For all the incredible things our phones and tablets do, everybody wants to spend at least a little time kicking back on the couch in front of a big screen. Some of us want to spend a lot of time doing that. In either case, it’s important to have an HDTV that delivers the experience you want — whether that’s 8 hours a day or 8 hours a year.
On average, people buy a new TV every seven or eight years, so the set you buy will be something you’re stuck with for a while. You don’t want to buy an HDTV that ends up obsolete in just a few years. Or worse, something ugly.
An HDTV is still a pretty large expense. While the cost of a typical flat-screen has fallen drastically over the last few years, the cheapest models tend to skimp on features and may not give you as good a picture. At least in today’s market getting the features you want typically means a difference of a couple hundred dollars, and not a couple thousand.
In addition to being an expensive purchase, an HDTV is also an ever-present one. Even more than most pieces of furniture, your television is a constant visual companion in your home, commanding your attention even when it’s off. Choose wisely, or your eyes won’t forgive you.
If you’re in the market for an HDTV this holiday — either for yourself or as a gift — here’s some essential guidance for navigating store shelves, both real and virtual.
1. Smart TV Features Matter
If you haven’t run apps on your TV yet, it’s time to start. Every major TV manufacturer now offers connected TV features built right into the set. Most are horrible, but remember — this is software and it can be updated. But you won’t even be in the game if your HDTV doesn’t have an Ethernet jack or Wi-Fi.
With a smart TV, you’ll be able to run apps like Netflix and YouTube on the TV itself. Sure, you can certainly opt for a “dumb” TV and simply get all your Internet services from devices that connect via HDMI, However, just remember that’s inherently going to be more kludgey, and you may run out of inputs (more on that in a bit). In any case, with a smart TV, you can do both.
2. Think About Design, But Not Too Much
There have been three basic design trends around TVs over the last couple of years: thinner panels, smaller bezels and bigger screens. There’s also a smaller movement to jazz up TV stands, with a few manufacturers introducing bolder designs (as you can see in the Samsung set above).
Ultra-thin bezels and impossibly thin profiles are definitely in, and there’s no question they make TVs look brilliantly minimalist. While there are obvious pluses to making your big-screen device all about the screen, a thin bezel also gives manufacturers less room to work with for speakers. Keep in mind that by going for a barely-there TV, you’ll probably need to use separate speakers to get decent sound. And no matter how well-designed a TV may be, remember that the thing that matters most is how the picture looks.
3. Ignore Almost All Specs
The spec sheets that TV manufacturers publish should be put in your bookstore’s fiction section. By and large, they’re meaningless numbers, either because the spec is overkill (refresh rate is a good example) or there’s no accepted standard for measuring the spec, and the manufacturer simply performs it in the most favorable way, or just makes something up (looking at you, contrast ratio).
That said, there’s at least one spec worth looking at closely: screen size. That’s the one spec that will make the most difference in your viewing experience, and in almost all situations, bigger is better. You don’t want to go too big — a 60-inch TV in a studio apartment is probably too much — but today’s 1080p resolution HDTVs (and almost all sets are 1080p these days) are designed to go big at normal viewing distances (7-10 feet).
4. Connectors: Only HDMI Matters
There’s actually one other spec that matters to a modern HDTV, and that’s the number of HDMI connectors it has. Virtually all external video devices — from cable boxes to Blu-ray players to Apple TV — connect via HDMI, and those jacks tend to run out quick. Unless you plan on using an AV receiver or HDMI switcher, you’ll want at least four — preferably more.
5. Give Plasma a Chance
Plasma TVs have been almost completely eclipsed by LCD sets, which is a shame. Plasma is actually a newer technology, and it’s demonstrably superior in some ways. Although it’s true that the latest and highest-end LCDs can produce pictures that rival plasma panels, it’s far easier to find a lousy LCD TV than a bad plasma — especially when hunting for a bargain.
Fortunately, the shrinking demand for plasma has resulted in some low prices, and you can get a great deal on well-performing plasma TVs. They’re worth considering, since they’ll often produce a much better picture — with superior contrast, refresh rate and color (especially at wide viewing angles) — than like-priced LCD counterparts.
6. Trick Remotes Are Out, Mobile Integration Is In
Many manufacturers have recently debuted new kinds remote controls for their TVs, incorporating things like touchpads, gestures and even voice control into some sets. Don’t be taken in by these tricks unless you have a clear physical need for them — these so-called “innovative” remotes are more about trying to get ahead of Apple’s mythical television than serving any real consumer desire. In the end, your best bet for a good remote control is a universal model from a company like Logitech.
A few of the major TV manufacturers — notably Sony and Samsung — have incorporated TV controls and channel guides into the tablets they offer, and to a lesser extent on smartphones, too. While we’re not yet sure how this novel tech is going to play out, it’s worth considering if you’ve already bought a tablet such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 or Sony Xperia Tablet S.
7. Get an Antenna
HDTVs can be expensive, but HDTV antennas are cheap, costing as little as $29 brand new. You know what’s even cheaper? Over-the-air TV, which is free. Not only that, but broadcast TV doesn’t have the same bandwidth challenges that cable and satellite do, so the picture tends to be clearer. An antenna costs very little, and will come in very handy — especially if another superstorm knocks out both your cable and Internet.
8. Don’t Waste Money on Cables
To be clear: Yes, you need cables for your TV to work — that’s just reality. But you most certainly don’t need cables that cost a lot of money. When it comes to digital, a bit is a bit — the actual quality of the cable is largely irrelevant (yes, I’m glossing over things like timing issues due to cable length, but for the most part it’s true). Just grab the cheapest HDMI cable you can find in the store, or better yet, buy them online for even less.
9. Don’t Forget Sound
Watching TV without the sound is unthinkable, so why are speakers so often an afterthought in a purchase? While a surround sound system would be great, the reality is most rooms aren’t set up for speakers all over the place, so a soundbar is your best bet, and these days you can get a decent-sounding one for the price of an iPhone dock.
If you’re dead-set on using your TV’s speakers, remember that spec sheets are fiction. However, there’s one spec that can often influence how loud a TV can play, and that’s driver size. While a manufacturer can fudge wattage and frequency response, the size of woofers is fixed. It’s no guarantee of quality audio, but bigger speaker drivers tend to give fuller sound.
10. Get Help From an App
There are a host of good shopping apps to help you as you navigate store aisles on Black Friday. From barcode scanners to location-based deal alerts, Mashable has you covered this shopping season, and watch for a few more coming this week. Be prepared.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Wait for Apple TV
If you’re holding out on buying a television because you’re convinced Apple will soon release one, don’t. We really have no idea at this point when Apple might release its rumored television or even if it will at all. Besides, you can take advantage of Apple’s ecosystem through the $99 Apple TV “hockey puck.” Do the smart thing and get something good now instead of waiting for a product that may never come.
Top photo via David Becker/Getty Images News
Other photos courtesy of Samsung, Sony and Boston Acoustics
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