rating, meaning the rate at which the screen cycles or “refreshes.” Programs that have fast-moving objects, as in sports, can appear somewhat “jerky” on larger screens that have only a 60 Hz refresh rate. Motion appears smoother at 120 Hz; this is clearly preferable on larger sets.
On smaller sets of up to about 32”, 60 Hz may be adequate, especially if watching the news or slower-action programming. Note: if the TV packaging is unclear as to the Hz rate – the manufacturer or store does not seek to draw attention to lower-end specs – it is highly probable that the set is only 60 Hz.
Some higher-end sets have moved to a 240 Hz refresh rate or more. In most TV viewing situations the difference between 240 Hz and 120 Hz is not particularly discernible to the human eye. However, 240 Hz will be noticeable on a set equipped to display 3D programming. The illusion of depth, if you plan to watch 3D programming, is significantly better at 240 Hz than it is with 120 Hz.
8. Misleading Terminology. Watch out for “special labels” that use terms other than the “refresh rate” (measured in “Hz”), as noted in #7 above. Some manufacturers use terms like Clear Motion Rate or Clear Scan Rate, or the even the more confusing Effective Refresh Rate. These companies claim such terms better describe how “smooth” the TV picture and motion will appear on that particular manufacturer’s sets.
However, these terms are not the same as the Hz refresh rate. One reviewer calls this “fake refresh rate trickery.” Any statement that the TV has a “120 Hz Clear Motion Rate,” or “120 Hz ClearScan Rate,” or a “120 Hz Effective Refresh Rate,” does not mean you are getting a 120 Hz refresh rate. In actuality, the TV has only a 60 Hz refresh rate. The same goes for 240 Hz “Clear Motion Rate,” etc. where the set really has only a 120-Hz refresh rate. Essentially, just divide the numbers in half to get the real refresh rate in Hz terms.
Vizio, LG, Sharp, or Panasonic – is likely to be a much better purchase than less well-known brands. Better quality, better durability, better features, and finer picture characteristics are typically involved with these name brand TVs.
10. How Large a Screen? New digital screens are wider (16:9 ratio) than older analog sets (4:3 ratio). An older analog TV with a 25” diagonal screen should be replaced with nothing smaller than a 32” digital set… just in order to obtain the same size “height” picture as before. That way, the size of a newscaster’s head will be the same. You will simply see, on a digital set, a wider picture than on an older analog set.
To calculate the size TV you should consider, measure the distance from your TV screen to where you will be sitting, in inches. Divide that number by 1.5 to get the diagonal size set you might buy. Example: 7 feet away = 84 inches. Divide by 1.5 gives 55-56” diagonal size for a new TV. Roughly, the sizes are as follows:
If you generally sit only 3-4 feet from your TV, the set should have at least a 28”-32” screen.
If you sit 4.5-5.5 feet away, get a 36”-44” screen.
If you are 6-7+ feet away, a 46”-55” screen is preferable; this is a very typical size for many viewers.
At 7.5-8.5+ feet away, a larger screen is best: 57”-60” or more.
Sitting 9 feet away, a screen should be in the range of 65”-72”.
- LCD vs. LED Sets. Digital TVs first were produced as “LCD” sets. However, LCD sets have been largely phased out. You will want to look for a set that uses “LED” technology instead; sometimes this is labelled as LCD-LED. Just be sure, one way or another, that the packaging states that the TV is LED, not just LCD. There are four basic types of LED configurations, and each is a step up from the previous one:
LED-Edgelit without local dimming is the most common type.
LED-Backlit, sometimes also called “LED Full-Array,” without local dimming is next step up.
LED-Edgelit with local dimming to automatically adjust brightness “zones” and black levels, is better.
LED-Backlit or LED Full-Array” with local dimming is best type; these are the most expensive.
Explore these choices with a knowledgeable clerk, especially if you are purchasing a larger set: 42” or more. Note that it is not essential to choose the highest quality version: just be aware that these differences exist.
- What About Plasma? The more expensive “plasma” TV screens traditionally provided a sharper, better picture with the best blackness levels. But more recently, LED technologies have come a long way; LED sets now have excellent brightness and color. Most TV manufacturers have stopped producing plasma TVs altogether, and no company is producing plasma screens in 4K.
