How do I choose which Flat Screen TV to buy

Asking which flat screen TV to buy is similar to asking which car to buy. There are many choices, but at the end of the day they all show a picture, like all cars get you from A to B.  This article will help you understand what to look for in a flat screen TV which suits your circumstances. For many people, the first decision is LCD or Plasma. I believe this is a minor decision. Most people can’t tell the difference between the two, so I suggest it really isn’t a major issue.  It is a consideration though, so the differences will be discussed latter. The more important issues are the size of the flat screen TV and the connectivity.

What Size Flat Screen?

Ask this question on the internet and you get confused very quickly. The answers normally recommend multiplying the screen width, or screen height, or screen diagonal by a figure to determine the optimal distance to watch the screen from. Interestingly, most websites selling flat screen TVs tend to suggest very big  (and more expensive) flat screens. Home theatre websites suggest sitting relatively close to the screen to replicate the “immersive” experience of a cinema. The question is, do you want/need to be that immersed in your normal TV viewing? “Bigger is Best” is a great sales line, and one normally swallowed hook, line and sinker by males. However, the biggest may not be the best – especially for the budget. That said, given all other things are equal, when comparing two screens, going to the bigger one may be better than choosing the smaller one. This is because most screens will look big compared to your existing screen, but in a few months time you will be used to the new larger screen, and may regret not getting the bigger size.

Be Practical

There are a number of practical considerations when determining what size flat screen TV to buy. Firstly, what physical space does the screen have to fit. Most flat screens don’t easily fit into the space designed for an older CRT TV in an entertainment unit. A bigger screen may involve modifying or buying a new stand/cupboard/entertainment unit.  Measure and note the space the new screen needs to fit into. Secondly, measure the distance from your normal seating position to the where the screen will be. Now go to a store, and stand that distance away from one of the screens. Ask yourself the following questions: – Can you read the graphics on a news program or sporting event? If not, you need a bigger screen? – Can you see the pixels (the little dots that make up the picture?) If you can, you need a smaller screen. – When watching a fast moving program (sports or action), does the motion look blurred or fuzzy? If so, look at the same program on a smaller screen. – While watching an action film do you feel nauseous like you are watching a film too close to the screen in the cinema? If you do, the screen is too large. Keep looking at different size screens until you find the size(s) that you are comfortable to watch at your normal viewing distance, and which will fit in the space you have for it.  Note: this exercise is to determine the size only, there are other considerations to think about before you decide on which TV to chose.

What connections do you need?

It is important to ensure that any flat screen TV you buy is going to be able to connect to any other AV equipment you have or may have during the life of the TV. Most new devices will connect to the new flat screen by HDMI. These devices include Personal Video Recorders (PVR – like a VCR but uses a hard disk instead of a tape), HD satellite or cable boxes, Blue Ray DVD players, games consoles and newer DVD players. You may not have these now, but you may in the next 5-10 years, so having 3 or 4 HDMI sockets is a good idea. Most new flat screen TVs will have this. Older DVD players and satellite boxes should be connected with the red, green and blue component video cables.  Most flat screen TVs have 2 or 3 component video inputs. If you have a VCR that still works and you want to watch videos, you are going to need an AV input. This is called composite video and audio, and uses the yellow, red and white connectors. Be aware, many new flat screen TVs do not have a direct connection for composite video. Some are allowing the yellow composite video signal to plug into the green ‘Y’ socket of the component video input. Make sure you check the new screen has some ability to input composite video if you still need to watch the output of a VCR.

Sound

If you want the sound from the TV to be connected to your HiFi amplifier, you will probably also need to have an audio out. This is not always available on new flat screen TVs. There is generally a digital audio out, and this can be connected to some modern HiFI or surround sound systems. Older amplifiers need an analogue audio out, which connect using the common red and white RCA or phono leads. If the flat screen TV you really like doesn’t have an audio out, it is possible to purchase a separate little convertor box which will convert the digital audio out from the screen to the analogue audio your older amplifier requires.

