Five common HDTV questions

David Johnson
3 May, 2011
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From the moment you decide to buy a new HDTV, you face a series of potential pitfalls that can set you back in your quest to choose a television and enjoy it. Problems can crop up throughout the process, whether you’re just beginning to determine which television technology better suits your needs or you’re dealing with unsatisfactory picture quality once you’ve set up your new TV in your living room.

Fortunately, many of the issues facing prospective or current HDTV owners are quite easy to address—you just have to do your homework before you break out your credit card. Here are five common HDTV problems, and how you can solve them in a matter of minutes.

1. Should I choose LCD or plasma?

If you’ve made the decision to shop for an HDTV, you’re probably wondering whether you should select an LCD set or a plasma model. Admittedly, both technologies are nice and should deliver desirable picture quality. But you want the one that’s better for you—and they’re not created equal.

Nowadays, the vast majority of HDTVs on store shelves are LCD (liquid crystal display) sets. The technology has been improving dramatically over the years, thanks in part to the introduction of LED backlighting.

With the help of LEDs, current LCD sets tend to be a bit brighter than their predecessors, which use cold cathode fluorescent lamps. Even better, LED-backlit LCDs are usually thinner than traditional LCDs (and plasmas, for that matter), and they consume less power.

However, LED-backlit HDTV sets tend to be more expensive than traditional LCDs. For example, Vizio’s top-of-the-line 47-inch LED-backlit 4SV model costs US$1799, while one of its top 47-inch standard LCD models goes for US$950. Other TV manufacturers typically have a similar price gap between LED-backlit and CCFL-backlit sets—and some manufacturers aren’t even making CCFL-backlit sets on the high end at all.

Aside from price considerations, LCDs are typically quite thin—good for people who want to mount their set to the wall. And with screen sizes up to 46 inches, they deliver outstanding picture quality.

If you’re looking for a larger display, though, you should be aware that LCD picture quality tends to break down on larger screen sizes. In most cases opting for a 50-in LCD isn’t necessarily the best idea unless the set has LED backlighting.

Beyond that, LCDs sometimes offer less-appealing picture quality when viewed at off angles. LCD HDTVs have been improving in this respect over the years, but they still fall short compared with plasmas. If you anticipate watching your set from several different angles, keep that in mind.

LCD cheat sheet

  • LED backlighting improves picture quality in most cases
  • Better for smaller screen sizes
  • Affordable
  • Off-angle viewing can be a concern

If you’re considering buying a plasma HDTV, don’t expect to see any that are smaller than about 42 inches in size. The reason for that is simple: Manufacturing plasma televisions smaller than 42 inches would be too costly for vendors, and they wouldn’t be able to keep up with LCD pricing. So plasma makers have successfully kept to the higher end of the market.

As a result, plasma is probably the better way to go if you’re looking for a large screen of, say, 50 inches or more. On large screens, fast action looks better on a plasma HDTV. Picture quality is usually superior, as well. Since LED-backlit LCDs (which are trying to encroach on the plasma market) are somewhat expensive, you should find a competitive price from plasma TV makers. Note, too, that plasmas deliver excellent picture quality at all viewing angles.

Plasmas have some drawbacks, however. For one, they’re bulky, so putting a plasma set over the fireplace, while possible, may not be as aesthetically pleasing as you might like. And since the majority of companies are making LCDs, finding a suitable plasma set might be a bit more difficult than choosing an appropriate LCD TV.

Plasma cheat sheet:

  • Great for large screen sizes, but not small displays
  • Competitive pricing against high-end LCDs
  • Excellent off-angle viewing
  • Tend to be bulky

2. What size TV is right for me?

Before you make up your mind about an LCD or plasma, you need to determine the size of the HDTV you want to buy.

To determine the right size for your living room, get a tape measure and figure out how far away you plan to sit from your television once you have it in place. If you have multiple locations for people to sit, you might also take the measurements for all those other spots.

You can find several tools on the Web, including a table on Amazon’s site, that show how to translate that distance into the correct screen size. Amazon’s table, for example, says that if you’re sitting up to 1.5 metres away from the set, you probably don’t want anything bigger than a 32-in display. If you’re sitting around 2 metres away, choose nothing bigger than a 46-in set. If you’re sitting between 2.5 and three metres away, selecting a television that’s no larger than 80 inches in size is your best bet.

