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TV sizes and viewing distance

How to choose the right screen size for your room

big-screen TV flat-panel TV

Your TV's screen size should depend on how far you'll be sitting from it, what you'll be watching, and your personal tastes and preferences.

The expression "bigger is better" actually makes a pretty reasonable guideline when you're trying to decide on TV screen size. Our experience has been that in most situations — and especially when choosing a TV for your main room — you should go with the largest screen your room, viewing distance, and budget will accommodate. That's because we occasionally hear people wishing their TV's screen was bigger, but rarely hear them wishing their screen was smaller.

Viewing distance and picture quality: two parts of the screen size equation

Sitting the right distance from your TV is also an important part of optimizing the viewing experience. Because HDTVs offer so much more picture detail than old analog sets, you can sit quite a bit closer to them than you could with your old tube. In fact, sitting too far away may mean you miss some of the high-def detail you paid for. But you also want to avoid sitting too close to your TV. A good indication that you're sitting too close to a screen is if you find yourself distracted by the screen's "structure" — those rows and columns of pixels that look like tiny dots.

If you're not sure which screen size is best for your room size and viewing distance, check the guidelines below. You can also use them to get an idea of appropriate viewing distance from your current TV. You'll notice that we provided a range for each screen size, rather than a hard and fast number. That's because the viewing distance you prefer will depend on your personal tastes, as well as what kind of material you'll most often watch. If you're going to watch lots of high-quality video — like DVDs and high-def programming — you can sit in the closer end of the range to see all the detail your HDTV can provide. On the other hand, if you'll still be watching lots of lower-quality sources, like analog cable, we recommend sitting at the higher end so that you'll notice less of the image's flaws.

Screen Viewing distance range
26" 3.25-5.5 feet
32" 4.0-6.66 feet
37" 4.63-7.71 feet
40" 5.0-8.33 feet
46" 5.75-9.5 feet
52" 6.5-10.8 feet
58" 7.25-12 feet
65" 8.13-13.5 feet
70" 8.75-14.75 feet
Note: This chart should not be used to determine screen sizes for front projectors. See our front-projector screen recommendations for more info.

If you still watch a lot of programming with a square, 4:3 aspect ratio, as opposed to the wider 16:9 screen shape of today's HDTVs, there's one more thing to keep in mind. If you want to get the same-sized 4:3 picture that you're used to on your new 16:9 screen, you can't rely on the usual diagonal measurement of screen size. Instead, you'll want a 16:9 TV with roughly the same screen height as your 4:3 TV — which means you'll actually need a larger 16:9 screen.

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Want to get the same-sized 4:3 image on your 16:9 TV? Pay attention to screen height. For example, you'd need a 40" widescreen TV to get the same sized 4:3 image you're used to on your old 32" TV.

For example, if you currently have a 32" 4:3 TV, you'll need a 40" 16:9 TV to get roughly the same-sized 4:3 picture. More and more programming is available in 16:9, so this won't be a problem for lots of folks, but it's worth keeping in mind if you still view lots of standard-definition programming.

More notes on TV placement

Viewing angle
Viewing angle is another factor that affects a TV's performance. Your TV will look its best when viewed straight-on, at a height where your eyes are level with the middle of the screen. With that in mind, you'll probably need a TV stand to support your TV and raise it to the correct viewing height.

If you have a flat-panel TV, you can either go with a stand, or use a TV wall mount for on-wall placement — an arrangement that saves considerable floor space and gives your home theater a nice, finished look. See our guide to wall-mounting your flat-panel TV for more detailed on-wall TV placement tips.

Safety
You'll want to make sure you choose a stand or wall mount that's made to accommodate your TV's weight and size — an old coffee table may not be able to stand up to 100 pounds of TV. Also, be sure that your TV is placed properly on your stand, and that it's balanced left to right, and front to back. Since TVs tend to be heavier towards the front, you should avoid setting them too close to the front edge of the stand.

You'll also find detailed safety tips for wall-mounted TVs in our in-depth wall-mounting guide.

Room lighting and your TV's picture

Light from lamps and windows can also affect your TV's picture. Properly done, it can have a positive effect, helping to prevent eye strain and providing deeper-looking blacks. But in a lot of cases, it can have a negative impact, creating on-screen glare and making your TV's colors look faded and washed out. If your viewing room has a lot of ambient light from lamps and windows, there are some simple steps you can take to prevent it from negatively affecting your TV's picture.

TV placement and room lighting

Controlling your room's ambient light with window treatments and lamp dimmers can help your picture look its best at any time of day.

  • If you can, take room lighting into consideration when choosing a spot for your TV. A little furniture shuffling might be worth it if it means your TV won't be directly across from West-facing French doors that create afternoon glare.
  • Any windows that let in bright sunlight should have easily adjustable blinds and/or curtains capable of eliminating any reflections off the screen.
  • Light from a window behind the TV makes it difficult for your eyes to adjust to the very different brightness of the television. For watching during daylight hours, consider treating these windows with curtains and blinds.
  • If you're concerned about glare in your room, consider an LCD TV — their bright, anti-reflective screens generally hold up the best in well-lit rooms.
  • With just about any TV (except a front projector), it's best to have a little bit of light shining on the wall behind it. If you watch in total darkness, the TV's range of brightness can cause eyestrain.
  • If you're using a plasma or LCD flat-panel TV, a little bit of controlled background lighting can improve picture quality. With these types of displays, the background light helps give the black portions of the picture a deeper, darker look.
  • Using dimmers in your home theater room, you can precisely control the amount of background light for optimum viewing comfort, plus you can achieve elegant lighting effects. For the greatest convenience (and the biggest "wow" factor), look for dimmers that are remote-controllable.
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