Updated June 2013: As manufactures are making the screens as thin as possible, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for them to fit decent size speakers in. This results in many flat screen TV’s having sound which is “tinny” or “thin” or “sounds like a toy”. It is difficult to make these speakers sound better, so try to listen to the sound before purchasing a flat screen TV.

If the sound quality is poor, the best way to improve it is to connect to an external amplifier/speaker system. This may be an existing amplifer and speakers or a unit designed to improve the sound of flat screen TVs.

There are many 3rd party vendors selling speakers which will clip on the sides of your new flat screen TV or sit in front of or under the screen. The ones that sit in front are called “sound bars”. Sound bars come in different shapes and sizes (and different prices). Some include a sub woofer, some have a left, centre and right speaker incorporated, while others may just have a left and right speaker. They offer a simple one connection solution to poor speakers.

If you are interested in purchasing a sound bar to improve the sound quality, here is a link to Amazon’s range of sound bars

While these work work well, you may not to do buy something extra for your new flat screen TV, so take my advice and try to check out the sound before you purchase.  This is especially important if you are buying a small size TV. Small flat screen TVs are particularly prone to poor sound.

What other features do you need?

If you only want to watch TV, then you don’t need all the features that are often packaged with the higher end flat screen TVs. Some of the features often included (in the price) are:

  • 3D: some DVDs and TV broadcasts feature various forms of a simulated three dimensional picture. All 3D screens require special glasses to watch the 3D. All 3D screens also show 2D pictures without having to use glasses.
  • Internet: many flat screen TVs also have a connection point for an internet cable (and some even have a wireless connection). This allows you to use your TV for Skype calls, or download and watch videos on-line direct to your TV without having to connect a computer to the screen. Often you can also surf the web on your TV. These flat screen TVs also can allow you to watch any video, or listen to any music you have on any computer on your home network.
  • USB: Many flat screen TVs now have a USB port which allows you to view photos or videos directly from a USB memory stick.

If this technical talk sounds like gobbly gook, then you don’t need to worry about these features. More importantly, try to get a flat screen TV which doesn’t have these features. However, it appears most manufactures are heading towards making some of these features standard.

What are you waiting for?

OK, you know what size flat screen TV fits your situation. You know what connections you need your new flat screen TV to have. You know what features you want or don’t need. So go for it. Go visit to a few shops and look at all the flat screen TVs of the size you want. Most stores have special deals, so see if you can find a good deal for a flat screen TV that meets your requirements. Beware of very bright and colourful screens. Many retailers turn the colour up to make the picture look better. If you can, ask the sales person to turn the colour down so the skin tones are natural and not too orange. Then compare the picture of the ones that meet your criteria and are a good deal.

What brand TV?

Like cars, there are many manufactures of flat screen TVs. Like cars, there are well established brands and new Asian manufactures coming on the scene. Like cars, there is a range of models within each brand, targeting different markets and budgets. Like cars, some brands have loyal followers, and some people just want the best value for money at the time of purchase. Like cars, the choice is yours.

What about Plasma, LCD or LED?

There are different methods of producing a picture, but the resulting picture is similar whichever way it is produced. There are pros and cons of each method, but the differences between them are getting smaller. Similar to cars: you can have a petrol or diesel engine, there are pros and cons for each, but the differences are getting smaller, and seeing them on the road, it is difficult tell any difference.

Plasma Flat Screens

Plasma flat screens use very small cells of gas for each pixel. As an electric charge is applied to the cell, the gas turns into plasma which makes some phosphors emit a controlled light.  Plasma screens are normally 42″or larger.

LCD Flat Screen

LCD flat screens use very small crystals for each pixel. As an electric charge is applied to the crystal, it acts like a shutter allowing various amounts of light to shine through it. Therefore it requires a light behind the panel. On standard LCD screens the lights are compact fluorescent tubes. LCD screens go from 17″ to 80″. LCD screens above 40″ are mostly LED LCD flat screen now.

LED Flat Screens

So called LED flat screens are simply LCD screens which use LEDs (light emitting diodes) instead of compact fluorescent tubes as the light source. LEDs are smaller and more efficient. By moving them to the edge of the screens and using light guides to direct the light to behind the pixels, manufactures have been able make very thin screens. LED flat screens should be called LED LCDs, or LCDs with LED backlight.