However, choosing the right HDTV size isn’t an exact science, and everyone’s viewing preferences are different. Keep Amazon’s tool in mind, but go to a local retailer and stand the same distance away from your desired television as you would be when you’re home. Wikipedia has a good entry on the optimum HDTV viewing distance as recommended by several different TV and entertainment organisations.

3. Should I use HDMI or component?

When you want to watch HD material on your TV, typically you need to choose between two different connections: HDMI or component.

HDMI is a single cable that connects from the video source to the television. It allows both video and audio to travel through the cable, making it appealing from a space-saving perspective.

Component, on the other hand, uses five cables—three for video and two for audio.

In the vast majority of cases, component is just fine for HD content. If you’re watching programming from your cable or satellite provider, or if you have an original Apple TV hooked up to your television, component is perfect, since it transmits up to 720p or 1080i video to your HDTV.

However, if you plan on gaming in 1080p or watching Blu-ray films, you have to use an HDMI cable. HDMI supports full 1080p resolution, making it the only suitable option for such high-quality content. It also works with any resolution under 1080p, including 720p, 1080i, and 480p.

So, which one should you choose? As long as you have enough open ports, you should probably opt for an HDMI cable, regardless of whether it’s connected to a Blu-ray player or a cable box. With HDMI, you’ll save space in the back of your entertainment centre, and you’ll be sure to get the best picture quality.

Before you head down to pick up an HDMI cable, however, keep one thing in mind: They’re all the same. No matter what a salesperson might say to you, find the cheapest HDMI cable in the store and buy that—you won’t encounter any issues with picture quality if you choose a cheap HDMI cable over the $100 option sitting next to it.

4. How do I get channels without a cable box?

If you’re hoping to watch television without adding a cable or satellite box to the mix, you have some alternatives.

For starters, be sure to buy a television that has a built-in tuner. With such a tuner, the TV can capture and display channels sent over the air. And since many over-the-air channels come in HD, you’ll be able to take full advantage of your set’s capabilities.

To activate the tuner, simply choose that input on your television. From there, you should see an option to search for over-the-air channels; once you select it, your HDTV will find all the channels within range. In most cases it will find all of your local channels and even some others you might not anticipate. Don’t expect to get all of the channels that a cable provider offers through a box, however; the options will be somewhat limited.

Alternatively, you can connect your computer to your HDTV and use that as your media centre.

5. How can I calibrate my TV in five minutes?

You can find a host of hardware and software tools that promise to help you calibrate your HDTV—but since your goal is to save time, the following five-minute calibration should be all you need.

First, be sure to calibrate your HDTV at the time of day when you’re most likely to watch programming or movies. Depending on the time and on how much light is in the room, the picture might not look ideal. If you calibrate the TV in the same conditions as when you’re most likely to watch, you’ll be far more pleased with the results.

Next, put on a movie or TV show that you’re familiar with, and pause the playback on a scene that you know particularly well, so you can ensure that skin tones and colours are accurate as you calibrate.

Browse to your HDTV’s video settings and choose either ‘movie’ or ‘film’ mode. In most instances that option provides you with the closest-to-optimal setting for your HDTV. If you like the way that setting looks, keep it there and don’t make any tweaks. But if you think it needs a little something, start modifying some of the individual picture settings, such as brightness, sharpness, and contrast.

Brightness is perhaps better described as “black level.” You’ll want to adjust the brightness on your set until something black on your display has a nice, deep, inky look to it.

Sharpness tends to create odd halos around objects that aren’t coming from the video source. Since you want to create an accurate picture as quickly as possible, it’s generally best to turn sharpness down to zero.

Then, go to the contrast settings (sometimes called “picture”) and turn it down so that white objects on the screen look sharp, have detail, and don’t appear odd. At this point you might also have to return to the brightness setting to ensure that blacks aren’t too dark and you haven’t lost some detail along the way.

You may also find a ‘colour’ setting on your HDTV. Since you’re not using any calibration aids, it’s best for now to leave that alone, since most HDTVs deliver relatively accurate colour out of the box.

If after this quick adjustment you’re not quite happy with what you’ve found, feel free to go back and adjust the settings until you?ve set up the right look for your eye.

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