LCDTV is the hot new technology for the home, and thanks to huge price drops during the last two years, it’s more affordable than ever. If you’ve been sitting out the HDTV revolution and waiting for the right time to buy, the time is now. You’ll find a surprising variety of choices at any price range and solid performance in some budget models. Ready to kick that clunky old tube set to the curb? There are a few things you’ll need to consider—buying an LCDTV is a little trickier, but once you know how they work, you’ll be ready to make the best choice for your lifestyle and budget (see also HDTV Buying Guide, HDTV Front Projector Buying Guide, Plasma TV Buying Guide, Rear Projection TV Buying Guide).
Choose an LCDTV if it will be used for video games or if static images will be displayed for extended periods of time.
Think about how close you’ll be to the set while you’re watching. Flat-screen TVs look best from a slightly longer distance than tube or rear-projection sets.
Do pay for extra audio/video jacks and HDMI inputs. Avoid fancy sound and picture-in-picture unless you need them, and be warned that the built-in DVD player might be obsolete in two years.
Try to find a set that supports multiple screen resolutions, such as 1080i, 720i, and 480p. If you’ve got the money, you’ll get a better picture from a 1080p set once broadcasters start using the format. If you’re budget-minded, you’ll save a lot on an LCDTV that lacks 1080p.
LCDTVs like dark rooms. If you’re mounting on the wall, try to use an exterior wall and always choose a set and mount that are VESA-compliant.
A feature that reduces strobing and objectionable color patterns. High-end sets may include a digital comb filter with edge correction.
A measurement of the difference in light intensity between black and white. The higher the contrast ratio, the sharper the image.
High Definition Television, a digital broadcast that delivers a screen image with 720 or 1080 lines of resolution.
A television that uses a liquid crystal display to present the image.
The measurement, in pixels, of the screen area. Higher native resolutions can deliver a sharper picture if the screen has an appropriate refresh rate.
A single point of image on the surface of the LCDTV. Pixels are the tiny “dots” that create the picture.
Also known as “upconverting,” this is the process of converting an interlaced image, which consists of two sequential frames, to a progressive-scan image, where two whole images are compared and only the new information is replaced.
The speed of a pixel’s color transition, measured in milliseconds. LCDTVs with slow response time will display ghosting or motion blur on fast-moving images.
The degree of angle at which you can view the screen without losing image quality.
The first question you’ll need to ask is what type of flat screen to buy. LCDTVs cost less than plasma screens, but each format has advantages and drawbacks. If you’re fanatical about picture quality and want to see The Big Game in perfect detail, you may be better suited with a plasma screen. LCDTVs use a backlit liquid crystal display (that’s the LCD part) to create the image. They can’t generate true blacks and rely on the contrast between light pixels and dark pixels—known as the contrast ratio—to simulate black. Plasma TV uses a combination of suspended gases to render the image and can create a true black.
But plasma sets are much more sensitive than LCDTVs. If anyone in the house will be playing video games, plasma is out of the question, because images from the game will “burn” into the screen and create a ghostly image on top of whatever you’re watching.
CDTVs are a bit less fragile than plasma screens, not that you’d want to drop either one or have toys bouncing off the screen. Sharp or firm pressure will damage individual crystals in an LCDTV, but it may survive. A crack in a plasma screen allows the gases to escape and renders the set useless.
The other consideration is ambient room light. LCDTV uses an internal light to create luminescence. In a room filled with sunlight, this effect is diminished, causing the image to wash out a bit. Bring a small flashlight when you’re shopping and shine it on the screen if you’re planning on using the set in a very bright room.
If you’re looking for a smaller set, LCDTV is the only choice, as plasma screens are only available in larger sizes.
One of the great advantages of flat-panel TVs is the ability to mount them on the wall, freeing up space in your home. Unless you’ve got experience in home repair, it’s best to leave mounting any LCDTV over 30 pounds to the professionals. If you do mount it yourself, be sure to read the mounting instructions carefully and secure the bracket to exterior studs rather than partition walls. Be sure to choose an LCDTV that’s VESA compliant. You’ll find more information at http:///www.vesa.org.
You’ll find features in larger LCDTV sets that smaller sets lack, but always consider how close you’ll be to the TV while you’re watching it. Flat-panel screens are designed to look their best at a slightly greater distance than tube sets. You might impress your friends with a 60-inch screen, but you’ll also have a front-row seat for any screen artifacts. There’s a lot of variation in performance between different LCDTV models, so you’ll want to spend some time viewing them from the distance you’ll be using at home.
For the last 60 years, analog NTSC has been the broadcast format in the United States. HDTV is digital and operates on the new ATSC format. Digital ATSC tuners are almost standard on any LCDTVTV with a screen that’s 20 inches or larger. If you’re hooking up to cable or satellite TV, the converter box is your tuner, so you could do without the built-in ATSC tuner. It’s still a good idea to have a set with both tuners built-in, even if you only use off-air signals in bad weather or if the cable signal cuts out.
1080p is the latest thing in LCDTV, delivering what some call “true” high definition. All HDTV signals are broadcast in one of five formats: 480p, 720i, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. The number tells you how many lines of resolution the picture has, and the letter tells you how the screen is refreshed. An interlaced picture (“i”) is continually rescanned from bottom to top. This is what causes the scan lines in traditional analog TV.
A “p” image is progressively scanned. The basic frame stays the same, and only those parts of it that have changed are rescanned. Progressive scan delivers a much better image than interlaced scanning. So it should be simple to assume that 1080p would be the best—which it is. Currently, no one is broadcasting in 1080p, and it may be some time before it’s common. You’ll save by choosing an LCDTV that lacks this feature.
Some features will add to the price of the set, and most manufacturers will offer a “bare bones” and a feature-rich model in each screen size. Here are a few options to look for:
ATSC Tuner: All LCDTV sets include the standard-definition NTSC tuner. “HD-Ready” sets do NOT have a built-in ATSC tuner, but this is one of the features that’s worth the extra money.
DVD Player: Increasingly common on smaller sets. There’s a format war taking place right now between Blu-Ray and HDDVD. Only one will survive, and no one knows which will be the victor. Unless you’re getting an exceptional buy, avoid LCDTVs with built-in players.
HDMI Inputs: High Definition Multimedia Inputs are a new way of getting audio and video signal from components such as set-top boxes and DVD players to your screen. If you’ll be hooking a lot of stuff up to your set, such as video game consoles or the home computer, try to find a model with multiple HDMI or component video jacks.
Picture-in-Picture: Lets you watch two video sources at once, but you’ll need two HDTV sources to make it work. For most buyers, it’s not worth the extra cost.
QAM Tuner: Along with ATSC and NTSC tuners, some models include a QAM tuner, which can be used to bypass your cable box or satellite tuner. You won’t get free cable by plugging the cable into the LCDTV, and you’ll likely lose some of your cable or satellite features using the built-in tuner. Check with your provider before considering the extra cost.
Surround Sound, Extra Speakers, Dolby Outputs: It is seldom worth spending extra for extra sound. If you’re using the set in a bedroom, you’re not hooking up the extra speakers. If you’re using it as part of a home theater system, you’ll likely run the sound into a receiver and bypass the LCDTV’s sound system. You’ll always get better sound from an external system, but if space is a problem, you might want to invest in a set with higher-quality speakers.
VESA Mount: Smaller sets may include a mounting package; you’ll pay extra for a larger set mount. Always be sure that the set and the mount are VESA-compliant.