The 5 Most Important Factors When Shopping for a Flat Screen TV

By Carlos Gonzales

Buying a flat panel TV can be a bewildering experience. Salesmen will pitch all sorts of acronyms and numbers that can give anyone a splitting migraine. And all you really wanted was a nice big TV. Here’s all you need to know:

1. Screen size
Obviously, screen size is the first consideration. Vince Sales, Editor in Chief of T3 magazine, points out, “Size is the whole point: The bigger the better, unless you have a tiny home.” How big do you want it? Flat screens come in two most popular types: liquid crystal diode (LCD) and plasma. If you want a mid-sized screen, LCDs between 30 to 37 inches are a good bet. For bigger sizes, 42 to 63 inches, plasmas are certainly more affordable.

The room where you’ll place the set will largely dictate your choice of screen size. For mid-sized LCDs, you need to sit back six to eight feet away, making it ideal for your bedroom, where you can mount in on a wall. The bigger plasmas require a distance of 10 to 16 feet, good for your living room or home theater.

By the way, flat screens nowadays all support the wide-screen format, with a 16:9 aspect ratio used by filmmakers, giving you that movie theater-like experience. This is contrast to the narrow-screen format (4:3 aspect ratio) common to analog TVs.

2. Image quality
Next, how much quality do you want? Resolution, or picture detail, is a major consideration. The more lines and pixels are, the better. Standard-definition TVs have a resolution of 640×480 or 720×480 pixels, used for broadcast or cable TV programs. Digital content, on the other hand, is delivered in one of four formats: 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i. The i stands for interlace and p for progressive, which describes how the screen draws images (suffice it to say progressive makes for smoother viewing).

The 480i format is the same as that used for standard analog TV. Both the 480i and 480p formats are used for DVDs. For this format, you need at least enhanced-definition TV, or EDTV, which can display HDTV signals but is limited to a resolution of 852×480 pixels.

The 720p and 1080i formats, on the other hand, are used by satellite, cable, and over-the-air-broadcast high-definition content providers, as well as the latest Blu-ray and HD-DVD players. That’s where you need high-definition TVs, or HDTVs, which display 1,024×768 pixels or 1,280×720 pixels for the 720p format, and 1,920×1,080 pixels for the 1080i format.

There’s a noticeable difference from 720p to 1080i, explains Sales, but 1,280×720 pixels should suffice, and it will downscale a 1080i image well enough. He adds, “The differences are very subtle between HD resolutions. From a 480p DVD though, the difference is dramatic.”

Vince notes that a 1024×768 TV will downscale a 720p image to something like 80% high definition: “You can actually spot the difference. We did a side by side comparison here in the office. So for now 1280×720 pixels is the standard, and the consensus is that’s all you’ll ever need. But this may change.” For now, go for a high-def set that supports at least the 720p format.

It will be a few years down the road before we get to watch high-definition shows, although the government has already set a deadline and some television networks are making moves towards that direction. In the meantime, you want a set that does a decent job at image processing. “Good image processing will make standard definition more bearable. Poor image processing makes watching SD on an HDTV a nightmare,” Vince says.

The second, though less crucial, factor affecting image quality is contrast ratio. The higher the contrast ratio is, the better. LCDs have a contrast ratio from about 600:1 to more than 1000:1. Plasmas range from 1000:1 to 4000:1 or better.

3. Connectivity
What will plug to your TV? Go for the input jacks that result into the highest video quality. Most likely, you’ll be watching cable TV, so look for a jack for S-Video, which is also where you plug your game console. You’ll probably also use a progressive-scan DVD player, so look for progressive component or better yet broadband component inputs. If you’re plugging in your PC, look for an RGB connection. And for HDTV receivers, you need FireWire, DVI-D with HDCP, or HDMI.

Forget the acronyms; you really don’t have to know. Well, except maybe HDMI, since it’s expected to replace DVI altogether. It stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface, which carries audio and video on the same cable. “A year ago, HDMI connections were rare, with everyone saying that analog connections were good enough, but HDMI is the standard now,” says Vince.

4. Audio
If you’re setting up a home theater, your TV’s audio system may not be too important. However, if it will be a stand-alone unit in your room, it becomes a major consideration (more likely, the set comes with a stereo pair of speakers and a subwoofer). Look for MTS (multi-channel television sound) stereo reception and stereo speakers, which provide much better sound than a single mono speaker. Look for surround sound, which adds depth and more realistic sound without adding additional speakers. Look for logos of SRS, Cyclone Sub-Bass System, Spatializer, Dolby Pro Logic, and the like, which are audio-enhancing technologies.

5. Extras
Everything else really is gravy. You may want features such as picture-in-picture (PIP), which lets you watch a second channel in a little window. Look for a dual-tuner PIP, which has two TV tuners built-in that can display two channels on their own. Some sets have a memory stick reader that lets you view photos taken from your digital camera.

In the end, your choice of what to buy will be largely dictated by your budget. And it doesn’t end there. “HD is a black hole for money,” warns Vince. “Consider that down the road, you’ll probably buy a HD-DVD or a Blu-Ray player, a PS3 or an Xbox 360, and an HDMI-capable A/V receiver to make the most of your HDTV.” So buy wisely.

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