For rooms with several windows facing the TV, select an LED set because sunlight, glare, or reflections will interfere with plasma displays that have shiny glass-like screens. The same is true of lamps when used in the room at night; if they face or are directly opposite the screen, you may see the lights reflected on the set’s screen. If you have a relatively dark room without windows or bright lighting, a plasma set can be preferable.
13. What About 3D? 3D set prices have dropped substantially, and most manufacturers have stopped producing them. Newer 3D sets have moved to 240 Hz, rather than 120 Hz, providing greater clarity and depth of field. If you are going to buy a 3D set with 240 Hz, you might look for one that also is a “Smart TV.”
In addition, 3D glasses have changed from “active” glasses (which require cords from the glasses to the TV) to the newer “passive” 3D glasses (which utilize small watch batteries and have no cords).
Note that not much 3D programming is currently available over cable; this may or may not change over time. The extent of future 3D programming is uncertain. On the other hand, satellite service via DirecTV does provide some 3D programs. In addition, special 3D Blu-ray players allow the viewer to enjoy 3D discs.
For many people, 3D sets are not used very often: they might be viewed as a marketing approach from two or three years ago. If your new TV comes with 3D, but at not much additional cost, the feature is fine.
14. Exaggerated Pictures. In some stores, TVs on display may have “dialed up” colors, “dialed down” brightness, or other changes made to the “contrast” setting. These sets also may have an “over-amped” setting of “Vibrant” (or the equivalent), which is done to make nearby sets appear to be less bright or colorful.
If a picture looks overly bright or overly dull or overly-hyped with color, ask some questions. Request the clerk to show you the level of the settings. By using the menu button, usually this will show up as a bar graph on the screen. If the setting is well off the middle or is at an extreme, ask the clerk to re-balance the settings so that you can make a true comparison regarding the quality of that set’s picture vs. other sets nearby.
15. What Are Smart TVs? Television usage has entered a new era, given the integration of Internet functionality into the newest digital TVs. These sets are labelled “Smart TVs” because they are able to “stream” movies or other TV programs using an Internet connection in your home. Streaming has become extremely popular. Netflix, for example, now accounts for 35% of all Internet traffic (in terms of downloads) to sources such as computers, TVs, mobile devices, and so forth.
Be sure to explore carefully exactly which Internet features are included, and which are not. Find out if the model of Smart TV you are looking at – in addition to be able to “stream” TV programming – also has the capability to use a “browser,” to “surf” or “search” the Internet, and to send and receive emails.
Some Smart TVs are able to stream, but do not have the other above functionalities. These might be better described as “dumb Smart TVs.” On the other hand for many people, using the browser on a TV – versus one in a computer, laptop, etc. – for these purposes is unimportant. If there is little difference in the prices of the two types of Smart TVs, get the one with full capabilities, in case you want to use them later.
If you buy a Smart TV, determine if there is a remote keyboard available to purchase. The significantly more inconvenient and “clunky” method involves using the TV’s remote control, where one points to individual letters displayed on the TV screen, then clicking on letters to slowly “spell” out words. Without a keyboard of some sort, using the browser to do a search or to send emails can be a tedious process. (Note that some Smart TVs, such as most Sony models, cannot use a keyboard: wireless or wired, even if the store clerk says differently. Check with the manufacturer’s website to make sure, before you purchase a particular set.)
Note that Smart TVs do not utilize software programs such as Microsoft Word. High-end home theatre PCs (called HTPCs) are built around PC components connected to HD TVs; these have greater functionality.
16. Make Your TV Smart. If you already own a digital TV and/or do not want to pay extra for a new “Smart TV,” buy an “over-the-top” (OTT) device that accesses your home Internet connection. It connects to your Internet router via Wi-Fi or by hard-wiring it in order to “stream” programs or movies on to your TV.
These OTT devices use the Internet to access on-line program or movie sources including NetFlix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Redbox, etc. These latter sources generally require low monthly subscription or rental fees while still other services, such as YouTube, are available on-line for free.
OTTs include dedicated boxes like Roku (the easiest to use) costing $50 or more. For $100 for a Roku 3, you get a convenient voice control/search capability on your remote. That way, you don’t have to “type” out search-words via selecting letters on the TV screen. (The $130 Roku 4 model is meant for 4K UHD TVs.)
Other OTT devices typically do not have voice control/search capability. They include Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and WD TV Media Player. Other devices can do “double duty” by acting as an OTT as well (allowing “streaming”), including a Blu-ray player, Wii console, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.