LCD or Plasma Flat Screen TV

The above tells you the very simple technical differences, but what about in practice, what are the differences? The following table outlines the differences and similarities.

AttributePlasma Flat ScreensLCD Flat ScreensComments
Picture qualityVery good. Often preferred for moviesVery goodBoth produce very watchable pictures
Off-centre viewing (viewing angle)Very goodOriginally poor, now very goodLCDs now have a very wide viewing angle
Ability to display fast actionVery goodOriginally poor, now goodmost people cannot see motion blur on modern LCDs
How black is blackVery black, as a cell does not emit light when turned offNot completely black as some backlight can shine around the cells.This has been a major sales point for plasmas, but the difference is now minimal
Screen reflectionsCan be a problem as the front panel is glass. Some now have anti-glare treatmentsIs a minor issue as most have a matt finish on the screenThis makes Plasmas less useful if bright lights or windows are going to reflect in the picture.
Life spanOriginally poor, now around 60,000 hoursAround 60,000 hours60,000 hours is over 20 years if used 8 hours each day
Heat and efficiencyRun hotter and are slightly less efficient than LCDsRun cooler and are more efficient than plasmasPlasmas are now more efficient than the early models.
WeightBecause of the glass screens they are slightly heavier than LCDsLCDs are slightly lighter than PlasmasDoes this matter once it is in position?

As can be seen, there is not a lot difference between them, especially to the untrained eye. However the minor differences may need to be considered in your situation.

Summary

Deciding on which screen is like choosing a car. There are many variables and options.  Like a car, which engine may not be the major deciding factor. Indeed by deciding on the engine type first, you may be ignoring many vehicles which would suit you. It may be better to think about how many seats you need, what sort of load you need to pull and what features you want before thinking about which type of engine. Similarly with flat screen TVs.  It is best to work out what size you need, what connections you need and what features you need or don’t need. Then see if you can tell the difference between plasma and LCD.  These days it is very hard to tell the different technologies by watching the TV. I hope this has been useful. Leave a comment below if you have other suggestions to help others going through this exercise.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Useful stuff Geoff. Being in Thailand I am particularly interested in the heat generating propensities of TVs

    • Hi Malcolm,
      Yes, having spent a May and June in Laos, I know what the heat issues are there.

      My quick and simple way of telling the difference between a LCD and plasma flat screen is to walk about a metre from the front of them. I can feel the heat on my face from the Plasmas.

      Keep in mind, that which ever one you get, use it in a well ventilated area, not in a cupboard which will limit air circulation.

      Geoff

  2. Hi Geoff, I am wanting a flat screen TV for my beachhouse in Alaska. I will not be here in the winter and would like to know about flat screens freezing. I’ve read that this is okay as long as the TV is warmed up slowly. Thanks for any informaiton you can provide.

    Jeff

    • Hi Jeff,
      I’m afraid I have only lived in mild or tropical weather, so my experience is the on the other end of the weather spectrum. I would have thought some local knowledge and experience would be the best in your situation. It would have been tried before and others will know the answer. Sorry I can’t help any more – perhaps you can let us know what you find out or experience so we can all learn.
      Thanks

      Geoff

  3. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for the article, I feel very informed now and not a complete novice as I decide to buy a flat screen TV.

    Thanks for your time!

  4. I like this a lot, certainly clears things up for me and the table used lays it out in a very good and easy to understand way. What tv would you recommend for 3 university students who like to watch a lot of sport and the occasional movie on their tv?

    • Thanks for your comments Craig. If money is no object (not likely for uni students) I would suggest a good size (see article for guidelines) smart TV so you can watch movies and sport from the internet directly on your flat screen TV without having to use a laptop. It would be interesting to see what deals you can get at your local discount store. Good luck and happy viewing.

      • Thanks for the quick reply Geoff! I always assumed I would need to connect my laptop to the TV so its good to know I don’t have to anymore. I’ll be heading down to the store with all of this in mind, massive help!

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