Note that most of the above OTT devices do not have a browser. The user cannot “surf” the Web, do Internet searches, or send emails. They simply make your set, as explained above, into a “dumb Smart TV.”
But for most people, an OTT will serve most all purposes except for searching the Internet or doing e-mails.
Still another option is to purchase a different type of OTT device that does have web-surfing and email capabilities, essentially converting your existing digital TV into a truly “Smart TV.” For example, the OTT “Vizio Co-Star” box (approx. $80) has a remote that “points” to letters on the TV screen. The “Google TV by Sony” box (approx. $200) has a book-sized handheld wireless remote control with a built-in backlit keyboard. Still another alternative is the “Logitech Revue with Google TV,” which has a full-size wireless keyboard (for $100) to use for Internet browsing.
17. Slingbox Option. Slingbox is a type of OTT device that is designed to send a TV program over the Internet to another location. Thus the viewer is not confined to using a particular TV with its attached set-top box or DVR. Slingbox consists of a hardware and app product that allows a subscriber to “place-shift” a TV program that has been selected to a mobile device, to another Smart TV, to a TV with a Roku box, etc.
18. Sound and Speakers. A change that manufacturers made several years ago, unfortunately, was to eliminate forward-facing speakers that were built into the sides or the bottom portion of the TV. Doing this
resulted in a somewhat smaller overall profile for the TV: the sets did not take up as much space or appear as overwhelming in a room. Thus the manufacturers could sell these larger, new models of TVs more readily.
Nearly all digital TVs now have speakers that face out the back side, projecting the sound “backwards” to the wall behind the TV before the sound bounces forward towards the viewer. This may result in a type of muffled effect, impacting the programs’ special sound effects and the quality of music. This may be more pronounced if there are curtains, drapes, blinds, or other surfaces that are not hard and flat behind the TV.
19. Improving the Sound. For those who want better sound – particularly for sets with larger screens of 42” and above – there are several basic options available. They can be easily hooked up later, after the purchase of a new digital TV, if one finds that the sound quality from the TV is not as good as desired.
The least expensive approach is to connect external speakers that a person already owns, using wires with RCA jacks, which are plugged into the back of the digital TV (assuming these connections are available.)
For improved sound effects, one can purchase a “sound bar” (24”-40” long and 4”-5” high). This bar is placed just below and in front of the screen, connected to the audio outputs of the TV. The simplest sound bars cost $100, but better versions include a “sub-woofer” for much improved sound including bass. These cost $160-$300 and generally are quite sufficient. More expensive units, at $300-$600+, are also available.
Finally, there are multi-speaker, home-theatre and surround-sound systems that run from as little as $350 (from the very basic) to $600 or significantly much more for excellent, custom systems. These may require the store to assist with installation and to balance the sound system properly.
20. Use HDMI Connections. Any new digital TV should come with at least two HDMI connections, preferably three, so be sure to double-check for this in the store, prior to purchase. In addition to a set-top box or DVR, you will need the additional HDMI ports if you have a Roku or other OTT device, a sound bar, and/ or a Blu-ray player, a Wii console, or other equipment that you want to hook up to the digital TV.
Call your cable provider and ask if your new cable set-top box or DVR should use an HDMI cable (almost certainly, the answer is “yes”). It is quite important to use an HDMI connection rather than other types of connections – such as a standard, round “coax” cable – to obtain the best video and audio results.
HDMI cables are available for purchase over the Internet; a six-foot cable will cost $10-15 from such sources as Amazon. Watch out for attempts by some salespeople to sell you a so-called high-quality HDMI cable for $40-60; experts agree this is unnecessary. (Note that this is contrary to buying quality coax cables.)For 4K sets, you will want to purchase the newer HDMI 2.0 version.
21. Surge Protection. Protect your new TV set and any other devices hooked up to it. Purchase a 4-6+ outlet “surge protector” that is rated at a minimum of 3,500 to 4,400+ joules. These cost only $20-40 over the Internet, such as through Amazon. Surge protectors can cost substantially more in retail stores.
Stores often sell surge protectors that have a rating of 300-1000 joules or less. These offer little or no real protection. Multi-plug outlet extensions – which are merely an extension cord with plugs – have no surge protection at all. Check to see if the device is labelled as a surge protector and shows the rating in joules. Otherwise, you are exposing your expensive new TV to being “fried” in the event of a power surge.
DVD players should be connected with at least red-blue-green connectors, not lower quality connectors.
- next level up is a DVD player that has up-scaling capability.
- DVD players are not as good as the up-conversion (or up-scaling) accomplished by Blu-ray players. Blu-ray players show regular DVDs at an “apparent” higher resolution level as found on your hi-res digital TV: at 720 or 1080. Blu-ray discs themselves will play at their true 1080p resolution.
- players are relatively inexpensive now. Newest models should only use an HDMI connection.
Finally, if you own a 4K set, some Blu-ray players – if specially selected at the store for your 4K set – will up-scale a Blu-ray disc to an apparent 4K resolution.
However, these tapes will be seen at a significantly lower resolution (240) than your digital TV is capable of.
To use a VCR, connect the red-white-yellow cables from the VCR to the digital TV, assuming your TV
has these types of connections. To view the videos, you will need to use the TV’s remote to go to “Menu” and then “toggle” or switch between the two video inputs: selecting the VCR as the input source, or the cable / satellite input source. Refer to the TV’s instruction manual for further information.
It is not easy to “record” digital programs on your VCR; it would be better to get a digital DVR (digital video recorder). If you still wish to record on a VCR, the Internet has some information on wiring diagrams.
If you are using an older analog TV with a digital-to-analog converter box and an over-the-air antenna, you can continue to play and to record programs on your VHS. Wiring diagrams are available on-line http://www.diyaudioandvideo.com/TV/Wiring/Diagram.aspx?D=Cable_Box_To_VCR_To_TV_Using_Composite
Built-in webcam – The user places a call over the Internet and sees and hears others – including distant family / friends – who are similarly hooked up, such as through the use of Skype. Note that some privacy concerns have been raised over TVs with built-in webcams vs. webcams that had been separately purchased and which can be disconnected or covered when not in use.
Voice control – Use of spoken commands to operate a Smart TV (or the OTT Roku 3 and 4 models). Again, note that privacy concerns have been raised regarding several manufacturers’ use of this functionality.
Gesture control – Use of hand movements, similar to those with a Wii game – to manage various TV functions; these gestures supplement or replace the use of some of the buttons on a TV’s remote control.
Internet of Things or IoT – Your new Smart TV (likely, the upcoming UHD - Ultra High Def / 4K models) will be able to control your various home appliances, lights, locks, thermostats, security systems, etc.
25. Taking a TV Home; Disposing of an Old One. Digital TVs take up much less space depth-wise, and are relatively light. Smaller sets weigh 8-20 pounds, once out of the box. Mid-size sets are 20-30 pounds. Larger sets (42”+) may require two people to put the box into your vehicle and to set it up at home.
If you plan on bringing the new TV home yourself, be careful not to let it bounce around in the trunk of the car; place some type of padding beneath the packaging. Smaller TVs can be placed in the back seat, braced from tipping or sliding forward via tie-downs or a seat belt. “Safety first” is key.
If you need to dispose of an older TV, you can learn how to recycle here.
For larger TVs, check if the store offers delivery, set-up, hooking-up a set-top box or DVR using an HDMI connection. The store may also connect at least one other component – such as a DVD or VHS player, or a sound bar – and be willing to negotiate its standard price for this, typically $50 to $100. Be sure to clarify what will be included with, or added to the cost of, the purchase.
Find out the cost of the correct HDMI cable (see #20) and surge protector (#21), or buy these elsewhere.
Warranties. Find out what type of manufacturer’s warranty is included. Learn from the store if it offers any other warranty, and how long after you make the purchase you can still buy it. (But see the next item.)
Credit cards. Some credit card companies will double the length of a manufacturer’s warranty at no additional cost if purchases are made using their card. Call the customer service number on the back of your card, in advance, to see if this applies to electronic purchases such as a TV, and if there are special conditions. If you use that credit card to buy the product, it may save money vs. purchasing an in-store extended warranty.
Sales Receipts and Warranties. Be sure to keep the original sales receipt, credit card transaction slip, store’s warranty paperwork and manufacturer’s warranty, in case you ever have to make a warranty claim.
Box and Packaging Contents. Keep the original packaging for at least several weeks in the event you return the TV set. Determine what the store’s policy is for short-term returns and refunds or replacements.
Listen to these tips here.
Questions? We Have Answers
- you have any questions about this information, call the TV Help Line at 703-324-5902 to speak to a staff member. This is a service of Fairfax County Government’s Department of Cable and Consumer Services – Communications Policy and Regulation Division, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax VA 22035.